Lean Manufacturing: How technology can help manufacturers lose the fat from their processes

The Australian manufacturing sector is constantly evolving, and as competition grows across the region the pace of innovation and improvements on the shop floor must quicken to ensure competiveness is maintained. Driving innovation on the shop floor in 2016 and beyond for the regional manufacturing sector are new technologies that automate a number of processes that have been problematic in the past, and which feed into the practice of lean manufacturing.

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 manufacturers, who are being pressured to streamline their operations, often through automation, and look at all of their costs with a goal of stripping them to their bare minimum. These costs vary from the “hard costs” of manufacturing equipment and supporting technologies, to the downtime that results from having unreliable equipment.

Printing at the point of activity

As regional 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.

A voice for efficiency

A lean manufacturing facility operates as efficiently as possible and with a minimum amount of assembly or distribution errors. In order to achieve this, accuracy or getting things right the first time, is key. To help eliminate the possibility of errors occurring in any assembly or distribution process, manufacturers need to ensure that their processes are supported by the right technologies like voice.

In a voice-enabled manufacturing facility or warehouse, workers wearing rugged headsets and receive verbal direction on tasks to complete select workflows. Workers speak their responses back to the voice system- which is trained to each user’s individual voice - enabling the system to determine if they are completing the correct task.

In a manufacturing distribution setting, voice systems also enforce order accuracy through the use of random check digits. The check digits are placed directly by the product and must be read when a worker is at the appropriate picking location. The system won’t allow the worker to continue to the next picking location unless they read the appropriate digits, meaning almost 100 per cent accuracy at all times. The ability of voice systems to deliver picking accuracy means that the correct orders are processed for shipping more often which in turn means that there are fewer returns and credits to process.

Lean billing

Technologies such as RFID are widening beyond merely collecting data to allow the billing process to be automated and revolutionising some business operations. Consider the revolution occurring in electric utilities: In the beginning, simple meters measured the electric power consumption, and a person from the energy company would periodically walk through the neighbourhood to read the meter and manually record power consumption for each house. Some utilities still operate in this way today, but more forward-looking utilities have evolved to the next level by automatically collecting power consumption data. Automated data collection greatly facilitates this business operation, making it significantly leaner but it remains fundamentally unchanged. Now, utilities are revolutionizing their operations using smart meters to collect and transmit the amount of power consumed in a household. Smart meters are an example of a technology that is fundamentally changing business operations in electric utilities by recording consumption at regular intervals and communicating it back to the utility for monitoring and billing.


This has far-reaching implications for the manufacturing industry. Imagine an RFID-based system where goods could submit data into an automated system which sent out invoices when they had reached their destination. This, when coupled with a mobile computing solution such as Honeywell’s Dolphin CT50 for information recording and processing for delivery drivers and warehouse workers, would drastically reduce the amount of worker hours put into the billing process, along with reducing the significant number of errors that go hand-in-hand with a paper based system.

These errors contribute significantly to the inefficiencies within many manufacturing environments. If manufacturers are to be truly as lean as they can possibly be, it is imperative that they ensure that their paper based-systems (much of which centres around billing) are replaced with smarter and more accurate alternatives. By ensuring that their operations are as lean as possible, significant savings can be passed onto customers, or contribute extra to the bottom line of a manufacturing operation.

Automating maintenance

Asset tracking solutions help build and maintain leaner workplaces by correctly managing and maintaining organisations’ assets, including the systematic coordination and tracking of individual risk assessments, scheduled inspections and maintenance, as well as ad-hoc and reactive maintenance tasks. Utilising a paper-based system which is prone to significant margins for error means that manufacturers are unnecessarily spending on people, paper and the additional cost of fixing the mistakes – these are often passed onto the customer.

Following successful implementation of significant asset tracking solutions, manufacturers are able to have full and accurate visibility of the returns and maintenance process for all equipment, leading to increased equipment reliability (which further lowers unnecessary staff costs) and reducing wasted expenditure, thus creating a leaner operation.

By implementing complimentary asset tracking technologies like handheld computers, owners and managers of manufacturing operations across Australia can deliver more accurate and timely information to limit equipment downtime and expedite repair order applications. For instance when a repair order comes in, equipment repair specialists can set to work using what is on-hand to repair, or track orders when the equipment is not available. Using a handheld computer can give specialist repairers on site a task detail showing the exact location of relevant parts and assets among the thousands that exist in a large manufacturing setting. As the specialist picks a replacement item or puts something in to be repaired, they scan its bar code with the integrated scanner on the mobile computer. The program immediately subtracts the item from its inventory count, eliminating time workers waste looking for an unusable piece of equipment. When a replacement is issued or an item returns from repair, the specialist sends a task update through the mobile computer to the project manager which automatically updates the system. While these improvements may seem marginal in single instances, by making the small processes which happen regularly leaner, significant improvements can be gained. Imagine that each time a worker is looking for a piece of equipment that is in for repairs, it takes 10 minutes. Multiply that by the many times that it happens daily, by the number of workers and there are significant gains, reducing the cost to the operation and the consumer.

The manufacturing industry is at a tipping point. Warehouse and manufacturing operations across Australia are facing more pressure from fluctuating currencies and increased rates of competition 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 tangible efficiency gains and a noticeable reduction in error rates. The impetus has been put squarely on manufacturers to be innovative with their processes and how they integrate new technology into their operations to ensure they are moving towards, not away from, the concept of lean manufacturing.

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