It’s the big unspoken reality of contract manufacturing: Most manufacturers don’t make anything particularly unique or original.

The process for carefully constructing electronics like printed circuit boards or assembling products as diverse as animal stethoscopes and solar panels may be delicate with little room for error. But it’s the type of work that hundreds of companies can do with the equipment they’ve purchased, the workforce they’ve assembled and the procedures they’ve established.

Contract manufacturers’ default response to a legitimate bid for new work is usually, “We can figure out a way to do that for you.” When OEMs look for a partner to handle their manufacturing and assembly needs, they focus more on the quality of the service they’ll receive, the quality of the product that’s produced and the positive impact the manufacturer can have on their delivery schedules and, ultimately, their bottom line.

The key to manufacturers’ ability to keep customers happy on all fronts? Flexibility.

What exactly is meant by flexibility? And how does it make a successful contract manufacturer stand out from its peers? Here are the four ways to show a level of flexibility that can make a difference to OEM customers.

Workforce Flexibility

A manufacturing or assembly team achieves its best results when job roles are well-defined, job tasks are clear and understandable, and downtime is kept to a minimum. Manufacturers achieve these goals through a few different strategies.

One way is to segregate floor personnel into pods consisting of team members, team leaders, and supervisors, who wear an assigned color of gear on the floor. Other important staff – like material handlers and manufacturing engineers – have their own assigned colors, too. This simple step makes it easy to identify specific teams and surrounding resources to move to different areas or different jobs on the floor with little confusion.

Some assembly operations prefer the “cottage build” approach, which involves one person building entire units by himself or herself. But trying to push cottage builds through a floor—especially when the product is complicated—can result in a team having to push a bubble or bottleneck through the floor, robbing the facility of efficiency gains.

Manufacturers can achieve higher efficiency and finished jobs faster through single-piece flows, where team members complete their piece of the puzzle, move it to someone else after a team leader completes their “First Piece Inspection” process, and then focus on completing their specific process steps. To assist this process, work instructions need to be distilled to the simplest steps possible to complete the task, so team members can get up to speed as fast as possible.

Team leaders understand the current job and what will be needed for the next job, and they stage it to minimize downtime between jobs. When the team leaders are proficient in their tasks, it allows the general manager to have fewer supervisors, keeping labor costs down while also flowing down the work responsibilities to their smallest components.

Solution Requirements Flexibility

A good manufacturing partner does high-quality work that fits the customer’s scope and budget and delivers it on time. Great manufacturing partners keep the best interests of the customer in mind as they consider the scope of work to be done. They make sure they possess the knowledge to identify refinements to improve the customer’s plans, and the flexibility to move forward in a new, better direction.

This can mean both building up other capabilities that comprise the product lifecycle and staying up to date on the latest trends in manufacturing to ensure the manufacturer can handle requests that involve new and innovative technology.

Manufacturers can accumulate these new capabilities and technologies over time, as required for specific projects or customers. This accumulation of knowledge and experience, along with the wisdom to know how best to apply them, is what helps to set the best manufacturers apart.

OEM manufacturer

Material Handling Flexibility

The most valuable manufacturing partners can help your bottom line and do whatever needs to be done to help launch your product to market, regardless of the materials and quantities involved in the project. A contract partner should aim to add value in the labor, in the materials, and in the procurement management processes; the most flexible partners should be able to do all three regardless of the required order quantities and product materials.

How can an OEM identify a manufacturer who can satisfy these criteria? When touring a potential partner’s manufacturing floor, do these three things:

A. Ask about the diversity of products currently being manufactured and/or assembled on the floor.
B. Gauge the manufacturers’ willingness to arrange and explore options for handling highly customized procedures or complicated builds.
C. Take note of the modularity and mobility of their assembly fixtures and equipment.

The first point gives the OEM a sense of the range of materials and capabilities that companies have trusted the manufacturer to handle. The second and third points uncover concrete examples of how far the manufacturer is willing to go to satisfy a customer request. They also give the OEM an idea of whether the manufacturer has the creativity to think through creative solutions to potential product viability pitfalls – solutions that may involve design, engineering, or special procurement or logistical support challenges to overcome.

Communication Flexibility

A contract manufacturer that has established a reputation for flexibility likely employs extremely nimble planners and schedulers. To plan for dozens of different types of builds on your floor over any given period requires the ability to shift focus and respond quickly when plans inevitably change.

Experienced manufacturing partners not only have equipment and staff that can move around and be reconfigured; they also have rock solid chains of communication and established procedures for relaying information between teams, between departments, and to customers.

Customer plans change. Priorities shift. Materials shortages occur. It’s just the nature of the manufacturing business. But a valuable contract manufacturing partner will keep their customers in the loop as these changes occur, with the understanding that recovery plans and solutions to fulfill orders are most successful when decided in tandem, and not dictated in a top-down fashion.

It’s crucial to find a contract manufacturer with managers and service staff that excel at this type of communication all the way through the process of fulfilling an order. Not many do! But major customers should have the peace of mind that they can contact manufacturing management at any time. And the best contract partners have talented managers that are so embedded and devoted to the success of their customers that they can give customers updates on their current jobs without even being in front of a computer.

Contract manufacturers are used to working with hard-to-hit delivery targets and under serious time crunches. For the highest performers, flexibility must become something of a mantra that guides planning, execution, and communication.

The manufacturers most worthy of an OEM’s business are those who know how to flow down materials and expectations clearly, work a schedule, make sure everyone understand the requirements and are trained to do the OEM’s requirements for the job. They also make sure their facilities, supporting structure and staff are all in place – all to provide that maximum level of flexibility.