Plants Of The Future (Seen From 1989!)

Dec. 21, 2004
Past predictions hit the mark.

Almost as much fun as making today's predictions is reviewing those that IndustryWeek heard in the past. The time: November 20, 1989, and several hundred U.S. manufacturing executives gathered at the annual conference of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence in Louisville. They were listening to Jinichiro Nakane of Tokyo's Waseda University outline key findings of "Manufacturing 21," an ongoing five-year study by eight major Japanese companies and several universities in that country. The goal: Identify the innovative factors needed to maintain Japan's manufacturing prowess. Among them:

  • A shift away from large, complex manufacturing plants toward smaller factories capable of responding quickly to local market demands.
  • Abandonment of mass-production methods in advanced industrial nations in favor of low-volume production of an increased variety of customized products.
  • Greater emphasis on flexibility.
  • Continued shortening of product lifecycles.
  • Products featuring higher value-added content, including more "softnization" -- that is, an increase in the amount of software relative to hardware.
  • More intellectual input from employees.
  • Increased "networking of manufacturing resources, including materials, information and capital.
  • Greater emphasis on "amenities" for workers -- to make manufacturing jobs more appealing.
One of the hallmarks of the new manufacturing paradigm, the professor emphasized, would be "customer-centered" production -- reacting to the pull of real demand rather than pushing goods into the marketplace in the hope that they will appeal to buyers. The study rightfully concluded that electronic linkages and flexible production systems would dramatically reduce the time required to turn out customized products. Conclusions? Professor Nakane must have been benchmarking future process strategies of Toyota or GM, the highest achiever among U.S. automakers.

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