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From the words used by speakers at an international conference in downtown Norfolk last week, a visitor may have thought that the conferees were from the world of athletics. "Agile," was the byword. "Lean" was heard a lot, too, as were "fit" and "opportunistic."

But the 150 conferees did not come together to discuss athletics. They were engineers and business people attracted by the International Conference on Agile Manufacturing (ICAM), which was hosted by the Lean Institute at Old Dominion University's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology.

Being chosen to host the conference was a feather in the cap of the newly established Lean Institute at ODU and of Alok Verma, the Ray Ferrari Professor of Engineering Technology. Verma has spoken at previous ICAMs in India, China and Sweden, and was the general chair of the Norfolk ICAM.

"The conference was a great success," Verma said. "I was especially pleased with the quality of the keynote speakers. Three academic tracks, along with two industry tracks, provided audiences with multiple sessions to choose from. We are still processing conference evaluation forms, but initial comments from both the attendees and presenters indicate that they took away valuable lessons."

A participant who is an administrator at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, Cindi Dang, told Verma in an e-mail that she and her colleagues "were delighted to have met so many talented individuals who so enthusiastically shared a wealth of information with us."

Speaker after speaker at the four-day conference, which ended July 21, stressed the need for good coordination in the modern industrial world. The goals of agile manufacturing are efficiency and quick response to demand.

Kenneth Preiss, an Australian-born academic who has faculty positions in Israel and the United States and is one of the fathers of the agile manufacturing movement, said in his keynote address that the race in manufacturing goes to the company that best employs information. He gave an example any football coach would love: approximate information delivered in a timely fashion can be a heck of a lot more valuable than accurate information delivered after the game is lost.

Preiss also said that agile manufacturing requires cooperative agreements between companies-between parts suppliers and product assemblers, for example-that "can be called into use when needed." He dubs this a "players on the bench" system of readiness.

In manufacturing, as in sports, opportunities to score arise, and it is the successful player who seizes these opportunities. Lightning quick reactions are required, according to Preiss, who described the sudden and huge market for jumbo tents that arose after a tsunami devastated coastal areas on the Indian Ocean in December 2004. The manufacturers that seized this opportunity had systems in place, including agreements with suppliers, that allowed them to adapt quickly to the time-sensitive nature of this demand, Preiss said.

Another keynote speaker, Rear Adm. Michael Hardee, the Navy's senior expert on maintaining aircraft worldwide, spoke of his fondness for the Japanese, whose industrial systems he was able to observe during the 2½ years he lived in Japan. "I am a very big student of Japanese culture and philosophy, especially of the team concept. Their culture is very team oriented."

Hardee, who has brought lean and agile systems to Navy aircraft maintenance, contrasted "incrementalism," which in industrial systems can mean inertia, and "big-bang implementation." The latter is analogous to a baseball player taking a mighty swing hoping for a home run, rather than a measured swing hoping for a single. "Risk is associated with the big bang, but the results can be significant," Hardee said in an interview. "This is disruptive to some, but disruptive may be what you need. People don't suffer change well. They prefer their comfort zones. I figure when I'm not in my comfort zone, I'm probably learning something whether I like it or not."

Hardee, who earned a bachelor's degree in biological sciences from ODU in 1976, took the opportunity before his conference appearance July 19 at the Norfolk Marriott Waterside Hotel to visit his alma mater. He was a guest on campus of the provost, Thomas Isenhour, and the director of military activities, Richard Whalen.

This article was posted on: July 25, 2006

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