Lean Manufacturing Adopts Gen Y Communications

Nov. 8, 2012
The Y Generation grew up with collaborative tools, technologies and teams. They will use these to work across cultural, physical and demographic borders in building the new lean culture.

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

  • Establishing new standards for robust and repeatable processes that impact training, zero defects and continuous improvement;
  • Selecting, implementing and maintaining efficient equipment and procedures;
  • Mentoring lower level engineers;
  • Reporting to management; and
  • Applying statistical methods to establish future manufacturing requirements.

The common denominator is communications.

"Generation Y is flooding the workplace and will supply U.S. manufacturers with the best, brightest and most computer savvy labor in history," says Ken Grobach, KGC Direct, LLC, Haddam, Conn. Grobach is the author of The Age Curve, How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm. "Generation Y will turn lean manufacturing on its cyber ear and change everything. Look for efficiencies, cost savings, innovations and breakthroughs that will recreate industry."

Like any major unfolding business story, there are two trends at work: the evolution of our workforce and the development of new tools and technologies. Let's first take a closer look at Generation Y.

The How of Gen Y

This generation grew up with collaborative tools, technologies and teams. Working across cultural, physical and demographic borders is natural to them.

"In 50 years, the workplace will be even more collaborative than it is today," predicts Tom Fabrizio, Lean Manufacturing Tools, Portland, Oregon.

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 visual communications and help individuals adhere to lean manufacturing standards. Visual controls alter and control behavior and contribute toward a more intuitive workplace.

"Tools that easily define what we're supposed to do are all a part of 22nd century thinking," explains Fabrizio.

"The most important cultural issue is working together and sharing information in real time," adds Dakhia Toufik, senior Lean Six Sigma consultant, HTTS SA Luxembourg. "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."

Safety's Connection to Lean

Regarding infrared cameras or thermography, for example, a fresh new way of thinking is emerging. Forward-Looking Infrared (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. Now, a plant maintenance technician can quickly transfer images, generate inspection reports on-the-fly, and email them to customers or managers. This key capability 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, purchase-specifiers, 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.

Right People in the Right Places

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.

"Tracking a particular pallet/carrier to a particular customer with a particular product/order has a big influence on reducing waste," said John Williams, marketing manager, CoreRFID Manufacturing ID Systems, Warrington, U.K.

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 and let others know they've just checked in. They improve communication and put needed information in the hands of whoever needs it, no matter where they are.

"This is best seen in lean IT where programmers (often in a different country) can learn the current state of the real-world process through YouTube videos of the workplace, allowing the voice of the customer to be fully understood in a visual way," explains Alan Magner, Variance Reduction International, Inc.

Setup Time Reduction

Robotics, too, are helping SMED based improvements. Shigeo Shingo's "Single Minute Exchange of Die" 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.

"Proximity sensors and position sensors are very 22nd century," says Dr. G. Anand, assistant professor of operations management, IIM Kozhikode, Kerala, India. "These sensors can find applications in mistake proofing (poka-yoke), process as well as setup improvements (as in SMED) and safety. They can also be used to reduce energy wastes. Energy can be conserved by cutting off power supply to workstations when an operator takes a 15-minute coffee break."

"Simple cameras are an affordable technology and can remotely transmit information about inventory," adds Mark Biederbeck, Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership,  Portland, Oregon. "If this application replaced a Kanban card that could be forgotten or lost, it might be worthwhile. Care must be taken to ensure that the solution makes sense. Placing a transponder to track WIP inventory through a factory should first be challenged by ‘can we reduce the WIP to the point where it goes so fast we don't need to track it?' Attaching a transponder to an item in a supermarket that automatically triggers a ‘make or buy' transaction when consumed could make sense in a large factory where the producer is far away from the consumer. A particular client I'm working with is considering replacing a manual tally sheet with a tablet device. All of these applications require careful analysis. Manual applications should be tried before the jump to technology is made."

"Beyond QR codes and barcodes, why not scan a picture instead?," says Magner. "Using the Layar app on smartphones, you can scan a picture of the product to get instant access to online content such as CAD designs on the production floor and prototype lab. Rolling this out to field service personnel allows viewing of schematics, wire diagrams and specifications - invaluable in remote locations."

3D Printing is Lean Manufacturing

Another technology that will impact lean manufacturing will be the widespread adoption of 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. "This is a truly disruptive technology," says Kurt Kessler, Variance Reduction International.

It used to be that manufacturers followed cheap labor around the globe at the expense of increased inventory and longer lead times—not to mention reaction lags to any quality or safety issues. The trend now is systems-level thinking and a total cost approach to make the right tradeoffs. This requires more data and a better understanding of all aspects of an operation to make the best decisions.

Bob Wilson, Industrial Andons, LLC, Austin, Texas encourages all lean practitioners to ask these questions:

  • What is the lead time worth in actual cost and opportunity cost?
  • What would disrupt our business model and what are we doing about it?  
  • Are cycle or takt times up or down?  
  • What percent of time is spent on value-added activities?
  • What information has been assumed necessary now and how do you collect and display it?
  • How effective are my employees, not just my equipment?

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.

Industrial futurist David Zach talks about blurring boundaries. The 22nd century will apply that notion, such that there are no longer absolute boundaries between professions. That can either really muck things up or streamline the means by which we get things done. Thanks to the Internet, knowledge no longer stays in nice, neat categories. As knowledge slips across boundaries, so do our thinking and our activities.

Jack Rubinger is a tech writer for Graphic Products, Inc., which develops visual communication tools for industry.  Learn more about Jack Rubinger

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