Let’s do a thought exercise about the typical manufacturing automation strategy in China. Do they invest in getting automation right, or hope that just having the machinery is enough?
A Chinese factory buys a complex piece of equipment on which several entire production lines depend. They need to choose one of the subsequent options:
- Option 1 – Send 2 of your maintenance technicians to Europe for a 3 months training (along with a translator) so that they understand the ins and outs of the machine and how to maintain it.
- Option 2 – Buy the equipment, get it set up, and hope all goes perfectly.
Which option do you think is most commonly selected?
In our experience, at least 95% of Chinese manufacturers choose option 2.
Save money now and hope for the best.
And that thought process is what causes their manufacturing automation strategy to fail more than 70% of the time. (By “fail”, I mean that expected cost savings are not realized.)
Why 95% of Chinese manufacturers are not ready for high-tech automation
A few months ago I wrote that most Chinese companies are not ready for ‘Industry 4.0’. And I got some heat for that in LinkedIn – presumably from people who deal with some of the best suppliers out there?
For the same reasons, most Chinese manufacturers that want to jump from manual work to fully automated operations are not ready.
There is one reason for that. Maintenance. They lack the systems and the skills to keep complex, high-tech machinery (with many potential points of failure), running as expected and churning out good products.
And it means the equipment will go down too often, will stop production, and will create expensive quality issues. That’s why robots often present challenges more than solutions.
Let’s break it down into 5 shortcomings we see in virtually all Chinese companies we visit:
First, the understanding that maintenance activities follow the “pay it now or pay much more later” rule, as Jeff Gregory put it in an interview on the Gemba Academy podcast.
There is a lack of proactive design of systems. And good maintenance is all about planning and following systems. What we see is stimulus – reaction (it is broken – we try to fix it). But, once the equipment breaks, its lifetime is reduced, and its future reliability also got a hit.
Second, maintenance skills are very limited in China (when car assembly plants and their tier-1 suppliers are excluded.) There is a serious shortage of skilled electrical engineers who are familiar with high-tech automation.
Third, no training is given to operators. The common belief is often that “training time is wasted time, while they could be making product” and “anyway, who knows how long they are going to last.”
However, if they are not trained, how can they recognize the signs that equipment is going to create defects and/or break down?
Fourth, the production manager doesn’t have the discipline to stop a line for, say, one hour when an engineer suggests a bearing or some hydraulic fluid is about to break. ‘What do you mean, stop? What about that urgent order we absolutely have to ship today?’ The problem is, fixing that issue later might necessitate changing more parts and re-doing a setup, and it might take 8 hours…
Fifth, good 5S throughout production areas helps a lot with maintenance. Most people don’t even make that connection, but it is true.
The third S means ‘clean regularly and at the same time inspect to see if there are any abnormality.’ Imagine two machines—one covered with grease and dust, and the other clean and painted in white. On which one will a small oil leakage be noticed earlier?
Now, have you seen one clean furniture factory in China? I haven’t. Doing the basics of 5S means a bit of time away from “making production right now,” and that's often seen as unacceptable.
Have your say...
What about your suppliers? Have they managed to set up and run bleeding-edge technology in their workshops? How did it go?
Have you, or your suppliers, managed to implement a solid manufacturing automation strategy in China? Was this successful?
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