Innovative Infrastructure for Agile Manufacturers

Speed-to-market, agile manufacturing, and the virtual corporation — terms firmly rooted in the lexicon of U.S. business —reflect an increasing awareness that competing successfully in the global economy will require extensive changes in the way U.S. corporations operate. In most industries, rapid worldwide political and economic shifts are increasing the number and power of new international competitors. Former socialist countries are entering the capitalist marketplace with vigor. What were previously Third World countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America are producing sophisticated goods and services. These new competitors are now smarter and more productive because their managers are better educated and have technical expertise and because the rapid cross-border diffusion of information and technology gives them nearly instant access to the latest know-how and equipment. International customers are also more sophisticated and demanding. With access to an unparalleled variety of products from all over the world, they can more easily identify value. As a result, they have become more selective purchasers. They expect quality, reliability, and competitive pricing but also want customized products that are delivered quickly.1 Much of their power lies in shifting product allegiances, which typically focus on goods that provide greater immediate value. Although these trends have already been explored extensively, most discussions of manufacturing agility and business process reengineering focus on how firms’ internal characteristics must change.2 Far less attention has focused on the external infrastructure that firms need to respond rapidly to changing global market conditions. To optimize agility and more effectively sustain virtual enterprises, manufacturers require a symbiotic business environment at the national, regional, and local levels to provide advanced infrastructure, logistical, and institutional support. Although many states, metropolitan areas, and cities in the United States are providing elements of that infrastructure, few are integrating or coordinating them. In this article, we identify the components of the logistical support system that are needed to stimulate agile manufacturing, describe the reactive approaches of U.S. industry groups, cities, and government agencies, and examine the strategic integration of the components into a unified business support system, such as the Global TransPark (GTP) experiment in North Carolina.

Emergence of Agile Business

Agile manufacturing is “the ability of a company to thrive in a competitive environment of continuous and unanticipated change.”3 In nearly all industries, firms are adapting to growing international demands for flexibility and speed.

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