Star Rapid embraces Industry 4.0 with expanding leadership
As manufacturing finds its way through the 21st century, there’s a groundswell change emerging. Organizations are jockeying for competitive position as they endeavor to describe this phenomenon. Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution, and the industrial internet of things (IIoT) are a few terms being tried on for size. Although the current transition is enabled by technology, there is a timeless underlying impetus: productivity.
The first industrial revolution involved physically mechanized production—machines powered by water, steam, or internal combustion engines. The second used electric power to create mass production. The third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a fourth industrial revolution is building, characterized by a fusion of technologies enabling real-time data to be collated, analyzed, and actionized right in the production environment.
Early industrial revolution mainly focused on increased output. For a while, those brute-force methods were advantages, and productivity flourished. But as improved transportation and communication shrunk our world, global competition revealed the bloated underbelly of inefficient mass-production methods.
The development and adoption of lean manufacturing methods have been a matter of natural selection in the business world. Those companies that don’t embrace lean, struggle and die. Those that do have a fighting chance at prosperity.
The emerging smart factory is the cutting edge of lean manufacturing.
The mother of all transformation
The Guangdong province in China is a hotbed of manufacturing business. Within the province is the Zhongshan Torch Development zone. It is there that Gordon Styles founded Star Rapid, a “one-stop shop for your prototyping and low-volume manufacturing needs.” Star Rapid also specializes in CNC machining and plastic injection molding.
After Styles established an office in 2005 in Zhongshan and built a high-tech factory in the Zhongshan Torch Development zone in 2009, his company, Star Rapid, is delivering that experience to clients across the globe.
In 2017, Star realized a staggering increase of nearly 40 percent. This momentum continued into the first half of 2018, with company revenue increasing approximately 10 percent year over year since its inception in 2009. But Styles is ambitious as ever, looking toward IoT and intelligent manufacturing to transform Star Rapid into a smart factory icon. Like any savvy leader, Styles recruited the talent necessary to make that happen. In this case, he tapped David Hunter, a 15-year veteran of manufacturing in China and former VP of operations at Multek, to take on the mantle of CEO.
Leading the revolution
“We’re excited about intelligent manufacturing because we truly believe that most manufacturing companies that don’t get involved in it are going to be too expensive, and their costs are going to be way too high to be competitive and sustainable,” says Hunter.
Interestingly, Hunter’s view on Industry 4.0 doesn’t begin with technology, but with customer experience.
“I think you have to start really with, ‘Why did Gordon want somebody to come in as CEO?’ says Hunter. “The growth that Star Rapid had last year was kind of up with the 40 percent range this year will be 10 to 15 percent. We’re really looking at kind of 50–60 percent year-on-year growth through 2019 to 2021. So what Gordon was looking for was how to make this business scalable. And from a lean manufacturing perspective, it’s actually not that difficult, but we also wanted to make ourselves more accessible to our international customers. So, we started off with our customer-facing processes. We went through the full value-stream mapping of the processes to determine how we can refine those processes to make them quicker and smarter so it’s easier for us to process RFQs, process orders, and manage our quality processes and data.”
Hunter obviously shares Gordon’s enthusiasm for customer-centricity. He is also very focused on lean manufacturing processes.
“I’m a great believer that the best way to make a business scalable, and to take it from a startup mode into a really agile business, is to make sure that you have very robust processes in place, but also very simple processes,” says Hunter. “Hence, the value stream mapping that we’ve been going through really since the day that I joined.”
Hunter believes basic lean philosophy is a critical foundation needed to take advantage of the technology of Industry 4.0.
“When I look at the Seven Wastes, and I look at the layout of our factory—which is really good, by the way—I’m looking for ways to reduce our motion and intra-facility transportation by 50 percent,” explains Hunter. “How can we lay out the equipment to make sure that the materials flow is much more refined so that if we’re able to produce a quantity of one, we are able to produce a quantity of 10,000 just as easily?
“That’s really where the lean mentality is coming into play here, that kind of took us down into what are we doing with Industry 4.0,” says Hunter. “Because I truly believe that companies implementing and deploying intelligent manufacturing are going to have huge competitive advantage.”
Ushering in the smart factory
“Star Rapid will be the showcase for smart manufacturing in the Zhongshan area,” Hunter predicts.
Having spent several years implementing intelligent manufacturing initiatives with Multek, Hunter has the experience to help Star Rapid with its own transformation. The first phase of the plan is threefold.
“We’re taking a three-pronged approach to the first phase of implementation,” says Hunter. “First, connect all our equipment digitally so that we’re able to understand the performance of every piece equipment—what jobs it’s running, and how the machine is performing. It helps us both from a quality perspective and from the perspective of maintenance, etc.”
“The next stage becomes collating real-time data so that we’re able to run the business based on the data, number one, but then have much more empowerment for the guys on the shop floor. And I truly believe that the guys on the floor, the engineering teams and what have you, are the people that make or break a business, doesn’t matter where you are. So, giving them the empowerment and giving them the data to be able to make decisions without having to refer to management all the time is a key thing.
“The next issue is low-level automation. So, bringing in automation that eliminates nonvalue-add, but not being too automated that you lose flexibility. I think it’s the mistake that many companies make. They go full-fledged automation, only to discover they really don’t have the flexibility that made them successful in the first place. Finding that right balance between the automation that eliminates nonvalue-adding, but not over-automating, is a key thing for a company like Star.”
As if these plans aren’t enough, Star Rapid leadership looks toward even more leading-edge tech to improve business.
“We’ve already started looking at how we can use augmented reality (AR) for training, how we can use AR for maintenance and development, and implementation of standard operating procedures (SOP),” says Hunter. “So, rather than people having documents everywhere, the information is in their glasses, it’s on their iPads, and it’s fed straight into the service systems. The next part, in terms of phase 2, is machine learning. We’re looking at camera systems that we can train to identify defects and feed the information back into the machines.”
In all of this, Hunter keeps his eye on customer experience.
“Linking all the data we have, and giving customers access to their purchase orders, their products, their NPI, so that they can manage it remotely also, is a huge benefit,” says Hunter. “If our clients can link directly into our system and understand every point of the process concerning their product—and that’s something we’re looking forward to rolling out within the next 12 to 18 months—it gives customers that direct access that they are looking for.
“I’m a simple believer that the easier you make it for your customers to do business with you—especially for customers in Europe and the U.S.—you take away that kind of potential mental obstacle of doing business in China.”
Apparently, the philosophy of Star Rapid’s transformation also leans heavily on its employees.
“One of the secrets of success is to not send changes down from senior management as an edict,” explains Hunter. “The simplest way is to ask the engineers and the line leaders what information makes their job easier. That leads to a different way of managing the business. The objective of Star is not to have lots of operators, but to have a team of world-class engineers. And that’s really exciting.”
Make no mistake, the Star Rapid leadership team is fully committed to Industry 4.0 and creating its own expression of a true smart factory.
“We’re fortunate to be working with local stakeholders in Zhongshan, and Gordon and I have made a very brave commitment that we want Star to be, and Star will be, the showcase for smart manufacturing in the Zhongshan area, and then hopefully across wider Guangdong as we go through this process,” says Hunter. “We’re getting lots of feedback and support in terms of having access to other companies that are doing certain things in a different way than us, and that’s really helping us with the focus to implement smart manufacturing. Not only is it a benefit to our customers, we see it as being absolutely for the benefit of the community and the rest of our stakeholders.”