In the world of manufacturing, it is safe to say few, if any, are not familiar with the terms ‘lean manufacturing,’ sometimes called ‘lean production’ or simply ‘lean.’ It refers to streamlining processes while maintaining productivity and reducing that which does not add value.
The origins of lean manufacturing lie in the automotive industry, where effective processes are key, and reducing or eliminating waste is paramount. Although he did not invent the assembly line, world-famous business magnate Henry Ford took a then-new luxury item, namely the automobile and, through mass production, made the Model T affordable. In time, this led to design-for-manufacturing (DFM), essentially engineering products, so that they are easier to make.
While others helped improve manufacturing along the way, one of the most significant developments can be credited to the Toyota Motor Corporation, the fifth-largest company in the world and the world’s largest automobile manufacturer – producing over 200 million vehicles – and the market leader in the next generation of hybrid electric cars. For Toyota, this success was far from chance but came about through deliberate, thoughtful approaches, namely the Toyota Production System (TPS) which was developed by Toyota in the years following World War II.
TPS – initially known as ‘just-in-time production’ – evolved to address eight areas in which waste could be reduced or eliminated. These ranged from overproduction – the greatest source of waste – to underutilized workers and wasting time, transportation and stock.
Toyota was a pioneer of lean manufacturing, and TPS is a significant factor behind Toyota’s ongoing success. Toyota’s systems and processes were founded on the basis of ‘just-in-time’ and Jikoda, defined as ‘automation with a human touch.’ The systems are not static but continually evolve through a number of means, including daily Improvements, ‘good thinking, good product’ and, of course, advances in manufacturing technologies. The processes are often referred to as the ‘Toyota Way,’ although the automotive maker’s spirit of making things better and more efficient is now used by many manufacturers’ worldwide.
In an era of higher costs for labour, transportation and taxes, manufacturers across North America need to embrace innovative processes that increase efficiency and product quality and consistency to remain competitive. The United States’ Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy has a mission to ‘create and sustain American leadership in the transition to a global clean energy economy.’ According to the office, new manufacturing technologies are vital to rejuvenate the American economy, and a range of new technologies are poised to boost productivity. Energy-efficient new technology will result in economic and environmental benefits for U.S. manufacturers.
Some, including German engineer and economist Klaus Schwab, believe society as we know it is on the precipice of a massive manufacturing change. In his book ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ Schwab, founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum, states that the upcoming ‘revolution’ will permanently alter not only manufacturing and how we work, but it will also change how we relate to each other.
“The fourth industrial revolution,” explains Schwab in his book, “is more significant, and its ramifications more profound, than in any prior period of human history.”
To remain competitive, manufacturers need to embrace the technological advances which are arriving faster than ever before. Although still a leading nation, the United States is facing increasing competition with globalization, particularly from China, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and Brazil.
Manufacturers must develop employee skills yet embrace the realities of the (very) near future, from intelligent robots to self-driving vehicles. While these technologies exist, they will be increasingly joined by others, from artificial intelligence to wearable technology in our daily lives and nanomaterials engineered to be hundreds of times stronger than steel and one-millionth the thickness of a human hair.
The future of manufacturing will also see cutting-edge materials, from plant-based, non-toxic alternatives to plastics to flexible concrete cloth, hydrogen fuel cells, nanocrystals and waste-to-energy thermoelectrics which convert waste heat into electricity.
Traditional packaging like cardboard, plastic and Styrofoam chips – which are made from petroleum and take hundreds of years to decompose – is still used to store and ship manufactured goods. However, these are being rivalled by biodegradable alternatives made from crop waste like wheat husks and mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. The mycelium biomaterial made by Ecovative Products is high-performance, home-compostable and custom-designed to fit products like individual bottles of wine.
In the U.S., the gross domestic product (GDP) from manufacturing rose from 2208.50 USD billion in the first quarter of 2017 to 2218.60 USD billion in the second quarter of 2017. Manufacturing accounts for about twelve percent of America’s GDP and remains a key economic driver.
There is no denying manufacturing is about to take a very bold step into the future, with business-to-business (B2B) spending on the Internet of Things (IoT) – such as apps and solutions – poised to reach $267 billion by 2020. Fifty percent of the IoT is driven by manufacturing and sectors including logistics, transportation and utilities.
In the coming years, expect to hear words like ‘innovation,’ ‘smart solutions’ and ‘long-term vision,’ as manufacturers create factories of the future. Lean-style manufacturing processes and systems developed by Toyota will become the norm for successful business performances, to be joined by a host of sophisticated asset and product lifecycle management systems, along with nanotechnology, the next generation of 3D printing and bio-based materials. Considering U.S. industry uses approximately one-third of all energy produced in America, manufacturers will have to streamline processes to reduce energy consumption as demand increases.