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Equipment and process efficiency

January 1st, 2010 / By: / Business, Feature, Technical

Finding efficiencies in equipment and processes to improve productivity, quality and delivery.

In the early 20th century, mass production created not only jobs for assembly-line workers, but also for people to increase productivity. They were called ‘efficiency experts.’ These days, the phrase is ‘lean manufacturing.’

“It’s about much more than production,” says Chris Ortiz, a lean consultant based in Bellingham, Wash. “Often people think that lean is about improving productivity—making it faster with fewer people. Yes, we try to increase productivity, but we look at so many things.”

‘So many things’ includes such issues as floor space, inventory level, use of people, how to justify buying equipment and how to train employees.

Equipped and organized

Companies that embrace the lean philosophy reconfigure floor space and acquire equipment that helps them achieve greater throughput. Globe Canvas Products of Yeadon, Pa., purchased a single-ply cutter and four types of heat sealing equipment.

“It reduces the amount of operator handling of material that is required,” says president Kevin Kelly, MFC, IFM, CPP. “In some cases, it has achieved substantial gains in speed—seven, eight, even 10 times faster than other forms of assembling the fabric. In the case of heat sealing, the number of sewing work stations we have continues to drop every year, even though the amount of seaming we do does not drop.”

While some positions at Globe Canvas have been cut through attrition, the company has not laid off employees for the sake of lean manufacturing.

“When you are bringing in productivity enhancement devices, that’s the first thing people worry about. We make it clear that no jobs are going to be lost due to productivity gains,” Kelly says. “All of our heat-sealing equipment today is operated by people who had only run sewing equipment before, so those operators have been able to be retrained and moved into those positions.”

That approach is a constant with successful companies. “There’s no intention in our approach to lean of reducing head count; in fact it’s about growth,” Ortiz says. “Our overall philosophy is improving the business at every level.”

Andrew Morse, president of Ohio Awning & Manufacturing Co. in Cleveland, Ohio, followed the same concept after acquiring a new Miller Weldmaster piece of equipment. “The person I have trained to use the Miller did not have any sewing capability whatsoever, but he has been able to take on two roles: do the cutting and then turn right around and weld.”

Morse speaks literally when he mentions the employee turning around. Ohio Awning reorganized the shop floor to eliminate steps between cutting and seaming.

“It allows me to keep sewers for sewing operation,” Morse says. “In the past, someone would have to get up from their sewing machine and walk 50 feet or so to the seamer.”

Laurel Awning of Apollo, Pa., also bought welding equipment to increase productivity. “The old equipment was breaking down too much,” says vice president Greg Schmieler. “We’re considered a one- to five-off shop, so we don’t get a lot of economies of scale.” But he notes that after studying the workflow, he “reworked the welding floor, replanned sewing tables and combined cutters and sewers next to each other so they can work hand in hand.” He even assembled an awning himself to see how efficient a new setup might be.

Digital automation

Wayne Yonce, chairman of the board for TCT&A Industries of Urbana, Ill., looked for efficiency in a software program called Tent Maker. “We had it specifically written for us by a programmer. It controls the inventory,” he says. Now the company, which runs with 30 PCs, is looking at a plantwide server to allow everyone access to files. “Trying to be as paperless as possible is the critical issue,” Yonce says.

Schmieler also is “looking into a major purchase for a computer system that will bring a lot of efficiencies to customers. I want to step up my customer care capability, with accounting in the background.” The system he foresees would document every action taken by the company and by the customer. “I will be entering into new geographical markets,” Schmieler says. “I will be able to go from Pittsburgh and Philly to Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland …”

Although Kelly plans no equipment acquisitions soon—“We just came out of a two-year process of buying a ton of equipment, including software,” he says—the next purchase will involve digitizing work. “There is a cutting machine we have looked at and is on our wish list, which is a specific device for awnings … one style of awning,” he says. “We would like to automate ever further, and there’s cutting equipment that does it.

“The two-year plan is part of a long-term plan that involves continuous improvements,” Kelly says, noting that purchases were accelerated to take advantage of government stimulus packages and tax law changes for writing off depreciation. “We also chose to take the risk of accelerated 2010 plans in 2009, even though it was a lousy year, thinking that we would likely have more capacity for learning [new equipment] in a slower year,” Kelly says. “That would position us better when demand picks up again.”

