Which of the 5 Production Technologies do you have?

In 1984, Robert Hayes from Harvard University and Steven Wheelwright from Stanford University, joined forces to write a book called Restoring our Competitive Edge¹. In it they identified 5 different production technologies.

More than 30 years later these definitions still hold true, indeed the passage of time has shown that these technology classifications are evergreen.

Table 1 below shows the differences between the 5 production technologies in detail and draws heavily from Hayes and Wheelwright¹.

Here is a summary of each production technology;


Projects are rarely viewed as a production technology although they often have all the hallmarks of production operations. For example, maintenance activities on airplanes or army vehicles must be organised so that leadtimes are minimised and resource utilisation is optimised. This work is controlled using project methodologies and success is determined by the rate of project completion.

Job shop

Commercial printers or machine shops often look disorganised because of the sheer number of customised activities. Like projects however, they use specialised labour and if those resources are forced to multitask with high levels of work in progress, then this causes inefficiency and a reduction in throughput.

Batch flow line

Batch flow lines, including tools and specialised fittings, are characterised by many workstations with materials and tasks changing with each product type. The natural tendency in these businesses is to increase the batch sizes, and therefore work in progress (WIP) within the batch flow line. This gives the impression of increased resource utilisation however, it actually reduces capacity of the entire facility and reduces customer delivery performance.

Paced assembly line

This production technology is probably the best known. Car manufacturing, think Toyota, and computer manufacturing, think Dell, have been the birth place and proving ground of improvement methodologies such as Lean and Six Sigma. These methodologies must be modified if they are applied within other production technologies.

Process flow line

Process flow lines are our speciality and include food & beverage, liquids, sheet goods, mining, solid & fluid packaging operations. This production technology is on the highest end of the scale with respect to technical and asset complexity.

Table 1: Detailed comparison of the 5 production technologies

 Project  Job Shop  Batch flow line Paced assembly line Process flow line

Product & production characteristics

Customised products requiring a variety of resources. Small batches of large number of different products. Many of which require a different set or sequence of processing steps. Relatively stable line of products each is produced in periodic batches. Most follow same flow pattern. Work stations laid out in the sequence needed to produce a group of highly similar products. Product passes thru series of steps at a controlled rate. Production over a predetermined sequence of steps, but processing is almost totally automated and material flow is continuous rather than discrete.
Examples Buildings, aircraft maintenance, new factories, prototypes of products Commercial printing, machine shops, custom-designed PCB’s. Speciality chemicals, speciality hose fittings, hydraulic equipment, heavy equipment, tools, electronic devices, metal castings. Automobiles, computers, watches, toys. Food & beverage, liquids, sheet goods, mining, solid & fluid packaging operations.
Challenges Estimating, sequencing tasks, pacing Estimating labour utilisation, fast response, de-bottlenecking Designing procedures, balancing stages, responding to diverse needs. Productivity improvement, adjusting staffing levels, rebalancing when needed Avoiding downtime, timing expansions, cost minimisation
Control over work place Worker Worker & foreman  Worker, foreman & production supervisor Process design & management decisions Equipment & process design
Process flow No pattern A few dominant flow patterns One or two single dominant flow patterns A rigid flow pattern Clear & inflexible
Scheduling Uncertain, frequent changes Uncertain, frequent changes Varies, frequent expediting Process designed around fixed schedule. Inflexible, sequence often dictated by technology
Type of equipment General purpose Mostly general purpose, some specialisation Varies Specialised, low & high technology. Specialised, high technology
Capital intensity Generally very low Low, as long as equipment utilisation is high Varies Varies, moderate capital intensity. Capital intensive, equipment seldom idle.
Definition of capacity Fuzzy, usually expressed only in monetary terms Fuzzy, in monetary terms only Varies Clear, in terms of output rates Clear, expressed in physical terms
Additions to capacity Incremental Incremental over wide range Varies Incremental, but requires rebalancing Some incremental, mostly in chunks.
Labour content (value added) High Very high Varies Low Very low
Worker skill level High High Mixed Low Varies
Worker training requirements Very high High Moderate Low Varies
Material requirements Varies Difficult to predict More predictable Predictable Very predictable
Control over suppliers Very low Low Moderate High Very high
Vertical integration None None Very little Some backward, often forward Often backward & forward
Raw material inventories None Small Moderate Varies, frequent deliveries Large, continuous deliveries
Work in Process (WIP) Large Large Moderate depending on control Small Very small
Finished goods inventory None Small or none Varies High Very high
Responsibility for quality control Direct labour, with management checks Direct labour Varies Primarily QC specialists Process control specialists
Production information requirements Very high High Varies Moderate Low
Scheduling Uncertain, frequent changes Uncertain, frequent changes Varies, frequent expediting Process designed around fixed schedule Inflexible, sequence often dictated by technology and raw materials
Staff needs Coordination mainly Coordination Coordination Process control & coordination Process control
Importance of load forecasting Little Little Moderate High High
Workforce management tasks Training, assignment & motivation Training, assignment, some motivation Varies Selection & attendance Training & supervision
Response to business downturns Layoff Layoff Layoff Build inventory, then layoff Cut prices, build inventory, then shut down

¹ – Restoring our Competitive Edge – Competing through manufacturing, by Robert H. Hayes & Steven C. Wheelwright, John Wiley & Sons, 1984.