What’s Next After Lean Manufacturing?

Genetic algorithms, virtual-engineered-composite cells and the Internet help increase speed and product variety.

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Technological complexity and burgeoning product variety are placing more demands on manufacturers than they can handle, even organizations that claim to have adopted lean-manufacturing principles. That is why companies such as Auburn Consolidated Industries, Deere & Co., Maytag Corp., Fleetwood Enterprises and VEC (Virtual Engineered Composites) Technology, formerly Pyramid Composites, are investigating new technologies and Internet-based processes that offer potential solutions. These pioneers are hoping that techniques and technologies, such as genetic-algorithm software, VEC cells and manufacturing control via the Internet, will enable them to cut costs, decrease cycle times and deliver personalized products with more features faster than ever before. We may even be seeing a new stage in the evolution of manufacturing.

Distance and distribution complexity have long created problems for manufacturers, but today companies have new tools with which to tackle the challenges. The problem of shipping parts to where they are needed has always gotten in the way of faster cycle times. Distance creates particular challenges for companies making products from materials that are molded to make Jacuzzis, Jet Skis, automotive parts and the like — materials such as fiberglass or plastics. Because molds are expensive and consistent quality is difficult to achieve, manufacturers requiring molded parts have been forced to rely on a handful of suppliers, adding shipping time and coordination complexities to their burdens. So imagine how life would improve for some manufacturers if high-quality molded parts could be made in a portable minifactory placed in their own backyard.

Inventor Gene Kirila believes his system for producing molded plastic products may usher in a new era. Formerly the CEO of Pyramid Composites and now head of GK Ventures, Kirila is co-inventor with Robert McCollum of VEC cells. VECs are transportable factories for manufacturing molded parts. They run a patented manufacturing process whose operating system is best described as a controlled process-in-a-box. VEC cells provide operators with computer controls and simple visual and audio instructions that guide operators through the molding process. Because the software can be upgraded and controlled centrally over the Internet, VEC cells can deliver a consistent process regardless of where they are located or who is operating them.

Richard E. Morley, the inventor of the programmable logic controller, the device that launched the $5 billion industrial automation industry, believes that VEC cells represent a significant breakthrough.

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