Lean Manufacturing: What it means for the shop floor

Automation of processes to improve productivity and operational effectiveness is a major key to success for Australian manufacturers in 2012 and beyond writes Tony Repaci*.

Driving innovation on the shop floor in 2012 and beyond for the local manufacturing sector will be new technologies that automate a number of processes that have been problematic in the past, and feed into lean manufacturing – a concept which will no doubt trouble the sleep of many local manufacturers in the future.

Lean manufacturing is defined by The Lean Manufacturing Guide as: "A systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste through continuous improvement by flowing the product at the demand of the customer".

This has significant implications for local manufacturers, who are being pressured to streamline their processes, often through automation, and minimise their overall operating costs.

While responsible manufacturers will always look to minimising their outgoings, there are a number of technology trends that local operators should be aware of that can greatly enhance overall productivity and operational effectiveness of a manufacturing organisation.

As local manufacturers move towards the concept of lean manufacturing, wireless technologies such as mobile printers will be a focal point of future warehouse fit-outs and critical to on the shop floor operations, as these devices can contribute to the productivity of a warehouse by fitting easily into existing work spaces and processes.

For repetitive, high-volume tasks such as applying labels, saving just a few seconds per operation can translate into meaningful efficiency gains and can go a long way towards a local manufacturing becoming ‘lean.’

Wireless printers give Australian warehouse operators a lot of flexibility on where printers can be positioned and by printing at the point of activity; workers are much less likely to apply the wrong label to an item or package.

In the case where a mobile printer isn’t feasible or possible, positioning printers closer to areas where the work actually gets done also eliminates unnecessary trips back and forth from the workstation to the centralised printer.

These walks to the printer may take only a few minutes, but multiplied across dozens of workers on multiple shifts, they represent an opportunity for tremendous time savings and productivity improvements. Eliminating unnecessary walking also helps eliminate distractions that lead to labelling errors and lost productivity.

To help achieve greater levels of productivity, local manufacturers should also be looking to integrate voice activated solutions into their operations.

An advanced voice activated kit can allow personnel to efficiently handle tasks like production line management, equipment replenishment, shipping and truck loading, which allows the shop floor to become a well-oiled machine at all stages of the manufacturing and distribution process.

The benefits of a voice solution can be attributed to the fact that it leaves the operator wholly hands free. Whereas in the past workers would be effectively chained to their paper order form and pen, the voice-directed system speaks to its operator via a headset, meaning that both hands and eyes are at liberty to accurately and safely complete any task at hand.

Manufacturing environments are also rich with technology and high value equipment these days. Many key pieces of equipment used on the shop floor can also be small and hard to trace.

Utilising an advanced asset tracking solution allows managers to keep a record of their equipment, thus ensuring greater organisational inventory control and ensuring that the production line is not halted of slowed by key equipment going missing.

The application of serial numbered tracking labels to all piece of key equipment allows employees to sign out equipment or enter them back into the inventory by scanning the tag followed by their own personal identification badge, which is also coded.

The manufacturing industry is at a tipping point. Warehouse and manufacturing operations in Australia are facing more pressure from a competitively strong Australian dollar and cheap imports to come up with solutions that ensure they will remain competitive in the long term.

Any investments in new technology that will help drive innovation and increase efficiencies should therefore focus on providing strong ROI, tangible efficiency gains and a noticeable reduction in error rates.

* Tony Repaci is Intermec’s Managing Director for Australia and New Zealand.

Image: from the Intermec website