May 28, 2014 / agility, best practices, bottlenecks, continuous improvement, customer delivery, LIT, quality, ROI, strategic planning, value-added services
What does it take to keep your customers satisfied? In today’s demanding market, most industrial metal-cutting companies would say high quality, competitive costs, and on-time delivery. However, those have always been the hallmarks of any good manufacturer, and some might argue that the last few years weeded out any companies that even remotely lagged in these key areas.
So, what does it really take to keep your customers satisfied? Or, as this Inc. article points out, perhaps the better question is whether or not customer satisfaction is what you should be trying to achieve. According to the Inc. author, customer satisfaction is “tepid and minimal”, has “no bearing on future buying decisions,” and can be “safely ignored.”
Instead, manufacturers should be spending their efforts building some level of customer loyalty, the article argues, as well as what the Inc. author calls “product evangelism.” In short, the author maintains that companies need to focus less on simply satisfying customers and, instead, focus more on: 1. bringing value that goes above and beyond, and 2. a strong brand message that is unique and relevant. As the article title suggests, that is how you develop a customer relationship that “trumps all the rest.”
The Inc. author isn’t the only one buying into this mentality. In recent years, many leading companies have endeavored to take their customer service to the next level, creating what consultant Lisa Anderson refers to as the “Amazon Effect.” From no-hassle refunds to 24-hour availability, Anderson believes that manufacturers and distributors have something to learn from the exceptional service standards set by Amazon. “It has become apparent that those businesses that leverage the Amazon Effect will thrive while the rest are left in the dust,” Anderson said in a recent article from Industrial Distribution.
How you “amp up” your customer service game will largely depend on what you already have in place, but the following are a few strategies to get you thinking:
- Revaluate Outsourced Services. Sometimes enhancing customer service may be as simple as bringing an outsourced service in-house. While this strategy may not always be cost-effective, for D&J Technologies, it was worth it in the long run. The machine shop, featured in this white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology, discovered that sending out parts for nickel-plating was causing a bottleneck and making it difficult to guarantee on-time delivery of finished parts. By bringing plating in-house, D&J was able to provide its customers with an additional service, remove a production bottleneck, and speed up the delivery process.
- Engage Customers. As many leading companies are discovering, the voice of the customer can be a valuable tool. According to a recent research report from consulting firm Aberdeen Group: “The customer has become much more than a product delivery channel and instead has morphed into an integral stakeholder with the clout to determine the viability of the organization, and their voice can no longer be taken for granted.” Of course, customer feedback requires some form of measurement, which can mean anything from tracking every call to your service center to having your sales team proactively reach out to customers for input. The goal is to both gather and leverage customer feedback to identify problem areas and reveal new service opportunities.
- Get Savvy. While Twitter hasn’t exactly changed the face of industrial manufacturing, many companies are finding ways to use the digital revolution to gain an edge. For example, Sapa, an aluminum extrusion manufacturer recently featured in a Modern Metals, has added its design manual to Apple’s App Store. According the company, the app provides a new channel to reach customers as well as any other professionals that are eager to learn about aluminum and aluminum profiles. The manual is also available on the company’s website and has more than 4,500 registered users, Modern Metals reports.
- Develop a Story. As the Inc. article states, building a compelling company message can attract customers on an emotional level that goes beyond cost. What is unique about your company and its values? How do your services translate those values? Most importantly, how are you communicating this message to your customers? This article from Fabricating & Metalworking provides more than 20 tools to help you build your organization’s brand story.
May 25, 2014 / benchmarking, best practices, blade failure, blade selection, continuous improvement, Cost Management, cost per cut, lean manufacturing, LIT, operator training, preventative maintenance, productivity, quality
As any industrial metal-cutting leader knows, optimization is not only about high-level thinking and strategy. In a manufacturing environment, it often starts with having the right tools for the job.
In band saw cutting, for example, proper blade selection is key to optimizing cut times, cut quality, and blade life. This is especially true when cutting tougher metals like super alloys, and it is even more critical when cutting forged materials, which require aggressive blades that can get underneath any scale buildup. While a low-cost blade may get the job done, the “right” blade should be efficient, effective, and reliable. It should help keep tooling and maintenance costs under control, quality high, and production flowing.
In some cases, optimization may mean upgrading tooling and equipment. For example, one metal-cutting company featured in a white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology (LIT) found that switching from a bi-metal to a carbide-tipped band saw blade provided a substantial improvement in productivity. With the bi-metal blades, the company was having difficulties cutting stainless steel and was missing productivity goals. However, after switching to the carbide-tipped blade, the company reduced cut times by one half and doubled blade life. While the short-term cost of the newer blades was higher, the long-term productivity benefits made it a worthwhile investment.
