Lean 4.0: the key to competing in unstable times

In a special two-part interview by Adrian Tippetts, we explore the future of ‘Lean’ manufacturing and Industry 4.0: how can packaging printers improve their processes by harnessing the latest advances in automation, and how do manufacturers mitigate for supply chain shortages and rising costs in unstable times?

In the wake of the Covid crisis, just about every printing business has been affected by sharp cost rises and insecure raw material availability. With its focus on cutting waste, creating production flow and adding customer value, the ‘Lean’ manufacturing and management method is seen as essential for staying competitive in these turbulent times. Companies that adopt Lean produce faster, cheaper and better than competitors – while using less material, production space and manual time. In package and label printing, Lean processes can cut costs and consumption by as much as 30%, with benefits going straight to the bottom line.

Today, the age of automation brings yet more opportunities for performance improvement – with software developments helping cut costs and simplify processes.

So how do converters apply the latest Lean techniques to survive and thrive in these unstable times? We invited two leading academics in the field of Lean, to provide insight.

Dr. Jannes Slomp, lector World Class Performance, and Wilfred Knol, researcher, from the HAN University of Applied Sciences (Arnhem and Nijmegen, Netherlands), joined Maarten Hummelen, marketing director from GSE in this interview. The HAN Lean QRM Centre is the only dedicated knowledge centre of its kind in Europe, focusing on smart organization and continuous improvement of product development, smart production, change and learning.

Defining Lean: focusing on customer value, reducing waste

First, can you give a brief introduction to Lean, Just In Time and Quick Response Manufacturing? How have these concepts transformed manufacturing supply chains in recent times?

Wilfred: Lean’s blessing and curse is its ‘interpretative viability’, meaning that different people give different meanings to the term. This ambiguity helps the concept as, this way, it can be useful to anyone in a way he or she deems fit. But this ambiguity does not help when trying to define it. Even today, experts have yet to find consensus on how to best define the term. The most common definition is:

a management concept that focuses on improving customer value and reducing waste, expressed in quality, delivery, and cost.

Single-piece flow

‘Lean’ developed from the Toyota Production System. Compared to mass production, Lean is more focused on single-piece flow, with smaller batches and quick setup times. ‘Just In Time’ [JIT] is the term to describe that continuous flow: all the materials are brought to where they are needed in the process, at the exact time required, to produce one piece at a time. Single-piece flow triggers the pinpointing of defects or problems in the process, forcing you to immediately focus on solving them.

JIT is one of the major pillars of the Lean system, which also consists of ‘pull systems’ such as Kanban scheduling, ‘respect for people’, and the ongoing quest for continuous improvement – the Japanese term for this is Kaizen.

Quick Response Manufacturing [QRM] is a continuation of the Lean production system, developed by Rajan Suri. It is focused on achieving flow in low-volume, high-variety, and project-based production systems. But the principles are the same.

Read our ‘Five Principles Of Lean’ blog to learn more about Lean.

When and why did GSE first take an interest in Lean?

Maarten: We started the journey in 2010. Our challenge was to meet increased customization and speed demands, so we adopted the QRM strategy. Every machine we deliver is unique. We shortened our production lead times, and offered products with a wider variety of functions to our customers. We redesigned all our dispensers with a modular architecture – they have fewer machine components, so we can configure customized machines rapidly, and easily tailor our offering to the desired application, ink set or volume level needs.

Managing inks crucial for competitive advantage

Why does focusing on ink-related processes have such a great impact on overall performance in printing?

Maarten: Even though ink is only a small portion of your costs, perhaps 6% of total costs, it can have a huge impact on business performance. This means your ink processes can be a good place to start looking for improvements with Lean techniques.

If the ink colours are not right, there may be delays in the ink kitchen, leading to increased press stoppage time, substrate waste, ink waste and time waste, so we feel it is real important to manage your inks properly in order to be more competitive.

See the ‘Ink Cost Iceberg’ article to get perspective on the impact of ink-related costs.

Remember, Lean delivers competitive advantage because savings from waste reduction go straight towards boosting profits. Saving €100,000 while operating with a 5% profit margin is equivalent to generating defect-free extra revenues of €2 million.

Read our blog about how to analyze your current ink-related processes, to identify bottlenecks and opportunities for improvement.

What advice can you give to printers about starting on the Lean journey?

Wilfred: Many companies are familiar with operational techniques like the Eight Wastes tool for identifying waste, and the 5S Program for reorganizing the workplace. But this is not necessarily the ideal starting point.

The Toyota Production System teaches us to focus on both operation and improvement. So before diving in with 5S, successful companies focus on improvement parts, such as:

  • Toyota Kata – skills taught as habits that are improved by corrective feedback
  • the A3 report model for coaching and encouraging a scientific approach to solving problems
  • the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle for achieving continuous improvement.

Lean and Industry 4.0: information everywhere accelerates print processes

How has Lean evolved in the age of automation and the Internet?

Jannes: Lean is focused on gaining flow, in processes and in the whole supply chain, from supplier to customer. In the age of Industry 4.0, information is available everywhere. If that is the case, you can do a lot more. You can create more pull, more JIT and, if you have all the info of your product at your customer’s location, you use the real-time information to create new revenue models, and ways of supporting the customer.

A model is servitization, where customers pay for a service rather than buying the equipment. The customer pays per product they make on the machine which the manufacturer remains the owner of. For example, one of our partner companies produces elevators that are leased to the building owners, who pay for the actual use of the lift.

Also, with real-time information available, suppliers can be responsible for the customer’s raw material stocks, because they have all the stock level information and can produce the lot sizes required by their manufacturing systems without waiting for a customer order. That cuts out lots of administrative costs – and time. This is only possible because of the availability of information.

If information is readily available everywhere, you can link all the elements of the whole supply chain, driving innovation, with companies cooperating to make new offerings.

How has the ink logistics offering evolved in the age of Industry 4.0?

Maarten: We have enhanced the connectivity of our machines and developed new software packages that make information readily available and speed up processes. In our ink dispensers, we have redesigned the machine controls, computers, pneumatics and electronics. We are ready for servitization and the Internet of Things.

On software, we introduced GSE Ink manager in 2017, with optional modules that facilitate greater connectivity and availability of data. For example, there are dedicated packages for enabling easy integration with ERP suppliers, Management Information Systems, and cloud applications.

How has the cloud improved the management of inks?

Maarten: The cloud has impacted on ink management in various ways, and some of our software modules take advantage of it.

An ink supplier’s new spot-colour ink recipe can be made available directly to the converter, and exported to the ink dispenser’s software. The cloud also gives you real-time information on-demand. For example, our dispensers can communicate any consumption of colours, via internet, to a cloud application that makes available real-time stock information. All these are designed to speed up processes.

Jannes: It shows that the availability of real-time information enables faster and better decision-making – and not only within the company, but along the wider value chain, the innovation chain and even cooperation at local level. It delivers many options.

Did you know? Implementing a good Lean and Smart ink management system can save converters up to 30% of costs. Read more: how ink logistics can transform your colour pains to performance gains.

In the next part of our interview, our interview panel will discuss the optimum way to embark on a Lean program, and discuss the what supply chain challenges the printer can expect in the future.

For more information about the HAN University and the courses it offers at the Lean QRM Centre, click here.