Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Monday, June 24, 2024

The Topic of Lean Manufacturing: Part 2 

<img style="float: left;" src="" alt="" width="95" height="70" />Lean manufacturing can deliver, but the process is complex and potential pitfalls are many. In this second installment, Tim Egloff provides some pointers for making the most of the approach, including enlisting digital manufacturing and the creation of a value stream map to guide you on the path.

In the first post of this series I posed three questions to ask yourself of your lean manufacturing strategy.  I responded to the first question of whether you were implementing waste in production; i.e. are you planning, designing and installing production systems that are not as lean as they could be? 

My argument was that yes, you are, if you’re not using technology which can help you plan, simulate, validate and optimize those systems before you implement them.  “The challenge starts,” according to Andy Jacobs, General Manager at Applied Manufacturing Technologies (AMT), “in the design of production systems.”  He goes on to explain; “There [are] a multitude of factors to consider when designing automated systems and the complexity of options available today make process design a critical stage in building lean systems.”

It’s a challenge that is only becoming more complex.  Market fluctuations, competitive threats and increasing demand for raw materials and energy requires getting the most out of your manufacturing investments.  It’s no longer enough to improve the productivity of a purely capacity-driven model; you need to constantly assess capability to become more flexible, sustainable and competitive in the most efficient means possible.  This is where the second question comes in; are you maximizing your return?  In other words, are the efforts and costs of your lean manufacturing initiatives providing the highest return they can?

There is no doubt, lean methods can and do deliver value, however traditional strategies focused on optimization of existing systems typically means that a team is sent down to the shop floor to focus on a particularly costly work cell or one that seems to have the biggest issue in terms of throughput or quality.  Many times these efforts lead to physical prototypes or mockups which at best provides limited or stepwise functional assessments.  There are three very distinct issues with this approach which can make it extremely hard to fully understand the impact of complex changes to the system:

  • Limited visibility to alternatives
  • Fewer iterative cycles and
  • Change can drive more waste to other areas.

Of course most lean strategies don’t begin so simplistically.  Often, the first step is the creation of a value stream map in order to understand inputs and outputs, validate product and process flow and apply standard work practices in order to more clearly see waste in the system.  Although I would argue that if you’re using a process diagram or Excel file, you’re still confined by the above issues.

This is where digital manufacturing technology can provide enormous benefits.  One simple example; imagine the ability to create a value stream map in a digital environment.  Not just a single work cell, but the entire system.  Even if your lean gurus are ambitious enough to do this with a process diagram or spreadsheet, the best they can hope for are static representations of alternative solutions and less than optimal iterations (validations) of the alternative configurations.     

Today’s digital manufacturing technology not only streamlines the creation of a value stream map, we can now analyze the system with a discrete-event engine.   This means that the number of alternative scenarios and iterative cycles are virtually limitless and that you can see the impact of change across the entire system without being on the shop floor or interrupting production. 

Better results?  As CIMdata puts it in a paper, Rethinking Lean with Digital Manufacturing: “One of the benefits of making as many of these decisions in the virtual environment as possible is that it allows manufacturing engineers to evaluate multiple, potentially radically different, scenarios without the expense of physical equipment or mockups.”  

I’ve barely scratched the surface of how digital manufacturing technology can maximize the return on investment of your lean initiatives.  There are tools which help to increase worker productivity, safety and morale; analyze material flow and transportation logistics; commission automated systems by virtually validating their controls and hardware interoperability; the list goes on.

So stay tuned as I approach the third question in my next blog post: Are you driving continuous improvement? 

Until then: keep it lean and green!