However, new tooling isn’t always the answer. As this IndustryWeek article explains, a common misconception among managers is that getting “leaner” requires investment. “Lean is not about spending money,” the article states. In fact, the IW author says that “proper lean mindset first looks to avoid spending the capital in the first place.”
While it is fundamentally important to have the right tool for the job, proper utilization of the tool is just as important. In fact, it could help save you money. If you are a forge that cuts and processes metal, here are a few tips and tricks we gathered to help you optimize your cutting operations:
- Use the proper speed rate. Band speed refers to the rate at which the blade cuts across the face of the material being worked. Faster band speeds can lead to faster cutting rates. However, band speed is restricted by the machinability of the material and ultimately heat produced by the cutting action. Too high a band speed or very hard metals produce excessive heat, resulting in reduced blade life. You can determine if you are using the right band speed by evaluating the shape and color of the metal chips. The goal is to achieve chips that are thin, tightly curled and warm to the touch. If the chips have changed from silver to golden brown, you are forcing the cut and generating too much heat. Blue chips indicate extreme heat, which will shorten blade life.
- Use the proper feed rate. Feed refers to the depth of penetration of the tooth into the material being cut. For cost effective cutting, you want to remove as much material as possible as quickly as possible by using as high a feed rate/pressure as the machine can handle. However, feed will be limited by the machinability of the material being cut and blade life expectancy. As with the speed rate, you can determine if you are using the feed rate by evaluating the shape and color of the metal chips. Overall, the proper speeds/feeds combination should produce chips that form the shape of “6’s” and “9’s.”
- Remember to lubricate. Lubrication is essential for long blade life and economical cutting. Properly applied to the shear zone, lubricant substantially reduces heat and produces good chip flow up the face of the tooth. Without lubrication, excessive friction can produce heat; high enough to weld the chip to the tooth. This slows down the cutting action, requires more energy to shear the material and can cause tooth chipping or stripping which can destroy the blade. Unfortunately, many operators fail to perform this basic maintenance task because they don’t fully understand how lubrication can affect cut quality and costs. For a great training resource on the importance of metal-cutting fluids, check out this video from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.
- Break in your blades. A new band saw blade has razor sharp tooth tips. In order to withstand the cutting pressures used in band sawing, tooth tips should be honed to form a micro?fine radius. Failure to perform this honing will cause microscopic damage to the tips of the teeth, resulting in reduced blade life. Completing a proper break-in on a new blade will dramatically increase its life. According to LIT’s benchmark study, this is a best practice among industrial metal-cutting companies. According to the study, 45% of organizations surveyed reported they “always” break in blades, 30% said they do it “most of the time,” and 15% said they do it “occasionally.”
For more cutting tips and tricks, you can download the complete white paper, Understanding the Cut: Factors that Affect the Cost of Cutting, here.
May 20, 2014 / benchmarking, best practices, continuous improvement, customer satisfaction metrics, lean manufacturing, LIT, productivity, quality, ROI, strategic planning, value-added services
As the industrial metal-cutting industry becomes more competitive, a growing number of machine shops are looking for ways to differentiate their operations, whether that means offering value-added services or implementing the latest lean techniques.
One best practice that many of today’s leading shops tout is ISO 9001 certification. The standard, described in detail here, is based on a number of quality management principles, including a strong customer focus, the motivation and implication of top management, and continuous improvement. The basic goal of the standard is to help companies provide customers with consistent, good quality products and services, which, in turn, often brings business benefits like improved financial performance.
Metal Cutting Service, a specialty shop based in City of Industry, CA, has reaped the rewards of ISO certification, including improved productivity and quality. The company, featured in a series of LIT case studies, estimates that quality has improved 20 to 30% since it became ISO certified more than 12 years ago.
However, ISO certification isn’t a quick fix nor should it be taken lightly. Like any company-wide initiative, it requires time, money, and strategic planning. Here are a few points to consider before undergoing ISO certification:
- Understand the purpose. If you haven’t done so already, do your own research on the standard. You can download a basic brochure here. As this Quality Digest article states, many companies go into ISO 9001 certification under the incorrect assumption that the standard itself is supposed to be implemented to ensure quality. However, as the QD author states, this just isn’t true. “ISO 9001 was never intended to be used to design or implement quality management for any organization, but merely to assess quality management,” he says. “Sure, management might glean some details about QMS [quality management system] development from analyzing ISO 9001 requirements, but the requirements are not supposed to establish any QMS. A company must first establish real-time standard operating procedures (SOPs), and then look at how they compare to ISO 9001 requirements.” In other words, as the author quips, make sure you don’t put the cart before the horse.
