What Is a Flexible Manufacturing System?

A flexible manufacturing system (FMS) is a method for producing goods that is readily adaptable to changes in the product being manufactured, both in type and quantity. Machines and computerized systems are configured to manufacture different parts and handle varying levels of production.

A flexible manufacturing system (FMS) gives manufacturing firms an advantage to quickly change a manufacturing environment to improve process efficiency and thus lower production cost. However, upfront costs may be greater for installing specialized equipment that allows for flexibility and customization.

An example of FMS is a make-to-order strategy, a business production strategy that typically allows consumers to purchase products that are customized to their specifications.

The Basics of Flexible Manufacturing Systems

The roots of a flexible manufacturing system were laid by Jerome H. Lemelson (1923-97), an American inventor with a master's degree in Industrial Engineering who filed numerous patents for the idea of an FMS in the early 1950s. His original conception was a robot-based system that could weld, rivet, convey and inspect manufactured goods. FMS debuted on factory floors in the late 1960s and proliferated in the 1970s in the U.S. and Europe.

A flexible manufacturing system can include a configuration of processing workstations interconnected with computer terminals that process the end-to-end manufacturing of a product, from loading/unloading functions to machining and assembly to storing to quality testing and data processing. The system can be programmed to run a batch of one set of products in a particular quantity and then automatically switch over to another set of products in another quantity.

Interchangeable parts and customized ordering through a make-to-order production process would also be examples of flexible manufacturing.

Key Takeaways

  • A flexible manufacturing system (FMS) is a method for producing goods that is readily adaptable to changes in the product being manufactured, both in type and quantity.
  • The main benefit is the enhancement of production efficiency, whereby downtime is reduced because the need to shut down the production line to set up for a different product is eliminated.
  • A disadvantage of FMS is its higher up-front costs.

The Pros and Cons of a Flexible Manufacturing System

The main benefit is the enhancement of production efficiency, whereby downtime is reduced because the need to shut down the production line to set up for a different product is eliminated. One disadvantage of FMS is its higher upfront cost and the time required to carefully preplan the system specifications.

Another possible drawback is the higher cost associated with the need for specialized labor to run, monitor and maintain the FMS; however, since the FMS is meant to increase production automation (i.e., reduce labor input), the result is typically a net benefit in terms of cost. Common FMS layouts take the form of line, loop, ladder, and open field.