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Pull Production : The Factories of the Future

Posted on April 9, 2013 in Articles

Traditional manufacturing, which involves big batch production, is often referred to as a “push” system. The “push” approach has individual processes working towards individual process schedules and plans without considering the real-time status and requirements of the production processes. As a result, work-in-progress (WIP) tends to accumulate and often lead to inventory flooding production areas. Other side-effects are finished goods stores bursting with slow-moving inventory or excess stock and the inability for the production facility to cope with a high-mix demand. Then there is the constant frustration of shortages of products and parts needed and excess stock of what is not.

In contrast, a “pull” system works on matching the production rate to demand on the production system ie. what is needed in the next downstream process. This is an effective way to avoid overproduction. The approach is to match the rate of raw material uptake to the rate of consumption, balance up all the process throughput within the value stream to match the order delivery rate, and move the material through the production facility and out the door as fast as possible. The ultimate benefit is just-in-time manufacturing with just sufficient inventory, a short lead-time, flexibility to react to changing customer requirements and getting all this done at a reduced cost. And this is the answer to the high mix demand of today’s customers!

How does a production facility get to that point?  Eliminating the 7 classic operational wastes is the first step towards a “pull” system.

Table 1 : The 7 Classic Operational Waste

·        Overproduction

·        Rework

·        Inventory

·        Overprocessing

·        Motion


·        Waiting

·        Conveyance


Various Lean Manufacturing techniques and tools can be used to eliminate such wastes. Changeover time reduction, error proofing, work standardization, 5S, work engineering methods, cellular manufacturing and flow-based manufacturing are just some of the tools commonly used by organisations to move towards an environment conducive to “pull”.

“Pull” systems utilize a pull mechanism that can be initiated at any point of the value stream and is synchronized with customer demand. In its simplest form, such signalling methods, often referred to as kanban, are made up of cards or lights that initiate the WIP movement through the value stream. Today, there are software programmes that can be triggered by electronic kanbans  to execute procedures such as ordering of raw material and components, scheduling production lots for replenishment purposes, or  simply to move WIP from one production station to another. In high product mix conditions, load levelling (or Heijunka) enable the manufacturer to produce different products in sequence to match customer delivery requirements. The greatest benefit of “pull” production is achieved when this approach is applied across different organisations in that supply chain. 

Achieving pull production takes discipline, effort and commitment. There are many factors that can affect the effectiveness and success of a “pull” system. Process reliability, process yields, process flexibility,  supplier capabilities and production equipment performance are significant contributors to “pull” efforts. Then there are “ideal” conditions for a “pull” system such as level customer demand, quick line conversions, milk runs and nearby suppliers. Until and unless many of these contributing factors are brought under control to create a condition conducive for “pull”,  the full benefit of the “pull” system will not be realised. With the rising cost of material, higher product mix and shorter lead time expectations, can manufacturers afford not to embark on “pull”?


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