Editorial: Putting the Lean On Manufacturing—A Visit to Topcon

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The manufacturing area of Topcon’s US headquarters in Livermore, California was a veritable beehive of activity during my recent visit. Colin Kavanagh, Senior VP for Operations, called attention to the "lean" manufacturing processes that have "eliminated expenditures for resources for any goal other than the creation of value for the end customer" (Wikipedia definition). To achieve this, Topcon cast a critical eye on everything, including how many people assemble a unit and where.

The last time I visited their facility, all of the non-angle turning gear was being assembled there, but with only 5 work stations. Today there are 17 work stations, and all of Topcon’s products distributed world-wide are assembled in Livermore. You can view pictures of my visit on amerisurv’s flickr account.

A vital part of any electronic manufacturing is "burn-in" where the finished unit is subjected to heat and cold for at least 12 hours. Previously, an entire room was dedicated to this. Now, smaller environmental cabinets are sprinkled throughout the area, allowing more throughput. Even the supply chain is lean, with the warehouse providing a just-in-time supply of the various parts. This makes it possible to build one day and ship the next. The result is increased quality and reliability for Topcon’s GNSS, machine control and LiDAR customers.

My next meeting was with Mark Contino, VP of Marketing, who explained how Topcon’s challenge is not only product development, but with a focus on what the technology means to consumers, adoption as well. To address this, at least in the machine control area, Topcon created its Topcon University field site in Livermore 15 years ago. Here, potential customers can actually try the gear on bulldozers, road graders and track hoes. The site has been used not only for testing new technology, but also receiving hands-on feedback from customers, or as Contino says, "Not just testing, but improving."

Speaking about the future, Contino says Topcon sees great potential in cloud computing to enable a completely digital worksite. When I inquired about reliability and privacy, Contino said these are "teething pains," both of which will be worked out. Topcon sees an enterprise-wide approach, one that includes field and office. In the future, every piece of equipment will have a built-in GNSS chip, enabling not only theft protection, but also a way for business owners to determine individual crew whereabouts and productivity. Contino even sees smartphone technology inside the gear, which will allow business owners to manage productivity and integrate data, all in near real-time.

Probably the most exciting part of the day was my meeting with Scott Langbein, senior manager of the Product Management Team. Surveyor to surveyor, we blueskyed about a future that involves Topcon’s Image Station. With its built-in high-rez camera, long range, and remote operation capability, Langbein sees a jobsite where Image Stations are permanently installed like RTK antennas. The IS allows users to measure things in places where they can’t easily go (like railroad rights-of-way). Because it can be remotely controlled, a user could, for example, have it turn on in the middle of the night and scan a selected area for such things as the previous day’s quantity verification or to gather more data while the site equipment is not in the way. A subcontractor could come onsite and rather than setting up his own total station, use the site’s IS. This way, all the data gathered would instantly be transmitted back to the office. Langbein also sees the IS being used as a photo field book.

Takeaways for me included Kavanagh—customer-driven quality and reliability; Contino—cloud-driven productivity management; and Langbein—site-driven field practices that feed Topcon’s overall goals of providing everything its customers need to make money. Contino openly admitted that sales in the U.S. are not where Topcon wants them to be, but the company remains confident about the future. When the economy does come back—and I still firmly believe it will—I sure hope it’s not built on greed and exploiting loopholes. We surveyors depend on things being built, and look forward to the time when we can once again get back to building America.

Marc Cheves is editor of the magazine.

A 203Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE