New approach to making product on-demand.

Discussion Questions:

  1. This article describes a new system for making items using flexible single-worker cells.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of the system compared to using an assembly line?
  2. What if you were a company facing the need to produce one million printers in a relatively short period of time (1 month).  Would it be feasible to use this approach?
  3. Develop a framework that includes volume (high and low), flexibility attributes (such as product options and short term volume changes), and work content (the labor needed to build one unit) that describes when this new single-worker cell approach would most likely be appropriate.


Japanese Firm Uses a Single-Worker System to Make Its Products

With the Help of Digital Tools, Any Roland DG Employee Can Build Any Product

By  Mayumi Negishi

WSJ – June 1, 2014 4:48 p.m. ET

The Japanese manufacturer Roland DG has replaced it’s assembly line with single-person stalls call a D-Shop, inspired by Japanese noodle stands. The D-Shop can produce a wider variety of products in lower quantities than an assembly line.

HAMAMATSU, Japan—At Japanese manufacturer Roland DG Corp., assembling thousands of parts into wide-format printers is as easy as coloring by numbers.

That’s because Roland DG, a small company with about $300 million in annual sales and 966 employees, makes everything from billboard printers to machines that shape dental crowns using an advanced production system known as “D-shop.”

Under this method, workers in single-person stalls assemble products from start to finish, guided by a 3-D graphic and using parts delivered automatically from a rotating rack. Every worker is capable of assembling any variation of the company’s 50 or so products.

Noodling Around

The evolution of Roland DG, which is 40%-owned by digital piano maker Roland Corp., started in 1998, when it became one of the first companies in Japan to abandon the assembly line in favor of one-person work stalls modeled after Japanese noodle stands. With orders coming in smaller and smaller lots, Roland DG decided it needed a manufacturing system in which a single worker could build any one of its diverse products.

Since then, Roland DG has been experimenting with increasingly high-tech aids and instruction manuals to make that happen.

On a recent day in Roland DG’s factory in Hamamatsu, a city in central Japan, one employee was assembling from scratch an industrial printer that ultimately would be more than twice her size and weigh almost 900 pounds. Another worker who had just joined the company’s fleet of part-timers was making a prototype milling machine. Yet another was assembling the dental-crown milling machine.

Anyone, Anywhere

A computer monitor displays step-by-step instructions along with 3-D drawings: “Turn Screw A in these eight locations” or “Secure Part B using Bracket C.” At the same time, the rotating parts rack turns to show which of the dozens of parts to use. Meanwhile, a digital screwdriver keeps track of how many times screws are turned and how tightly. Until the correct screws are turned the correct number of times, the instructions on the computer screen don’t advance to the next step.

Workers are rarely confused, but when they are, there’s a button to press that will bring the floor manager running to help.

A Roland worker making an industrial printer follows prompts on the computer (1), pulling pieces from the rotating parts rack (2) and using digital screwdrivers (3) that track number of turns and torque. Roland

The system is so simple that nearly anyone can assemble products anywhere, company managers say. When Roland DG is flooded with orders, it sends out for part-time workers. After a two-day training session in which the workers practice connecting wires and screwing screws, the teams start assembling printer parts or small printers and cutters. “We can move people instantly to make products that are in demand. There’s a great deal of flexibility,” says Masaki Hanajima, general manager of production manufacturing.

Veterans, meanwhile, are able to assemble two machines simultaneously, or run one finished product through tests while assembling the next. “Our goal is to double productivity,” Mr. Hanajima said, adding that productivity has risen 60% since the end of 2010 at the company’s factories in Japan.

Pat on the Back

Roland DG says its use of digital tools has reduced defects and helped it keep workers motivated in a market crowded with competitors. It also has helped maintain quality in Roland DG’s factory in Thailand, the company’s first outside of Japan.

The computer even gives workers a pat on the back at the end of the day, with the message, “Otsukaresama deshita.” Loosely translated, that means: “You must be tired, and we thank you.”

Ms. Negishi is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Tokyo. She can be reached at

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