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Engaging Employees Is Key to Continuous Improvement in Your Ball and Roller Bearing Manufacturing Operation

December 30, 2016 / , , , , , ,


There is no question continuous improvement is critical to succeeding in today’s market. Case in point: two of the three industrial metal-cutting companies featured here in a case study on top performers listed continuous improvement as an imperative operational strategy and best practice that sets their operations above the rest.

It’s also widely accepted that continuous improvement efforts require “buy-in” from the top-down to truly be successful. This isn’t always an easy task. Articles like this one from IndustryWeek discuss the challenges improvement teams face in getting upper management on board. Perhaps the larger challenge, however, is getting operators and other employees committed to improvement efforts. While upper management support is needed to secure resources, employees are the ones carrying out the efforts, making them absolutely critical to success.

The key, one expert states, is to intentionally engage employees. “For any effort directed towards continuous improvement or innovation to succeed, your employees must feel that their suggestions…are genuinely wanted and in fact encouraged,” Chris Ruisi, leadership expert, writes here in a blog published by the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME). “They must willingly take ownership in the future of their organization—continuous improvement is everyone’s responsibility.”

To facilitate this, Ruisi offers the following strategies:

If your ball and roller bearing operation is dedicated to continuous improvement, it may be worthwhile to consider some of Ruisi’s suggestions. In addition to helping continuous improvement efforts stick, taking the time to engage employees often builds new levels of trust among employees and management—trust that can provide invaluable benefits like improved morale and employee loyalty.

Does your current continuous improvement plan actively engage employees?

Is Your Forging Operation Ready for Next Generation Lean?

December 25, 2016 / , , , , , , ,


Lean manufacturing is nothing new. Principles based on continuous improvement, streamlining production, and machine efficiency have long changed the way manufacturers operate. Industry leaders like Jorgensen Forge have been using lean manufacturing tools like 5S and Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) for years to lower costs, improve responsiveness, and increase efficiency.

However, as stated in the eBook, Five Performance-Boosting Best Practices for Your Industrial Metal-Cutting Organization, lean manufacturing is evolving. “Companies that ‘got lean’ years ago are focusing on continuous improvement, and a growing number of high-mix, low-volume operations are tweaking traditional methods to fit their specific situation,” the eBook states.

A recent article series published by IndustryWeek takes this idea further, arguing that lean manufacturing should be evolving. “I am convinced that for Lean to remain relevant as a strategy for improving manufacturing effectiveness it needs to evolve to the point where expert practitioners are NOT needed for most typical Lean transformations,” consultant Paul Ericksen states here in the first article of the series. “Lean shouldn’t be a mystery or black art that is only successfully conducted by an elite group of practitioners. For this to happen, additional Lean concepts, strategies, metrics, processes, and tools need to be developed.”

Specifically, Ericksen argues that the lean evolution needs to go beyond simple “tweaks” and instead, should change its current emphasis on waste elimination to one of total business performance (i.e., revenue). He calls this Next Generation Lean.

You can read through the details of Ericksen’s entire theory here by accessing the full seven-part series, but below is a summary of some of his major points, as detailed in the fourth article:

While Ericksen’s theory may or may not make sense for your shop, one key point is worth noting: Your approach to lean manufacturing should be continuously improving and evolving right alongside your operation. If your forging operation has been using lean manufacturing tools for years, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate and reconsider how those tools could better serve your company.

Machine Shops Benefit from Standardized Work Processes

December 20, 2016 / , , , , , , , ,


With a slew of improvement strategies, tools, and technologies available, many managers have lost sight of one of the simplest ways they can optimize the performance of their operations—standardized processes.

In fact, according to the Lean Enterprise Institute, standardized work is one of the most powerful, but least used lean manufacturing tools. “By documenting the current best practice, standardized work forms the baseline for kaizen or continuous improvement,” the organization explains here. “As the standard is improved, the new standard becomes the baseline for further improvements and so on. Improving standardized work is a never-ending process.”

As defined by iSixSigma, standardized work is the most efficient method to produce a product (or perform a service) at a balanced flow to achieve a desired output rate. It breaks down the work into elements, which are sequenced, organized, and repeatedly followed.

There are several benefits shops can gain from standardizing processes. The following are just a few:

Many shops are experiencing these and other benefits of standardized processes. Hard Milling Solutions (HMS), a shop featured here in Modern Machine Shop, standardized its parameters for specific material and cutting tool combinations to manage a highly varied workload with minimal labor. “Our primary goal with this system is to ensure every programmer cuts the same way, and gets the same results,” Corey Greenwald, owner of HMS, tells Modern Machine Shop. “We want customer needs to dictate what comes out of this company, not the experience and ability of any one individual.”

Quality Industries (QI), a metal fabricator based in La Vergne, TN, have seen the benefits of standardized work processes across several business areas. “For QI, the move to standardized work created positive scenarios and brought both obvious and underlying benefits to the business,” the fabricator says here on its website. Below are just a few of the ways QI has made standardization work in its operations:

  1. Process Documentation for All Shifts. Historically, many of QI’s productive processes were understood only inside the heads of experienced team members. Creating precise documentation to supplement and replace this “tribal knowledge” helps the fabricator to critically evaluate each manufacturing process to ensure that the most productive sequences and work practices were being documented. In addition, the documentation ensured that a given process could be duplicated on all shifts, and in all work cells and departments.
  2. Reductions in Variability. Once production processes were standardized, variability in product characteristics and quality was greatly reduced. While slight variations still existed due to different machine types, makes or models or tooling types, QI says most of these variations were eliminated because of the achieved consistency of steps and sequences in both material work and downstream activities. This aspect of Standardized Work also delivered tremendous value to the customer, who could rely on consistent finished goods.
  3. Easier Training for New Operators. In any manufacturing environment, bringing new personnel up to speed quickly is a challenge. For QI, standardized work and well-crafted documentation simplified the process. The best process documents not only spelled out steps in clear language, but were also highly visual—with images, charts, drawings and any other helpful illustrations. This training resource provided a continuous reference for the operators and enabled a new communication system for the team.  In the QI shop floor environment, team leaders and others from outside the department were able to determine the level at which each operator is qualified on machines, work cells, and specific operations.

