The Future of Lean Manufacturing

It’s fun to imagine the industrial world in the next century. Will we take our cues from the environmental world and focus on sustainability? Or will we look inward for future best practices? Larry Pederson from the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership offered his cautionary view on the future of lean manufacturing.

“Lean manufacturing doesn’t really get off the ground until sustainable systems are embraced at the leadership level. While we’ve made tremendous gains teaching teams about 5S, value-added analysis, and stream analysis, all that knowledge seems to go by the wayside unless managers are willing to process these skills and serves as mentors to future generations,” said Pederson.

Generation Y lean manufacturing engineers — those born in the years 1985 to 2004 — will have much on their plates:

  • Establishing robust and repeatable processes that impact training, zero defects and continuous improvement
  • Selecting, implementing and maintaining efficient equipment and procedures
  • Mentoring team members
  • Reporting to management
  • Applying statistical methods to establish future manufacturing requirements

“Generation Y is flooding the workplace and will supply U.S. manufacturers with the best, brightest and most computer savvy labor in history. Look for efficiencies, cost savings, innovations and breakthroughs that will recreate industry,” said Ken Grobach, KGC Direct, LLC, Haddam, Connecticut. Grobach is the author of “The Age Curve, How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm.”

Let’s take a closer look at Generation Y. This generation grew up with collaborative tools, technologies and teams. Working across cultural, physical and demographic borders is natural. Setting the stage for these new players in the lean manufacturing theater are rapidly changing tools and technologies.

New mobile industrial labeling systems support 5S communications and help individuals adhere to lean manufacturing standards. Visual controls alter and control behavior and contribute toward a more intuitive workplace.

“Touch screen and white board technologies will have a big impact on lean growth because visual management is needed in lean implementation. I believe this will be impactful on lean service, manufacturing and healthcare,” said Dakhia Toufik, Senior Lean Six Sigma Consultant, HTTS SA Luxembourg.

Regarding infrared cameras or thermography, for example, a fresh new way of thinking is emerging. FLIR is transforming infrared diagnostics by leveraging a number of leading-edge technologies to accelerate and improve the efficiency of diagnostic/repair/approval workflows and processes into what is a true “diagnostic ecosystem.”

In addition to touchscreens that emulate today’s personal electronics, FLIR uses Wi-Fi technology and mobile apps to connect to a user’s tablet, smartphone or other device. This key capability dramatically expedites informed decision-making and repair approvals, helping to cut downtime, reduce lost revenues, and minimize potential workplace hazards from failing equipment or dangerous conditions.

Think of the diagnostic ecosystem as a sort of social network for plant maintenance. Workers, equipped with better tools to collect, analyze and document findings, can communicate higher quality information more efficiently to managers, and other internal or external customers to expedite decision-making. With less isolation and more collaboration, this new way of working helps accelerate critical tasks while reducing cost and hazard exposures.

Information systems, combined with technologies such as GPS, barcodes and RFID improve processes and reduce waste. Lean requires information, and better automated information collection, analysis and distribution helps get needed information into the right hands. This is important for Kanban, logistics tracking and cross docking – all of which impact the supply chain.

“We’re taking more of a holistic look at supply chain issues,” added Pederson. “We’re working toward collaborative supply chain partnerships and relationships in which all participants add value by sharing information, communication needs and processes and schedules, and development efforts and costs.”

Handheld devices such as smart phones and tablets are a key technology – especially when combined with QR codes so team members can indicate physical locations. They improve communication and put needed information in the hands of whoever needs it, no matter where they are.

Robotics, too, are helping SMED based improvements. Shigeo Shingo’s Single Minute Exchange of Die or SMED is the technique within lean manufacturing to reduce the setup or changeover times for processes. As the name suggests, the aim is to literally reduce this time to single minutes.

Another technology that will impact lean manufacturing will be the 3D printer. Traditional manufacturing starts with blocks of material, sculpts them to shape and puts them together – drilling, cutting, forming, milling – with all the associated material waste. The 3D printer builds an item from scratch – virtually no waste,” said Kurt Kessler, Variance Reduction International.

While a mash-up of young, smart people and technology will likely produce great results, we can’t lose sight of the ultimate beneficiary in this 22nd century lean manufacturing transformation – the customer.

“We spend a lot of time determining if the things we are measuring truly benefit the customer. For one brewery concerned with breakage, complex algorithms reflecting potential financial losses just didn’t resonate. Ultimately, they chose a much simpler measurement of progress: less broken glass in the pail than the day before,” said Pederson.

Take a closer look at these technologies. Consult the experts. Explore the lessons of industries other than your own. But don’t wait to get started. The future is already here and it’s a fast-moving target.

About the Author

Industrial copywriter Jack Rubinger, Graphic Products, has more than 20 years of experience contributing to trade and business publications. Graphic Products supplies industrial labeling systems and lean manufacturing expertise to companies worldwide. For more information, contact, visit or call 503-469-3024.

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