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"The Shift from Belt Conveyor Line to Work-cell Based Assembly Systems to Cope with Increasing Demand Variation and Fluctuation in The Japanese Electronics Industries"

By Dario Ikuo Miyake

Abstract

As consumption patterns become increasingly sophisticated and manufacturers strive to improve their competitiveness, not only offering higher quality at competitive costs, but also by providing broader mix of products, and keeping it attractive by launching successively new products, the turbulence in the markets has intensified. This has impelled leading manufacturers to search the development of alternative production systems supposed to enable them operate more responsively. This paper discusses the trend of abandoning the strategy of relying on factory automation technologies and conveyor-based assembly lines, and shifting towards more human-centered production systems based on autonomous work-cells, observed in some industries in Japan (e.g. consumer electronics, computers, printers) since mid-1990s. The purpose of this study is to investigate this trend which is seemingly uneconomic to manufacturers established in a country where labor costs are among the highest in the world, so as to contribute in the elucidation of its background and rationality. This work starts with a theoretical review linking the need to cope with nowadays' market turbulence with the issue of nurturing more agile organizations. Then, a general view of the diffusion trend of work-cell based assembly systems in Japanese electronics industries is presented, and some empirical facts gathered in field studies conducted in Japan are discussed. It is worthy mentioning that the abandonment of short cycle-time tasks performed along conveyor lines and the organization of workforce around work-cells do not imply a rejection of the lean production paradigm and its distinctive process improvement approach. High man-hour productivity is realized as a key goal to justify the implementation of work-cells usually devised to run in longer cycle-time, and the moves towards this direction has been strikingly influenced by the kaizen philosophy and techniques that underline typical initiatives of lean production system implementation. Finally, it speculates that even though the subject trend is finding wide diffusion in the considered industries, it should not be regarded as a panacea. In industries such as manufacturing of autoparts, despite the notable product diversification observed in the automobile market, its circumstances have still allowed the firms to rely on capital-intensive process, and this has sustained the development of advanced manufacturing technologies that enable the agile implementation and re-configuration of highly automated assembly lines.

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