BreakThrough Interview

Secrets of a Production Method that Can Deliver Over 20,000 Types of PCs in the Industry's Shortest 3-Day Lead Time

2016.08.08

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Press Premiere of Screw Tightening Articulated Robot

The IBM PC is considered to have been the main player in the full-fledged spread of PCs in the past. In December 2004, Lenovo acquired the PC Division of IBM. The news of this acquisition caught the entire industry by surprise. In July 2011, a joint venture was created with capital investments from Lenovo and NEC, and the businesses of the fully-owned subsidiary Lenovo Japan and NEC’s PC business NEC Personal Computers were consolidated as a result. In February 2015, the joint venture decided to take orders for and produce ThinkPad at NEC Personal Computers' Yonezawa Plant.

Currently, Yonezawa Plant produces over 20,000 types of PCs by revolutionizing its production system through implementing the Toyota Production System (TPS) and fully utilizing IT. The plant can deliver this large variety of product types in the industry's shortest lead-time of three days.

Two revolutions that govern the groundbreaking production

Yonezawa Plant carries out the production of orders for NEC Personal Computers' PC customized to customer specifications such as CPU, OS type, and memory capacity. The plant receives orders from across Japan and completes various processes, such as ordering and assembling parts as well as inspecting and packaging the products, before shipping them out to customers. The plant's maximum production capacity is 10,000 PCs per day and it produces over 20,000 types of ordered models. Moreover, it delivers the PCs to customers in the industry's shortest lead-time of three days. The factor that enabled Yonezawa Plant to realize the production of a large variety of products in the industry's shortest lead-time was no other than the system it developed through "production innovation" and "IT innovation".

The production innovation was in large part realized by implementing TPS. The basic approach of TPS is “just in time”. In other words, under TPS, only the required products should be produced, and they should be produced in the required time and amount, thereby eliminating waste. In the past, the plant implemented a line production system, which had multiple workers for different lines such as the assembly and inspection lines, but it replaced this with the cell production system. By doing so, the plant assigned three to five experts in charge of processes ranging from assembly to inspection and packaging. In other words, experts assemble the PCs one unit at a time. The skills of these experts in the cell production method are a great advantage in handling large-volume production of over 20,000 types of PCs and keeping up with the fast-paced cycle of new product launches.

The cell production method is supported by an IT innovation. At Yonezawa Plant, a consolidated production system utilizing RFID conducts overall management of production. When workers receive assembly components from suppliers according to the Kanban production process signs, they pick out the required parts from the component store and supply them to the production line. This method, for instance, helps workers properly manage processes ranging from when to pick out the parts to when to replenish shortages. In this way, the RFID consolidated production system manages the production processes and quality traceability of the production line, resulting in increased efficiency and speed of production.

In addition to these two innovations, Yonezawa Plant has quickly incorporated various proposals made by on-site workers in operations after determining them to be suitable for production. For example, relay work in production lines based on worker skills, a vibration prevention mechanism of electric drivers, a parts moving shelf and other ideas have been utilized for improving productivity. Improvements have also been made to quality, such as preventing scratches on USB with a protective cap, using a screw tightening template for preventing careless errors, and adopting a confirmation system for screw tightening work. In these ways, all kinds of ideas from the worksite have been successively implemented in daily operations. Another example of such improvement is how costs have been reduced significantly by renewing the order slip that had become very old with a newly revised slip based on worker feedback.

New type of screw-tightening robot capable of tightening screws at different heights

Yonezawa Plant recently introduced a new screw tightening articulated robot, released to the press for the first time, to its production line. The plant had already been using a robot in the process of manufacturing PC laptops, but the robot could only tighten screws at the same height. However, the new robot can determine the screw tightening position and drive screws at different heights, resulting in reduced worker burden and dramatic improvements in work efficiency. Yonezawa Plant aims to leverage its know-how of this articulated robot in other business areas as well.

Application of experience and knowledge from PC to other products

Lenovo Japan recently began accepting orders for Factory Integration Services (FIS) at Yonezawa Plant. This service consists of overseas production of orders from customers for x86 servers, as well as various processes conducted at the Yonezawa Plant, including appearance inspection, implementation of in-built options, checking initial operation, installation of OS and software, packaging inspection, and the integration and customization of the product through various steps before delivery to customers. The plant will handle 400 to 500 units per month in the near term, and it aims to increase the number of units even further. Yonezawa Plant is now in a new stage of using the experience and knowledge it has gained through PC production to server-related areas, too.

See here for an introductory video of NEC's Yonezawa Plant

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