Shift left for efficiency and sustainability in manufacturing

Imagine driving a very fast car in the dark with only a flashlight to guide your way. Your visibility would be so limited that you could never reach the full potential of that vehicle. You could never see what was further down the road beyond the next few metres.

In the manufacturing context, this is the equivalent of focusing on just one single process at a time. When departments focus on one specific area of the value chain, they can’t see the big picture. Without this wider visibility, they can never hope to achieve their full potential.

Making the right decisions is no longer enough. In the fiercely competitive world of design and engineering, there is a strong advantage to those who make the right decisions fastest. Hexagon’s Advanced Manufacturing Report reveals that 81% of manufacturers recognise the importance of making critical decisions earlier in the process.

The way to do that, to quote an old phrase is to “test early and test often”. The term “shift left” has come to represent an elaboration of that idea.  Put simply, shift left is the effort to detect, identify and resolve any errors or problems as early as possible in a product’s lifecycle.

The opportunity spans everything from design and simulation to material selection. When asked what would most benefit their manufacturing process and product lifecycle, 43% of manufacturers reported seeing opportunity in prioritising final quality and manufacturability earlier in the process and 39% noted the potential of exploring materials performance earlier in the process.

Shift left is a fundamental change in manufacturing philosophy that goes hand in hand with digital transformation. To help you capitalise on the opportunities, this blog asks what it means to shift left in manufacturing and explores the challenges of this new approach.

What is shift left in manufacturing?

First, let’s think about a simple manufacturing lifecycle.

From ideation, we create prototypes which we test and evaluate. Then the chosen design goes into production and those products go through quality control on the assembly level. Later there will be outgoing order inspections. You pass the product to the customer, and then perhaps it goes to the customer’s customer.

Let’s call each stage of the life cycle a step to the right. At some point, we’ve taken so many steps right, that we lose sight of the earlier stages. Wouldn’t it be useful if at each stage we knew a little more about all the other stages?

That is the essence of shift left in manufacturing. The traditional space for metrology equipment is at the end of the production line, but by this time it’s too late to fix a problem.

‘Shift left’ helps us identify issues at an earlier stage, which makes it easier and simpler to fix those issues and save resources.

An error detected during the final product inspection implies that all products manufactured up to that point might need to be revised, wasted or recalled.

If we can detect that error at an earlier stage, it could be fixed before production even begins. When each stage is aware of everything that’s gone before it, there is less risk of repeating mistakes. The outcome is a leaner, more cost-effective and more sustainable production process.

With a shift left approach, we spread testing and control by collaborating over the entire product lifecycle. In research and development that might involve more rigorous testing and customer collaboration. In Quality assurance, it might mean product development and testing happen simultaneously rather than sequentially. It can help us optimise supply chains by encouraging earlier engagement with partner organisations.

The benefits extend to every facet of the value chain. Sales and marketing can use direct customer feedback can inform strategies. Maintenance and support can implement proactive measures preventing downtime. There are even applications in end-of-life product management. In this way you can  build sustainability into the design process, ensuring a more responsible use of resources.

What are the challenges of implementing a shift left approach?

Adopting a shift left approach to manufacturing is not straightforward. Designers can develop this approach as part of their digital transformation, but it presents its own set of challenges. Implementing a shift left approach requires a robust data management system that can store, analyse and make the necessary data available across the value chain. It relies on the ability to predict and identify issues at the earliest stages, a lack of comprehensive and timely data can be a big stumbling block.

Depending on a product’s route to market, actors along the value chain can remain invisible to each other as is the case with contract manufacturers and outsourced production. The shift left approach demands transparency and clear communication. If some stakeholders in the chain are invisible to each other, it could undermine the whole strategy.

How can a shift left strategy help companies achieve their sustainability goals?

The shift left approach could play a significant role in promoting sustainability in the manufacturing industry. By identifying issues earlier in the production lifecycle, businesses improve efficiency and so develop more sustainable production processes.

As part of a shift left strategy, companies can optimise every stage of the value chain, from supplier selection to the delivery of a finished product. Early identification of inefficiencies empowers companies to improve their resource usage. It’s an approach that allows companies to anticipate and therefore manage and control any potential issues.

Going beyond that, considering end-of-life management during a product’s design phase means that we can design products for upgrading or easy dismantling and recycling. By thinking about sustainability from the very beginning, we can minimise environmental impacts at all stages.

A circular future

If we take these ideas to their logical conclusion, we end up with a fascinating vision of a better manufacturing sector. The shift left approach can go beyond a product’s life cycle into recycling and remanufacturing. It doesn’t need to stop at the end consumer. It could lead to a fully circular manufacturing process.

This full-circle approach would require extensive tracking and data management. The benefits would be numerous, but achieving them would entail significant challenges in data management and technology integration.

Perhaps, at some point in the future, manufacturers will have a “remanufacturing line” running alongside their production line. Customers could return end-of-life products to the manufacturer where they could take individual componentsfrom the remanufacturing line, refurbish them and insert them into new products at the very start of their lifecycle.

Such an approach would need vast improvements in technology and data management from our current situation – but it’s a worthwhile goal. It’s a milestone in our vision for a future where data is fully and autonomously leveraged so that business, industry and all of humanity can sustainably thrive.


  • Ingo Linder

    Ingo Lindner (PhD Manufacturing Metrology) is the Senior Director Strategic Intelligence at Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence. He's worked in various roles in Hexagon for nearly 20 years and has lead development of some of the organisation's most successful products.

  • Join our HxGN LIVE Events Worldwide

    Hexagon hosts exciting HxGN LIVE events around the globe! Experience our technology innovations in a location near you.

  • Recent Posts