Getting a fix on the problem

“Identify the amount of time it takes to do all the processes and use that information to decide who does what at what time,” Ortiz recommends. “There’s a standard process for everything. What happens is when companies don’t have standards in place, there’s variation, and that is a poor use of labor.”

“We have a variety of metrics that we use—things like the number of orders that ship on time, average lead time, employee productivity per day,” Kelly says. “We look at those on a continuous basis.”

Schmieler was inspired by a lean manufacturing seminar at the 2009 IFAI Expo in September. “We are starting to red flag jobs that went over goals to gain more efficiency,” he says.

“Whatever we manufacture, we cost,” Yonce says. “It’s where we find the efficiencies and deficiencies. It’s difficult to get a handle on, because so much of our product is custom. It’s very difficult to try to isolate where you can create efficiencies, but we see deficiencies easier.

“We look at it and say, ‘Wow, that took a long time compared to similar jobs.’ Then we sit down and go to each department that was involved and ask, ‘Why did this particular job take so long?’”

Even after identifying deficiencies, determining what equipment/software is needed and when to buy it may not always be obvious. “Some of it is science and some of it is a leap of faith,” says Kelly, who recommends attending trade shows, researching vendors and making a two-column list showing in one column the costs related to your current process and in the other the costs of operating with new equipment or software. Extend your projections over broad time periods: for example, one, two and five years.

“I try to analyze where the bottleneck is,” Morse says. Before buying an ultrasonic cutter a few years ago, he studied how long it was taking employees to cut material. “Have I measured return on investment? No, other than I know that the people who are using it right now are able to get throughput a lot quicker than before.” As for the Weldmaster equipment he purchased, Morse had a similar machine installed for a week, used one at another shop, visited the manufacturer and questioned other awning shop owners.

Yonce, whose company buys new software at least twice a year, boils the deciding factor down to one word: demand. He considers computers and software to be the area that primarily drives efficiency, as well as a sophisticated, interactive website. “We have calculators on our [web]site. The graphics department benefits because the customer does all the ordering work,” he says. “We are saving in accounting because it goes through their credit card; we don’t have to write an invoice.” The website also includes shipping and receiving documentation.

According to Schmieler, good trucks and installers make the biggest difference in efficiency. “I bought a bender for the weld shop to bend steel,” he says. “I got some efficiency; but being able to get your guys on the road in good, safe equipment and not have them break down really is what counts.” Three-quarters of the 18 vehicles in Laurel Awning’s fleet are 2000 models or newer.

As for work in the shop, Schmieler relies on systems being followed for ordering, measuring and making CAD drawings. “We don’t cut corners to save money,” he says. “That may sometimes cost us efficiencies, but it saves us money in the long run. … It’s cheaper to go slow and do it once than go back and do it two or three times.”

For Kelly, cutting and seaming operations benefit the most from new equipment and processes. “We thought it would take us two years to fully migrate our awning products to an electronic cutting platform, and we were able to do it in one year. That’s a huge impact,” he says.

Looking for a change of pace

“The most important consideration is to be willing to throw away the way you are doing things now. You are bringing in a new machine because that’s the world you want to operate in,” Kelly says. “Look at the plant floor as a blank slate. Put the system where you believe it would have the greatest effect. Then see whether everything else can be moved around. [New equipment] is where you are making the investment; let that drive the equation.”

“If there’s a logical, progressive path for your work to go, then that’s one of the most important considerations. I use the consideration of who my employees are and how this will impact their jobs,” Morse says.

As Yonce sees it, production flow starts when supplies come in on a pallet. “Bring them to where you are cutting material,” he suggests. Then follow the process to see if you need to rearrange machines and tools. “Put sewing machines on rollers to roll to different areas. Put [work] cubicles together in different formations. You have got to have flexibility on your production floor.”

Ortiz promotes the five-foot rule: “You want to get things five feet from the actual operation—tools and documents and information. Motion of people is the biggest time killer. It contributes to losing focus and safety and [extending] lead times to customers.”

“One of the biggest things that we have tried to do in the last year or so is to eliminate waste,” Morse says. “We had waste of people moving around. We had waste of extra inventory on the shelf. We had waste in the way the shop was set up.” After attending lean manufacturing classes, Morse reorganized the sewing department. “We also tried to standardize where tools were so you didn’t waste time looking for things,” he says.

“You need to almost be forced to look at your operation, because a lot of the operations are ‘This is the way we have always done it, and this table has always served this job and everybody is comfortable with that.’ I think you need a commitment from management that says, ‘We can’t be comfortable anymore.’”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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