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Smart Factories: How Digitalization Transforms Manufacturing - Part 1


Robots are now a common co-worker in many manufacturing lines (P1) Image credits: Phasmatisnox

Contributor: Randy Stearns
This article was originally published under the title “Leaner than Lean: How Digitalization Transforms Manufacturing” in GEReports. It has been broken into 2 parts in this blog for reader convenience.  Part 2 can be found here

If you want to see the future of manufacturing, follow the Tama River about 45 kilometers upstream from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to the GE Healthcare facility in Hino, Japan. Inside this outwardly conventional, low-rise suburban business complex is emerging the blueprint for the future of manufacturing, tweak by painstaking tweak.

The Hino factory makes both parts for large medical scanners and small, precision equipment. Compared with similar facilities, its production lines are exceptionally efficient — fast, with less waste, errors and unplanned downtime — thanks in part to the successful integration of advanced digital information technology with operational systems. GE calls this convergence of hardware and software on the shop floor the brilliant factory.

But the brilliance lies less in sensors and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags than in the approach that guides their use: a deft blending of Lean principles designed to eliminate waste in manufacturing and advanced digitization that enables the constant fine-tuning of production.

In that respect, the Hino plant is where the Industrial Internet meets Kaizen, the Japanese concept of continuous improvement pioneered by Toyota after World War II that undergirds Lean methods for eliminating waste in manufacturing. “What we’re doing is applying digital tools, advanced manufacturing solutions, on top of a Lean foundation,” explains Frederick Mauermann, general manager for global lean manufacturing at GE Healthcare.That’s the recipe we’ve found that provides the greatest payback.”

The approach is working. Atsushi Morimoto, who runs operations at the Hino plant, says that digitization and Lean manufacturing create powerful synergies that “maximize the effectiveness of the company’s investment.” Lead times for some of Hino’s products have shrunk by up to 65 percent. One line produces CT scanner gantries, the big donut-shaped enclosures that surround a patient and contain the scanner’s X-ray tubes and other detectors. When GE Healthcare Japan began operation in 1982, the lead time for manufacturing a gantry was nearly a week. Today, that production window is measured in minutes.

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