Lean processes in modern manufacturing

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The principles of lean manufacturing can - by their very nature - shake businesses to their very core, with full integration of Six Sigma working practices invariably requiring firms to completely re-evaluate the way they look at output and efficiency. But the fundamentals of lean production hold immense potential for companies to lower their costs, improve control and boost efficiency through waste reduction and heightened productivity. And companies in Asia are rediscovering its transformative power.

Success in lean manufacturing hinges on cohesion and faultless cooperation across all of an organisation's departments and functions. Implementation of Six Sigma principles can bring a wealth of benefits to firms operating in virtually any sector, but the transformation can be difficult and time consuming, with its own distinct spectrum of challenges to overcome. Although there are plenty of examples where lean production has helped businesses completely turn around their fortunes – and in some industries it verges on being the expected norm.

The concept of lean manufacturing has its origins in the automotive industry and credit for its creation usually goes to Japanese businessman Taiichi Ohno. He developed the basic methodology, allowing car maker Toyota to efficiently turn out vehicles that were of superior quality to those of its rivals, at a lower production cost. In the 21st century, the lean assembly-line principle, also referred to as the Toyota Production System, is used by almost all vehicle manufacturers globally.

Waste reduction and process excellence are concepts that have helped shape the working environment to far more than just vehicle production plants. The suppliers of automotive parts have also taken many of the Toyota system's teachings on board in recent decades. Last year, WABCO, a top-tier supplier to the commercial vehicle industry, opened its own Six Sigma lean production plant in Jinan, China. The company's new facility will produce a number of advanced vehicle control systems to complement the standard output of its existing Chinese plant in Qingdao, in Shandong province.

In Jinan, WABCO will apply the lean model to complex parts for a range of clients, including Hyundai, UD Truck and Hino Motors. The firm's chairman and chief executive officer, Jacques Esculier, said that it faced huge opportunities due to the rapid development of emerging markets. "By further strengthening our local capabilities, we can adapt even more flexibly to this quickly growing environment and meet the needs of local customers and our new Jinan factory shows the company's commitment to the local commercial vehicle market," he said.

And as global markets progress, lean working practices are likely to play an increasingly important role. Modern adaptations of the Toyota system have seen variations in quality among competing original equipment manufacturers minimised – but quality is the key characteristic that allows certain brands to command a premium while others retain their perceived 'affordability'.

The widespread deployment of lean manufacturing and Six Sigma strategies has allowed quality improvements to affect virtually every corner of the automotive industry. Quicker and more accurate inspection systems are delivering constant innovation and interrupted flow of important information. As a result, the response time between detection and correction of defects is reduced, effectively lowering the cost of overall product quality.