Once a powerhouse of manufacturing, the United States now faces stiff competition from Asian companies that, with a cheaper workforce, can afford to keep prices low.
However, says Industrial and Systems Engineering Associate Professor Jingshan Li, boosting productivity, as well as quality and the flexibility of a manufacturing operation allows profitability even with a well-paid labor force. The problem is turning production into a more scientific endeavor. “Currently, improving production systems is based on experience and common sense,” Li says.
Instead, the United States can win with science.
Li spent several years working for General Motors, and later collaborated with Toyota in Kentucky. There, he noticed a striking difference between the two plants when it came to data collection. “When I was at GM, from my computer screen I could monitor every aspect of production and track any vehicle’s progress from one station to another,” he says. “At Toyota, at least a third of the stations had no data collection at all. It’s far behind the United States.”
By taking better advantage of the data gap, U.S. automakers can become more productive and competitive. Li’s method, called production systems engineering, is based on finding and applying fundamental principles of manufacturing to make production systems more efficient. For example, manufacturing throughput will increase if machinery is improved, or buffers—the number of parts or raw materials kept in reserve in the case of supply chain or machine breakdowns—increased.
By analyzing mathematically how such properties interact, in combination with rigorous data collected from a given production line, engineers can find the most effective improvements, rather than those that simply apply common sense.
Li’s work has helped Toyota reduce unnecessary buffers of parts and materials and increase productivity by 15 to 20 percent—a savings of millions of dollars for the company. He’s helped other automakers, such as GM, Ford and Chrysler, make similar significant improvements. Now, Li is working with GM on an integrated manufacturing model for electric vehicle battery assembly lines that allows GM to produce high quality batteries and gather customer feedback about batteries after they’ve been sold.