What Is Buffering in Manufacturing?
Buffering is used in manufacturing to compensate for variations in the production process. Changes in supply and demand would be an example of these variations. Think of buffering as a means to ensure that production lines continue running smoothly despite unforeseen factors, such as machine breakdowns, coming into play.
In manufacturing, the concept of buffering is defined as maintaining enough supplies to keep operations running smoothly. These supplies often include the raw materials needed for production, and also the inventories of finished products waiting for shipment. Manufacturing facilities keep these buffer inventories on hand to help stabilize any fluctuations they experience with their supply and demand chains, production capacities and lead times. Without appropriate buffering, manufacturing processes would slow, expenses would increase and profits would decrease.
Having a buffer inventory is important so unforeseen events don't hurt production or sales. For example, a manufacturer will want to keep enough raw materials inventory to tide it over in case its supplier is unable to deliver its shipments on time. In addition, buffering is also important during the production process. Say that producing a finished product is a three-part process, and the first step takes longer than the final two. By keeping a buffer inventory of completed first-step parts, the second and third operators won't experience lag times during production.
The purpose of buffering is to account for variability in manufacturing processes, while also maximizing efficiency and profits. In an ideal world, buffering wouldn't be necessary because variability wouldn't exist. However, since variability does exist, it's necessary to use buffering as a means of minimizing the impact of these variables. Through buffering, manufacturers can alter their processes through manipulating inventories, capacities and times. As an example, consider a bottleneck system in which an upstream station frequently breaks down, limiting capacities. To keep the line operating efficiently, the manufacturer could place an inventory, or work-in-place, buffer at that station to maintain optimal production levels.
Some advantages to using buffering in manufacturing are, when done correctly, it's implementation tends to increase production efficiency, reduce overall costs and keep operations running smoothly. However, when done incorrectly, the opposite can be true. For example, if a manufacturer keeps too much excess inventory around, it can end up costing them more money and decrease their profitability. To maintain an optimal balance, many manufacturer's tend to gravitate toward using lean manufacturing strategies in which they use the least amount of buffering necessary to ensure their projected rates.