The future of Lean manufacturing in a dynamic world

In the second and final part of our interview with two experts on Lean manufacturing, we look at strategies for reducing waste, and staying competitive in an increasingly digitalized but unstable world. We also discuss how label and packaging converters can maintain flow and stay agile when shortages and price inflation are increasingly the norm.

Dr. Jannes Slomp, lector World Class Performance, and Wilfred Knol, researcher and lecturer in organizational design and development, from the HAN University of Applied Sciences (Arnhem and Nijmegen, Netherlands), joined Maarten Hummelen, marketing director from GSE in this interview by Adrian Tippetts. For part one, click here.

Some say it’s important to focus on waste reduction and simplifying processes before automating. What is your opinion?

Jannes: From our studies, we notice that when companies first start thinking about their processes, using Lean, it’s easier to introduce Industry 4.0 technologies in a logical way. Lean is focused on gaining flow, just-in-time, with reduced throughput times, and improved quality. Investments in Industry 4.0 which support these lean principles and goals are worthwhile. Conversely, introducing new digitalization techniques in a non-Lean context will not help a lot.

On the other hand, developing Lean takes time, and sometimes an Industry 4.0 technique is much faster to implement. If the cost of delaying the introduction of an Industry 4.0 technique is significant, then you can bring it in – but at the same time, you must be thinking of how you will implement Lean.

The Lean roadmap for converters

Maarten: I agree, you first have to reduce complexity and improve your processes, cut out waste before you are going to automate. At GSE, we have developed a roadmap to implement Lean and smart ink management. There are four stages:

  • Ink dispensing and management: where ink dispensers automatically mix the colour shade, on-demand
  • Colour management: using colour formulation software to successfully work with new colours at the press
  • Proofing inks offline: using a tabletop proofer simulates the press conditions so you can print the precise colour without fingerprinting or adjustments
  • Process integration: integrating ink management software with ERP, cloud services and mobile apps.

What makes ink management software so special?

Maarten: Managing inks for spot colours is highly specialist, because of the uniquely complex, cyclical route they take through the print workflow. Base colours get combined to make recipes of new colours often with leftover mixtures from previous jobs.

An ERP supplier will manage those base colours, not the spot colour mixtures, which for the reasons stated, is a highly specialist matter. That’s where ink management software like ours comes in. The software logs the quantities of base colours used in each recipe, matching it with the job details. And returned inks are similarly tracked when they are booked back to inventory for reuse. So, with bespoke, software programs, users have immediate information, not only about ink recipes, but stocks, costings, and raw material make-up for individual jobs.

For GSE it was a natural step to offer these software solutions because registrations of these logistic events are made at the moment that ink is dispensed.

Think about the big picture!

What advice can you give printers thinking about their long-term future?

Jannes: Every company needs to think about the big picture, where they will be in five to ten years.

In that time, I expect to see the connection between the technology and human beings playing a more dominant role, and the aspect of sustainability playing an increasingly serious role.

You must make a picture of where your company will be, and then you make the correct steps, in Lean as well as in adopting the right product and process technology. Thinking about modularization is very important, also for sustainability purposes.

Facing supply chain challenges – and how Lean can help

The printing industry is experiencing difficult times right now, especially in the wake of the Covid pandemic. We are seeing shortages of basic raw materials and components. Lead times are as much as a year for machines, while the cost of ink and energy is skyrocketing. Is the current supply chain crisis a sign that Just In Time is a flawed model for current times?

Wilfred: I think there are at least three points to this issue. Just In Time is about low inventories, and optimizing inventories. It may be misunderstood as being about zero inventories. As a manufacturer, I may need as little stocks as possible, but I also need enough to continue my production.

But secondly, Covid is a so-called ‘black swan,’ or rare occasion. So, the question is, do you – or should you – prepare yourself for such rare events? It is a major difficulty: indeed, perhaps you cannot prepare yourself for something as extreme or unexpected as this at all.

The third thing, if you know this is the case now, and looking to prepare for future events, there also might be a transition from globalization to more regionalization. Companies will be less likely to offshore production to low-cost countries. Or if they do, they might reconsider the distance between countries, producing closer to home. Corporations must ask themselves: which supply chain, network and partners are crucial for me? Crucial partners may be clustered at home and the less important ones will be further away. So this is a good time for companies to explore how to reorganize supply chains to at least take account of the black swan.

In the wake of the pandemic also, agility [the ability to respond fast to the customer] is becoming an increasingly important topic for manufacturers. If there is a crisis affecting the supply chain, a solution can be dual sourcing – having two instead of one supplier. This is important in a dynamic world.

Maarten: From the packaging and label printing perspective, the supply shortage and stricter safety legislation have forced manufacturers to reformulate inks with different recipes. Converters have had to adapt their logistics as a result, in order to be agile and swiftly change to a new ink series or set. Ink dispensers that we supply assist in that flexibility. Their modular product architecture allows easy exchange of components, agitators, valves and heating systems, for example.

Sustainability: a Lean matter

How do you see environmental concerns and climate change affecting Lean thinking and its implementation?

Jannes: Over time, the nature of customer demand has changed: first, it was cost, followed by quality, delivery time, and then innovation, in order to have different products all the time. Now sustainability is becoming part of customer demand – the demand for circular products. So consumer expectations have evolved in recent years.

In lean, the current and future customer is always the number one. Recognizing waste is essential in lean. That means that in current time lean waste has to be measured not only in time and efficiency, but also in energy and materials. For this reason, several companies use sustainable value stream mapping (sus-VSM). Life cycle analysis and modularization, which has often an important impact on sustainability, will become part of the Lean tool box.

I personally think that the process view of Lean remains important, but we will need much more of a system view. If everyone is collecting materials in order to be safe from future ‘black swan’ events, then we will have a problem – because all these products and raw materials will be somewhere where they will not be used, and where they are actually needed there will likely be insufficient components. So, globally, Lean thinking and system thinking will become more connected.

Maarten: I agree with Jannes about modularity, and a part of system thinking. Our dispensers’ modular product architecture cuts waste in production, or when adapting to the customer’s changing needs. Some ink suppliers are also modularizing their customer offering: they separate technical varnish, that provide the functional characteristics, from pigments that provide the colour. That allows a wider variety of spot colours from fewer base components, which in turn reduces complexity, transport and risk in the supply chain.

Exploring human – machine cooperation

What trends in Lean thinking are you seeing?

Jannes: Lean product development for circular and sustainable products will become a hot topic. I expect further advances related to Industry 4.0, as we do not know what can be done with the sheer volume of available information. A challenge might be to improve flow through virtual reality meetings, where a team of the best-suited experts from around the world come together to discuss with each other in a virtual room.

Furthermore, we will see a move to Lean 5.0, an evolved way of linking Lean and technology, that explores how humans and machines cooperate and are linked together. For all these things lean tools can be used and adapted.

Maarten: Suppliers in the label and packaging value chains need to team up and offer better, integrated solutions to printers, to reduce manual data input, and duplication of tasks, which is costing printers time and money. For example, processes are very disjointed. At the moment, printers must use separate software packages for package design, colour formulation, production planning, and ink management. We need a more integrated offering with easy, automatic data transfer between software packages, so converters only have to key in data once. At GSE, we decided to start InkConnection platform where value chain partners can share ideas and best practices to help customers, improve their processes – also in a sustainable way.

For more information about the HAN University and the courses it offers at the Lean QRM Centre, click here. If you’re seeking more insight into managing ink logistics in label and packaging, why not start with this article about Lean and Smart manufacturing?