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Controlling complexity: Powerful new tech tools are bringing lean manufacturing principles to life

By Dan McKiernan, president of eFlex Systems

Lean manufacturing principles and practices aimed at minimizing waste and maximizing productivity, have been shaping the manufacturing sector for decades now.

The necessary end-goal for manufacturers is to ensure that products are built correctly, every time, even when changes are made in-process.

While this goal is nothing new, the rise of complexity and customization challenges presents a constant counterpressure against the continuing push for improved consistency and quality.

The urgency for error-free production becomes particularly acute when dealing with parts and products where there is zero tolerance for error: from medical equipment like incubators and other medical products, aerospace equipment for a passenger aircraft, or even a small part in the buckle of a car’s seat belt.

In recent years, however, manufacturing professionals have begun to crystallize a set of best practices that, in conjunction with an emerging suite of powerful new technology tools, are taking lean manufacturing concepts from aspirational to achievable.

On factory floors and production environments around the world, fundamental changes are beginning to reshape what is possible, and bring complexity under control.

The keystone innovation is the advent of the Manufacturing Integrated Platform (MIP). A MIP is a comprehensive manufacturing solution that brings together a suite of sophisticated new technologies in a single integrated and coordinated platform.

The right MIP delivers new levels of plant floor control, visibility and error-proofing, making it possible to easily manage and configure manufacturing environments, standardize work instructions and process control, and monitor and enforce quality standards.

The right MIP distills lean manufacturing principles and practices into a sleek and streamlined whole, using standardized processes, systems integration, real-time data collection, improved training and security, and enhanced quality control and error-proofing capabilities to achieve and exceed quality and consistency goals and ensure that products and processes are done right – each and every time.

Standardized processes

The advent of digital work instructions has been a transformative development for standardizing manufacturing processes.

The best digital work instruction platforms deliver new levels of clarity, consistency and control in an intuitive and user-friendly package.

Digital work instructions are essentially a prerequisite in complex medical manufacturing and other sectors where there can be thousands of product variations and components, loops in processes and clean-room assembly requirements.

Digital work instruction solutions enforce standardized processes with no-faults-forward functionality, allowing for precise step-by-step guidance and confirmation that each stage in the process has been completed correctly.

Process changes in some systems can be implemented in – quite literally – seconds, with instructions and error-proofing immediately reflecting those changes on the plant floor.

Operators receive notification of any changes and can confirm their receipt and understanding before proceeding.

Systems integration

Because the production ecosystem has become an extraordinarily complex and interconnected series of systems, systems integration is critically important for any manufacturer that wants to leverage the lean manufacturing potential of today’s MIPs.

The best of today’s integrated platforms are designed to connect and coordinate with existing ERP and BOM systems and software.

In the best examples, work instructions automatically reflect BOM model or serial number changes in real time, presenting updated instructions and error-proofing protocols.

Additionally, seamless connectivity and compatibility with a wide range of smart tools—fasteners and gauges, cameras, sensors, pick-to-light and augmented reality systems—unlocks the full power of a booming manufacturing technology sector, allowing for extraordinary levels of precision and newly comprehensive monitoring capabilities.

Real-time data collection

All of that connectivity and integration allows for something essential: the collection of precise, sophisticated production data.

The ability to capture critical production data such as operation and task cycle times in real time, not only helps identify overloaded or inefficient stations, it dramatically enhances quality control.

Parts traceability, genealogy and integrated quality management software can enable, enforce and track quality and compliance.

Vision image management software captures and stores production images for reference and confirmation.

And all of this information not only presents operators with essential feedback, it allows managers to monitor quality and production trends in real-time through customizable real-time dashboards and with powerful integrated reporting functionality.

As a result, they can make timely and informed decisions based on hard data. Any bottlenecks or slowdowns can be quickly addressed, and inefficient processes can be quickly reconfigured and efficiently optimized.

The result is the kind of transparency, visibility and control that allows for supercharged lean manufacturing.

Improved training and security

Highly complex manufacturing and production processes often require highly skilled personnel performing the assembly tasks.

One of the key advantages of the newest generation of MIPs is to facilitate quick and efficient training practices.

Digital work instructions, often with augmented reality components, make the training process much faster and more effective.

And because all operator credentials can be tracked and verified, manufacturers can ensure that any material or machinery requiring specific training or certification is limited to those with the necessary credentials.

Quality control and error-proofing

The ability to monitor production processes and outcomes with newfound precision and real-time clarity makes it possible to get closer than ever to the ultimate goal of manufacturers everywhere: error-free outcomes and near-perfect quality control.

Even in the face of increasing complexity, the ability to not just capture process data for every step of the build, but make changes quickly and efficiently is a game-changing upgrade.

Leading MIPs offer embedded quality management and process control functionality that allows manufacturers to reduce human error, easily identify non-conformance throughout the entire assembly process, enable reject and repair strategies, and ensure that only good parts are produced.

Quality control functionality includes inspection process improvements, path requirements enforcement, integrated and automated error-proofing, warranty protection and configurable customization.

The best platforms feature built-in customizable process data collection fields, with the opportunity to capture operator notes, inspections / verifications, quality checklists, tooling measurements, camera images, and much more.

This newly detailed permanent digital record allows for precise tracking and robust traceability and parts genealogy to enforce correct builds and quality standards.

As manufacturers continue to upgrade their systems, adopt new technologies and move into a newly transparent and nimble digital manufacturing landscape, the possibilities expand rapidly.

Complex product and process configurations become simplified. Detailed data are gathered and leveraged. Error-proofing is enhanced. Even the most complex operations become leaner, with dramatically upgraded quality standards and compliance metrics.

The result is that, even during a time of growing complexity and under the most demanding requirements for precision and high-quality, error-free production, the future of manufacturing has never looked brighter – or leaner.

About the author: Dan McKiernan has over 30 years of manufacturing experience and has been president of eFlex Systems since 2003. Under McKiernan’s leadership, eFlex Systems has expanded their MES software solutions for both brownfield and greenfield operations while maintaining year over year end growth.