Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing

Advances in Supply Chain Management for Mass Customization

In the last couple of days, a number of interesting articles have described current advances and trends in supply chain management that are relevant to mass customization implementation.

In the RFID Journal, Beth Bacheldor writes about NEC’s use of new RFID Gate Technology, that leverages radio-wave reflection techniques.

Rather than shoot radio waves directly at the RFID tags on goods moving through a gate,

“..the antennas shoot radio waves to specially tuned reflector plates installed on the gate system.  The plates reflect the waves at right angles to goods passing through the gate in order to scan the RFID tags.”

According to the article:

“NEC has already tested the new gate system in two of its own plants in Japan, including its Personal Products Ltd. factory in Yonezawa, where NEC assembles build-to-order PCs. NEC is using RFID at that factory to eliminate the need for employees to scan as many as 100,000 bar codes each day.  Productivity rates have improved by as much as 10 percent since NEC began using RFID, the company claims.”

In The, George Schultz looks at the role of just-in-time sequencing in the automotive industry’s quest for competitive edge.  In the article, he notes the recent growth in facilitating buyer options and sequenced production (that matches a particular sub-assembly to a particular car).  He suggests that it is being driven as much by supply-side considerations as anything else – in other words that auto industry companies and suppliers want to turn over their inventory in the shortest possible time.  He quotes Gary Flum, general manager of advanced manufacturing systems with software developer QAD:

“a typical Tier 2 manufacturer is doing a batch type of production, a standard type of MRP process, with inventory now at “something like 50 to 60 to 70 turns a year.”  But in some producers with newer execution systems in place, he says, “we’ve see that doubled to some 150 to 200 turns a year.
Just take those numbers and blow them against capital investment and inventory carrying costs, and you can see where the value would be driven.”

Staying with the automotive sector, Eric Austvold, research director at AMR Research Inc. is quoted in eChannelLine, comparing the auto sector with IT hardware manufacturing:

“Some companies in industries such as IT and auto are ahead of the curve in terms of effectively using collaborative technologies with distributed design teams from various suppliers and corporate divisions around the world to create and introduce products in a compressed time frame.

But even among the early adopters industries will vary in their approach. The notion of “mass customization” as a strategy to react to consumer demand in large niche markets is still in its infancy, he indicated.

Austvold compares auto where the suppliers and manufacturers remain the same year after year; while in IT companies and products are constantly changing. The life cycle of a new car is one or two years, while MP3 players change in six months.”

Perhaps the route for greater flexibility in auto manufacturing is a move towards standard interfaces between components and sub-assemblies, in a similar fashion to the IT sector.  Just as an example, if auto manufacturers could agree a common standard for a wiring assembly interface, it would allow new electronic features to be easily added to a car’s features without the need for a re-working of the wiring loom specification.  Another example might be a common specification for the interface between engines and transmissions, i.e. clutch assemblies (for manual transmissions) or torque convertors for automatic gearboxes.

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