CORVALLIS - The evolving concepts of "lean" manufacturing, which focuses on eliminating wasteful down-time and tapping into the ideas of production line workers, are moving into the electronics and other industries as they work to improve their efficiency and stay globally competitive, experts say.
A professional conference exploring the latest innovations and possibilities with lean automation, "Manufacturing in Lean Times," will be held on Oct. 28 at Oregon State University, which has become a leader in developing these manufacturing concepts and training students in their use.
Some industries such as automotive production are well advanced in their development of lean manufacturing and other efficiency techniques, OSU experts say. But others - including the high technology industry that is of increasing importance to the U.S. for jobs and economic growth - are just now making changes. And some fields such as health care have barely begun to make use of these ideas.
"In the past, most efficiency experts studied the best ways to perform a task, how to do it with high speed and quality," said Richard Billo, professor and head of the OSU Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. "But with lean manufacturing, our focus is more on eliminating waste, the huge amounts of time in a production process when not much is happening for one reason or another. And lean manufacturing is a bottom-up process, which brings the production line workers into the process."
Of all the distinctions of this approach to efficiency, Billo said, this is one of the most important - the emphasis on a broad-based, social approach that assumes the people actually doing a job may have many good ideas about how to do it better, or what obstacles get in the way and cause the process to slow down or grind to a stop.
"There's no doubt that the major automotive manufacturers have done the most with lean manufacturing," said Toni Doolen, an OSU assistant professor of manufacturing and industrial engineering, and one of the nation's leading experts in this field. "Toyota says that it tries to make 50 manufacturing improvements per employee, per year. They understand that some all-knowing engineer does not have all the answers.
"Many other industries, by comparison, have barely scratched the surface of what we can do with lean manufacturing."
The electronics industry, in particular, has been slow to appreciate the potential value of these concepts, in part because their products are changing so frequently and require constant adjustments to manufacturing processes - sometimes an assembly line has to be reconfigured several times on one shift.
"It's not at all unusual in an electronics plant to lose 20 percent of your time to setups for product changeovers," Billo said. "But with everyone working together using the tools of lean manufacturing, we can help identify where these slowdowns occur and identify ways to reduce or eliminate them."
This can entail doing videotapes of line operations, working closely with employees to seek their best ideas, and other approaches to make production lines both flexible and fast. Some of the needed changes might be things as simple as making equipment changes that can "snap" into place instead of having to be unscrewed and re-fastened. And almost as important, the OSU experts say, is getting everyone involved in the process of change so they feel committed to it and empowered about using the new approaches.
"With many of our industries, whether or not we use these approaches is not really a question," Doolen said. "Companies are either going to improve their efficiency or they are going to go out of business. And we find that customers are driving this process. They demand products that can be produced quickly, at very low prices and with high quality."
Many Oregon companies are extremely interested in the ideas of lean manufacturing, the OSU researchers say, and the university recently set up a "Lean Automation Laboratory" to do research in this field and assist in student education. A number of Oregon companies will make presentations at the upcoming conference to outline the successes they have had with lean manufacturing. And research projects continue to evolve from this area - last year, OSU helped the Canadian Navy redesign its ship repair facility in Victoria, B.C., in a way that reduced necessary floor space by 50 percent and cut by 20 percent the necessary time to return a ship to sea.
"Our graduates in the next few years will have some of the best training in the nation in lean manufacturing," Billo said. "Our hands-on electronics production cell is helping about 60 students every term learn the most effective techniques of setup reduction, cellular design, and pull production techniques. In combination with a course in virtual automated manufacturing, students learn how to make processes both highly automated and still flexible."
The untapped frontier, the OSU scientists said, is to take the principles of lean manufacturing and automation and apply it more aggressively to many service fields, such as banks, offices or medical care.