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Smart Factories: How Digitalization Transforms Manufacturing - Part 2


“What we are doing is applying digital tools, advanced manufacturing solutions, on top of a Lean foundation,” - Frederick Mauermann, general manager for global lean manufacturing at GE Healthcare

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 for reader convenience. This is Part 2. If you haven’t yet read part 1 click here.

GE has seven of these factories each of them a laboratory, training location and profitable manufacturing site rolled into one. GE launched the brilliant factory initiative in 2015 and expects to have 18 by the end of the year (2017).

Because operational bottlenecks and other stumbling blocks differ by industry and product, the goals and expected results of digitalization also vary. But the guiding principle is the same across them all: Constantly seek incremental improvements that increase efficiency and quality.

What sets Hino apart is a deep and sustained commitment to Kaizen. By participating in Kaizen workout activities, employees of all levels are empowered to contribute their own insights and test potential operational changes. The factory adheres to the concept of standard work, wherein tasks are clearly defined and repeated many times in order to highlight opportunities to remove inefficiencies.

“If you step into that factory, your biggest takeaway will be the attention to detail and how well defined the standard work is,” Mauermann says. “The team there works constantly to optimize production, which can mean eliminating any need to walk away from the line to find a tool or get a part. They’ve developed ways to bring what they need to them, when they need it.”

Inside the plant, custom kit carts are loaded with the components required for each step, arranged in the order they are used. This reduces unnecessary time and motion and also helps maintain quality standards by ensuring that no parts are forgotten during assembly. Sensors record how the carts are used, and the results are color-coded: green for on-time completion; yellow for delay of a few minutes; and red for a delay of 10 minutes or more.


Man pointing at image in screen

Sensors record how the carts are used, and the results are color-coded. Image credit: GE Japan/GE Reports (P2)

If complications arise during production, Hino’s “eAndon” (or “eSignal”) system relays a message specifying the time, place and substance of the problem. A worker can generate an alert using a QR code or pull-down menu on a nearby computer terminal — and managers can receive it via a wearable device.

The system allows real-time monitoring of the entire production process — which is especially critical on the manufacturing lines for precision ultrasound probes and CT scanner detectors. This work requires considerable skill and technical knowledge, entails working with lots of tiny parts and permits virtually no margin of error. Some flawed products, like ultrasound probes, cannot be salvaged and must be scrapped.

To avoid such costly errors, the ultrasound probe production line uses sophisticated Enterprise Pulse Insight (EPI) software running on Predix GE’s software platform for the Industrial Internet to show workers what they need to know about inventory, output and work in progress (WIP).


Workers at a factory using smart glasses to do work

Above: Workers at the Hino plant rely on smart glasses to improve productivity. Images credit: GE Japan/GE Reports. (P3)

Wireless beacons track operator movement in order to optimize equipment layout. Workers are also testing wearable smart glasses to see if they can eliminate the need to lug around laptops or reference materials. The glasses may also enable remote instruction or training for workers.

The attention to detail and precise definition of tasks mesh well with the quick, iterative improvements behind the brilliant factory initiative. “We’re targeting precisely defined tasks for digitization — taking out 30 seconds here, or eliminating five steps there, with some really simple solutions,” Mauermann says. “And because of that, we can be really cost effective about it.”

Each digital solution provides additional data that can then help pinpoint what to target in the next Kaizen activity. It’s circular and progressive at the same time, accelerating the pace of Lean — in effect, making Lean even leaner over time.

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