Lean, Green, and Modular

This article was originally posted in the Lean Green Institute website by Kelly Singer.

Traditional vehicle manufacturers have typically developed and produced new models every year to replace old, phased out models.  Perhaps a savvy sales strategy at one point, this practice not only results in a waste of valuable materials from discontinued models and parts, but a sloth rate of innovation.  Traditional manufactures are getting left in the dust by other companies who have learned to eliminate the need for new releases altogether and multiply their rate of continuous improvement.

One example of such company, is Scania, a lean Scandinavian company with reputation for producing high quality heavy trucks and engines.  In fact, their product strategy isn’t just unusual for the automotive industry, but for manufacturing in general.  For decades, Scania has been designing a heavy truck that meets their customer’s demands and standards.  But, instead of “batching” improvements together in yearly model upgrades, they’ve continually updated the product through a unique modularization approach.  No discontinued models, no outdated parts, just a constantly evolving truck.

In the book, “Lean Product and Process Development” by A Ward and D Sobek, the strategy of Scania is explained in detail.  The goal is to minimize the number of required vehicle components while maximizing variants.   In true Lean spirit, they are able to deliver a customized product and service to meet each customer’s specifications while continuously decreasing production costs.

Toyota is also adapting operations to a modular approach.  The Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA)  is an extension of the Toyota Production System.   Toyota has specifically called out the environmental benefits that this “TPS 2.0” production provides and asserts TNGA is a key tactic toward their sustainability goals.

As an example, a platform is the basic core around which the rest of a car is built. Globally, Toyota currently uses more than 100 uniquely modified platforms and sub-platforms, and 800 powertrains, including engines modified to fit those different platforms. But, with TNGA, just five layouts will be needed for the whole range, from compact sports cars to SUVs. The size and position of other key components will be standardised, too.

Like the Scania Truck, one TNGA-built cars will be able to use many uniform parts fewer components will need to be designed, produced and shipped. The cars will also need 20 per cent less manpower to build.   

Modular products and processes are exciting, and perhaps integral, for lean and green companies because:

  1. Parts can be changed out and updated without having to discontinue an entire model and inventory (and the energy and materials that went into making the wasted inventory).
  2. The product can be disassembled and recycled with ease, preventing technical materials and metals from being downcycled into “metal soup”, and preventing the need for additional raw materials to be extracted and harmful materials manufactured.  
  3. Processes and products can evolve at a rapid rate, incorporating green innovations almost in real time.  This advances our eco-knowledge and supports market growth of green products and processes, decreases our negative impact on the environment at a faster rate, and can even help nourish the environment and ecosystems if designed properly.   
  4. Fewer components and less manpower means lower environmental pollution, a reduction in the overuse of energy, and fewer natural resources extracted and impacted.  

How can modular production work in your company to support rapid green innovations and less environmental impact?