Some companies are willing to do some pretty remarkable things in the name of efficiency, including promoting robots to upper management positions. In September 2015, Hitachi announced in a press release it had tasked artificial intelligence to organize "work orders based on an understanding of demand fluctuation and on-site kaizen activity derived from big data." In short, Hitachi recruited a machine to oversee plant operations to see if it could increase efficiency.
As a refresher, the Japanese word "kaizen" is both an activity and a business philosophy promoting continued improvements within a given company. It encourages workers, managers and executives to band together and solve specific efficiency issues in a consolidated manner by scheduling kaizen events. That said, kaizen also has a greater meaning, one that asks businesses to address their biggest issues head on and work to alleviate their problems to gain operational efficiency and eliminate waste. According to company research, the plant Hitachi's "roboboss" supervises managed to gain an 8-percent efficiency edge over other sites without its expertise.
Though this is quite an accomplishment for a giant corporation like Hitachi, everyday original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) don't need to literally build a better employee to incorporate similar lean manufacturing advantages into their workforce. Simply finding new ways to handle the parts procurement process and manage inventories will not only suffice, but could potentially lay the groundwork for manufacturing operations that constantly self-improve.
Knowing the ins and outs of OEM data management
Ask OEM administrators charged with overseeing the procurement process and they'll tell you it's a data-intensive process, so long as you're doing it right. Purchasing the correct number of parts requires a knowledge of build plans, product demands, unit prices and inventory stock, as well as other kinds of data sets that can fluctuate dozens of times over a given shift. To leverage required parts against budgetary allocation, OEMs will need to collect all this information and factor it into their procurement decisions to stay competitive.
For companies that may not be able to afford their own mechanical data manager, this task could be easier said than done. At the very least, best data management practices may be difficult to do well with so many different considerations and few resources available. How are OEMs expected to keep up with the increasing pace of commerce while also applying kaizen principles to their operations?
Vendor managed inventory (VMI) programs, like kaizen itself, draw on the collective knowledge throughout a given business to drive efficiency. Whereas an asset operator or builder might provide valuable insight into snags that hold processes back, VMI programs ensure all the most relevant information informs a supply procurement order to achieve the greatest level of cost and component efficiency. To that end, VMI programs can point OEMs toward data collection shortfalls or gaps in their reporting processes, continuously auditing the information coming into and flowing out of their plants, as well as the infrastructure through which that data moves.
"Just because it's always been done that way doesn't mean the process can't be questioned."
Refocusing resources toward a modern OEM's actual job
Since the dawn of original equipment manufacturing, the relationship between OEMs and their suppliers has traditionally been a little one-sided in terms of work. Manufacturers took the reins in the procurement process, handling ordering logistics, parts transportation and even providing the storage space for components scheduled for future use. Just because it's always been done that way doesn't mean the process can't be questioned. In fact, according to Supply Chain Digest, assuaging the costs related to these specific steps in the manufacturing process can be a huge cost benefit to OEMs.
When OEMs take on VMI programs, they essentially negotiate with their respective suppliers on an equal distribution of the duties each is expected to perform. By transferring labor- and resource-intensive steps under a supplier's jurisdiction, an OEM saves money. More to the point, by cutting out these burdensome steps – especially those a supplier may be more capable of conducting – OEMs simplify their workflow so they are better able to focus on the operations that matter most to their continued successes. Planning kaizen events will therefore be more productive, as they'll hone in on specific areas of improvement, instead of being wasted on processes that shouldn't be an OEM's responsibility in the first place.