- Reach out to other shops. Finding out why and how other machine shops approached ISO certification can help you determine if certification is worth the time and financial investment, as well as what you should (and shouldn’t) do in the process. As this Modern Machine Shop article suggests, contact some certified shops—particularly ones about the same size as yours—to get a feel for whether ISO certification is right for your operation. If you find a shop that hasn’t found value in certification, try to find two shops that have had a good ROI and then compare their approaches. However, managers need to realize that no two certification processes are going to be the same. The cost and time of ISO 9001 registration and implementation will vary depending on the size and complexity of your organization and on whether you already have some elements of a quality management system in place.
- Consider getting some support. If you decide to follow through with certification, there are several services and consultants that can help. Although third-party support may initially seem cost-prohibitive, don’t completely write it off. You may find it is worth the investment, especially if you are short-staffed. You can find a list of training and other service providers here on ThomasNet.com, and there are also several software programs available that can help you streamline the process. This is also an area where external insight from other shops can be helpful. Did they utilize any support services? If so, what was the most helpful? If not, do they wish they would have in hindsight?
May 15, 2014 / agility, best practices, continuous improvement, Employee Morale, human capital, lean manufacturing, LIT, maintaining talent, strategic planning
One of the foundational principles of lean manufacturing is employee engagement. As we covered here, one way for executives to do this is to literally walk the shop floor and interact with operators. This not only allows management to see firsthand what happens on the floor, it creates a more team-centered approach to decision making and empowers employees. In the best-case scenario, it also births innovation and improves productivity—both of which can improve the bottom line.
Although a growing number of manufacturers have adopted these types of collaborative lean strategies, Evan Rosen, author of The Bounty Effect: 7 Steps to The Culture of Collaboration, argues that most companies still operate within the age-old paradigm of “command and control.” In other words, a few people are paid to think, while the rest of the employees are expected to simply carry out orders. Rosen, however, believes our culture is in the midst of a major shift that will require companies to adopt a more collaborative, “all hands on deck” approach to business.
Based on Rosen’s model, collaboration goes far beyond employee engagement. In a recent column in IndustryWeek (IW), the author provides five ways that manufacturers can adopt a more collaborative structure. These include the following:
- Establish All-Access People Policy
- Design Collaborative Workspaces
- Collaborate with Customers
- Collaborate with Competitors
- Create Mirror Zones
For some great examples of what these strategies might look like in an industrial metal-cutting environment, check out this case study from ThomasNet.com, which describes an industry-wide collaboration, and this LIT white paper on how to create more collaborative supplier relationships.
What are some ways your company has taken a more collaborative approach?
May 10, 2014 / best practices, continuous improvement, Employee Morale, human capital, industry news, LIT, maintaining talent, operator training, quality, root cause analysis, skills gap
There is no question that the skills gap is one of the most pressing issues for industrial metal-cutting companies and, of course, the manufacturing industry at large. According to a recent article from the U.S. News & World Report, it is estimated that more than half a million skilled manufacturing jobs remain unfilled due to the labor skills gap in the U.S., and that number will likely increase as more and more Americans age out of the workforce.
As we covered here, this has prompted industry leaders like GE and industry associations like the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) to take action. Just last week, JPMorgan Chase & Company announced a $5-million commitment to the city of Dallas to help shrink the skills gap within several industries. The move is part of a five-year, $250-million national initiative Chase launched in December to provide job training and fund local research to identify the areas most in need. As this video explains, the banking giant is using real data to identify real needs and then investing in those needs to fill the actual gaps.
While these types of large-scale initiatives might be left to large-scale companies, Chase’s strategy is one that just about any fabricator can apply to their own operations. Like Chase, fabricators that want to make a real difference in their business need to identify the actual gaps within their own company walls. This is especially true if a large number of your workers are headed for retirement. Once you have identified the gaps within your organization, you can determine the skills that are needed and then adjust your training and hiring programs accordingly.
The following are two strategies that can help you determine if (and where) there are skills gaps in your operation:
- Map them out—literally. Marlin Steel, featured in a profile on thefabricator.com, is using a Skills Matrix to ensure that its shop always has someone available to perform the necessary skills. In a Q&A with the trade publication, Marlin Steel President Drew Greenblatt explains that the Skills Matrix is essentially a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that identifies each worker’s skill set. Each skill is awarded a point value and, in essence, ranks workers by their skill level. This helps the shop identify strengths, gaps, and individual opportunities for improvement. It also encourages cross-training. To make it a win-win situation, Greenblatt provides financial compensation every time a worker adds a skill. (You can read the rest of the interview here.)
