Building a sustainable manufacturing strategy

It will come as a surprise to many people that the UK is currently the 11th largest manufacturing country in the world, just after India. The manufacturing industry contributes £6.7tr to the global economy and it makes up 11 per cent of UK Gross Value Added (GVA) output. Despite this, recent innovations in electronics, thin battery technology and design engineering have stumped many business leaders. Here Prabhjit Singh, production manager at Accutronics looks at how to build a sustainable manufacturing strategy.

Product development lifecycles (PDLCs) in the battery industry have shrunk rapidly over the last two decades. It used to be normal for OEMs to deliver a new battery every two years but that is just no longer viable. PDLCs are now typically 12 months and sometimes even shorter. This could be attributed to the convergence of consumer and professional devices.

You could call it the Apple expectation or the Samsung effect. It describes the trend over the last few years for multinational consumer electronics giants to move to 12 month cycles, often launching devices in multiple sizes and iterations to gauge consumer adoption.

However, transferring these timescales to the medical market poses a slightly bigger challenge. As many medical practitioners now use their consumer electronics, smartphones, tablets and personal computers in the patient environment, they are beginning to demand the same characteristics from their professional medical devices. Wearables, including fitness bands and smartwatches, are now capable of monitoring patient vitals, especially for long-term patient rehabilitation plans.

Medical devices are typically designed for a ten year PDLC, and because a typical Lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery pack is capable of around 400 charge and discharge cycles before its performance drops, these devices use removable batteries.

However, with the rise of wearable and portable devices there is an increasing trend towards embedded batteries as OEMs can prevent unauthorised repairs, introduce forced upgrades through planned obsolescence and, because batteries can be embedded with less encapsulation, create even thinner devices.

The pressure on medical OEMs to conform to consumer demand has certainly created a dangerous precedent. Since 2013 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recalled over 200 products from active use. Recalls can range from less serious incidents of heart-monitoring phone apps crashing during use, to potentially fatal incidents, where endotracheal tubes can detach during use.

OEMs must be careful of these trends. While it might be ok if your smartphone or tablet loses battery at an inopportune time, it's much more important that your portable ventilator keeps going during surgery.

This customer and OEM push and pull often becomes challenging, especially when it needs to be managed across a wide product portfolio. For instance, at Accutronics when we launch a new range, we will almost immediately begin the process of developing the next one. I don't think this is necessarily all that unusual either but the push from customers can leave OEMs used to the traditional, slower PDLC open to risk.

Our processes reflect a wider change in manufacturing. When I joined Accutronics four years ago, project characteristics such as quality and flexibility were the highest priority for OEMs, but price has now become much more important. Now, when we form supplier partnerships with our customers, we have to provide the same high quality at a more competitive price point.

We have to contend with the fact that high-volume commercial batteries can be price-elastic; if suppliers can't meet price expectations, customers will go elsewhere. This is less true in medical environments, where healthcare customers have a duty of care to ensure product quality and reliability, but across the board it's a fact.

As part of Accutronics' continuous improvement process, we reviewed our manufacturing processes and identified many improvement actions. Having implemented the most immediately important ones over the last two years, we've now developed a manufacturing strategy workbook, which consists of five business targets and 12 business processes.

Our five business targets are to deliver new products on time at a competitive price point, maintaining our rigorous quality, being flexible when it comes to customer requirements and ultimately improving the ease with which customers can do business with us. Each of these targets is broken down further into business processes. We've found that, by using this strategy, we've already been able to make significant efficiency improvements and cost savings and improved our customers' perception of our supplier capability.

I would call on all OEM business leaders to consider a holistic and integrated business strategy, one that is able to adapt to your market and customer needs. In doing so, the best technological innovations can be embraced to build sustainable business growth. It might be the Apple effect, or it might be a combination of factors, but customer demands have risen in the electronics industry - it's essential that we stay ahead of the curve.

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