June 28, 2014 / agility, best practices, continuous improvement, customer delivery, customer satisfaction metrics, lean manufacturing, LIT, predictive management, preventative maintenance, productivity, root cause analysis, strategic planning, value-added services
As customers continue to redefine delivery expectations, manufacturers need to have strategies in place to not only meet those changing requirements but, even more so, anticipate them. Getting ahead of customer needs is the key to both retaining and gaining customers in today’s metals industry. As many leading manufacturers are discovering, agility is what sets you apart.
What does it mean to be an agile manufacturer? According to this overview from leanproduction.com, agile manufacturing “places an extremely strong focus on rapid response to the customer—turning speed and agility into a key competitive advantage.” An agile company is able to take advantage of short windows of opportunity and adapt to fast changes in customer demand. This tactic can be especially attractive for industrial metal-cutting companies that are trying to gain an advantage over offshore competitors.
Whether you are a high-production machine shop or a low-mix metal service center, below are a few best practices we gathered to help your industrial metal-cutting organization move from an “on-time” service provider to an agile, customer-focused partner:
- Invest in Smarter, More Predictive Operations Management. Manufacturing agility starts with adopting more predictive operations management approaches. For example, don’t just focus on avoiding downtime; find ways to plan for it. According to a recent benchmark study from the LENOX Institute of Technology, 67% of industrial metal-cutting operations that follow all scheduled and planned maintenance on their machines also report that their job completion rate is trending upward year over year—a meaningful correlation. The implication is that less disruptive, unplanned downtime and more anticipated, planned downtime translates into more jobs being completed on time. By implementing a strategy as simple as adhering to a preventative maintenance schedule, managers can actually anticipate maintenance bottlenecks and turn “interruptive downtime” into “predictive downtime.” This not only makes it easier to schedule and meet time demands, but it can also help with other operational aspects such as improving cutting performance and extending equipment life—all of which add up to happy customers and lower costs.
- Think (and Plan) Like Your Customers. Being agile goes beyond completing a job on time. It also means taking the extra step to anticipate customer needs and then plan accordingly. Karay Metals, a metal service centered featured here in Modern Metals (MM) magazine, has taken this approach with its mandrel tubing customers. Typically, drawn over mandrel tubing comes in certain standard lengths, usually anywhere from 17 feet to 24 feet, the MM article states. However, Karay discovered that such a wide variance creates guesswork for its customers and as a result, can hamper their productivity. In response, Karay now offers tubing in 20- to 24-in bundles so its customers know exactly what they are getting, adding a convenience that its customers have come to expect and appreciate. As the MM article reports, the service center takes the same approach with inventory, stocking items its customers may need quickly. These strategies may veer away from traditional “lean” approaches, but they also build customer trust and loyalty—benefits that may not be measurable, but could prove to be valuable. This also a great example of how being “lean” isn’t necessarily the same thing as being “agile.”
- Above all else, communicate. Put simply, agile manufacturing requires fast turnaround. However, as this article from thefabricator.com confirms, on-time delivery continues to be a struggle for most industrial metal-cutting companies. Why? According to thefabricator.com article, most manufacturers would blame overproduction, subcontracting, customer mix, and scheduling. And while those issues certainly contribute to late deliveries, the article suggests that they are not the root causes. The real culprit, it states, is often poor communication and documentation. For example, improper labeling may cause an operator to cut the wrong material, or a sales person may fail to explain certain job specifics. Neither of these issues has anything to do with the actual cutting of the part. “Often a part spends more time in the virtual world, being discussed in e-mail after e-mail, than it does on the shop floor,” the article states. As senior editor Tim Heston suggests, this means that today’s managers should be focused on breaking down departmental barriers with strategies like cross-training and procedural documentation, to name a few. This type of communication is especially critical for manufacturers looking to achieve speed and agility. There is simply no time for mistakes.