- Identify problem areas. Another method for identifying skills gaps in your fabrication shop is to evaluate your workers on the job to determine whether or not they are causing avoidable errors or inefficiencies. Here are a few tactics described in a white paper from LIT that can help managers identify problem areas:
- Conduct a time analysis to measure shop floor efficiency. You can read the specifics on how to conduct an analysis here. Once the analysis is performed, managers can review the results to identify inefficient workers, patterns when certain tasks are performed (i.e., cutting different grades of material), and baselines for improvement. Ideally, this is performed without worker knowledge in order to get a more accurate picture of performance.
- Take a close look at inventory levels. Even if an organization is meeting customer orders, high levels of inventory can indicate “hidden” inefficiency and quality issues. Waste and remnants are often the result of operator errors such as incorrect machine settings and improper blade usage—both of which point to a lack of training or knowledge.
- Implement some form of process control. Without a paper trail, it is difficult for managers to find the source of operational issues, including problem operators. By having processes in place to hold operators accountable such as daily checklists, maintenance reports, defect reports, and signatures to hold operators accountable, executives can quickly and easily pinpoint the cause of workflow bottlenecks, increased tooling costs, and other issues that can impact business performance.
As the skills gap is proving, investing in your human capital is just as critical as investing in your technology and equipment. Taking the time to identify strengths and weaknesses within your operations staff—and then encouraging and rewarding improvement—is one way industrial metal-cutting leaders can equip themselves for today, as well as the future.
May 5, 2014 / best practices, continuous improvement, Employee Morale, human capital, lean manufacturing, LIT, productivity, Safety, workflow process
Most manufacturing executives know that developing a lean culture requires top-down support. Everyone—from the CEO and vice president of operations to the maintenance manager and band saw operator—needs to be on board, or it’s just not going to work.
Unfortunately, many companies have discovered that creating a successful lean environment isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, as this blog post explains, there are a lot of ways to do this incorrectly. For instance, leadership is not “committed” simply because they have enthusiastically funded a lean program. They need to actually be involved. At the same time, key improvement decisions can’t be made in an ivory tower.
Change—effective change—needs to start at the ground level, where the work is happening and where the value is created. This place, defined as “gemba” in lean manufacturing terms, is believed to be the key to unlocking true transformation.
“Gemba,” the Japanese term for “actual place,” has been redefined by lean thinkers as the place where value-creating work actually occurs. In an IndustryWeek blog post, Bill Wilder, director of The Life Cycle Institute, calls gemba the “beating heart” of an organization, which for manufacturers, is rarely found in the marketing department or an executive desk. Instead, it is almost always found on the production floor.
This means that to make any real change, metal service center executives need to literally take a walk—known as the “gemba walk”—to see their operation from the front lines. Getting out of the office and taking a gemba walk, Wilder says, is the best way for leadership to see, firsthand, what works and doesn’t, and many experts believe it should be the first step in any lean transformation.
In theory, this sounds great, but what should a gemba walk look like in practice? Here are a few tips we gathered to help you “walk the talk” and put you on the path toward an effective top-down lean program:
- Have a plan. This SlideShare presentation, “Gemba 101,” states that there are four steps to gemba success: know your purpose, know your gemba, observe your framework, and validate. You can read the slides to get more information, but the takeaway here is that a gemba walk should be structured. It is not the same as Management By Wandering Around (MBWA), which is often casual and unstructured. In contrast, a gemba walk has a specific purpose. Lean expert James Womack says he has 10 questions he asks every time he takes a gemba walk. You can check out those questions here in this essay, along with a great case study.
- Think—and walk—horizontally. According to Womack, value flows horizontally. Unfortunately, organizations are organized vertically. As described in this IndustryWeek article, the key to a successful gemba walk is to select a value stream, gather all the managers from all the vertical functions that touch the value stream, and then walk together. This likely includes CEOs and COOs, customers, suppliers, and value-stream leaders.
- Respect and Engage. As this iSixSigma article states, a gemba walk is not an opportunity to find fault or enforce policy, nor is it a time to solve problems or make changes on the spot. Instead, it should be “a time of observation, input and reflection.” Leadership should go on the walk with an open mind and welcome suggestions from operators and other shop floor employees. A good example of this more team-centric approach is described in the white paper, The Top Five Operating Challenges for Metal Service Centers. As the paper states, one service center continuously asks operators for ideas to make its cutting processes safer and faster and, when appropriate, brings those ideas to fruition. This tactic has not only improved operational efficiency, it has also shown operators that they are a critical aspect of the company’s success.