In today’s fast-paced market, process control is essential for shops that want to stay competitive and maintain the high quality customers demand. As stated in the industry brief, “Strategies for Improving Workflow and Eliminating Bottlenecks in Industrial Metal-Cutting,” today’s industrial metal-cutting companies can’t afford costly mistakes that can slow down or stop production. By implementing standardized work processes, many shops are finding they can not only increase productivity, but reduce variable(s?) variable overhead? and improve several other business areas that contribute to the bottom line.

Are your shop’s metal-cutting work processes standardized? 

CEO Survey Reveals Three Key Focus Areas for Industrial Metal-Cutting Companies

December 15, 2016 / , , , , , ,


Industrial manufacturers find themselves competing in an increasing uncertain global market with rising customer expectations and ever-evolving technology, according to the 19th Annual Global CEO Survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

The survey found that only 24% of manufacturing CEOs think global growth will improve over the next 12 months compared to 34% last year, and 23% think it will worsen compared to 18% the prior year. In addition, just 29% of industrial manufacturers are confident of revenue growth in the next 12 months, but when given a three-year span, 46% of manufacturers think they’ll see growth.

Data also suggests that CEOs believe business risk has increased.  According to the survey, 55% of industrial manufacturing CEOs said opportunities have increased during the past three years; however, 61% believe the number of threats has increased.

The PwC survey, which interviewed 205 industrial, manufacturing CEOs in 53 countries, revealed that industrial manufacturing companies are working hard to deliver results year after year, but most understand that the future brings complex challenges. The survey highlights three key focus areas for today’s industrial manufacturing CEOs:

  1. Great expectations and influences. When asked to describe their company’s purpose, the survey found many industrial manufacturing CEOs believed it was centered on filling customer needs or developing first-class products, but others said it was creating a great place to work for employees or achieving social goals. And the influences that impact that purpose and overall strategy are many. As one would expect, customer demands drive final products, but 89% of industrial manufacturers say their customers and clients have an impact on their overall business strategy. Supply chain partners weigh-in, too, with 88% of CEOs planning to address social and environmental impacts of their supply chain. In addition, competitors and peers are also a focus, with a third of CEOs saying they too have a high impact on strategy.
  2. Technology and talent. Executives know Industry 4.0 has arrived and are working to invest in new innovations and train their workforce to capitalize on their investments. The survey found that 90% of industrial manufacturing CEOs plan to make changes in how they use technology to assess and deliver on wider stakeholder expectations. However, with new technology comes new skill requirements, and 76% of respondents say they are concerned about the availability of key skills to grow their business. In response, more than half of CEOs are changing their talent strategy.
  3. Measuring and communicating success. Data showed that 60% of survey respondents said innovation is the number one area where the business could do more to measure the impact and value for stakeholders. Not only are CEOs realizing they need to measure and track business success, but that they also need to communicate that success. The survey found that 68% of CEOs believe R&D and innovation has the potential to drive better engagement with wider stakeholders. Together with customer relationship management, data and analytics take the top three spots—validating smart manufacturing will be a driving force for industry leaders.

Like any industrial manufacturer, PwC’s survey findings can help metal-cutting organizations prepare for another challenging, but transformative, year. As reported in the case study, “Best Practices of High Production Metal-Cutting Companies,” sometimes this means investing in technology. Jett Cutting Service, for example, hit a record-setting 1.1 million cut parts last year and attributes the milestone to smart investments. “I would like to believe that our increase in sales is due to investing in the latest cutting technology, which increases our capacity and production capabilities,” Vice President Mike Baron said. “The newer technology also allows us to offer competitive pricing, which has led to many new customers.”

However, Jett Cutting also understands that it needs to be just as committed to its employees and its customers. The metal-cutting organization also has a strong training program for new employees, an ISO certification program to maintain high quality standards, and additional training for existing employees every time new equipment or software is purchased.

For many metal-cutting companies, 2016 certainly hasn’t been the best of years, but it also hasn’t been the worst. As PwC’s survey confirms, no one is confident about what next year will bring; however, industrial manufacturing leaders aren’t standing idle. Jett Cutting and many others are investing in new technology and training now to prepare for growth in the future.

How is your industrial metal-cutting company investing in the future?

Training Strategies for Today’s Advanced Metal Fabrication Shops

December 10, 2016 / , , , , , , , ,


With all the buzz around connectivity and “smart” factories, it appears as if the manufacturing industry is on the brink of a major shift. Some experts, as we reported here, are calling this Industry 4.0. Even companies in more mature industries like metal fabrication are starting to realize that the demands of today’s customers are not only changing the scope of their work, but the way in which they actually need to do their work.

“Investments in fabricating technology, information systems, and employees will be necessary to stay on top of the growing complexity in the metal fabricating business,” Dan Davis, editor of The Fabricator, says here in a recent editorial. “There’s no other way around it in this world of massive customization in manufacturing.”

While most industry leaders understand the capital and technology investments that may be necessary in the near future, many fail to realize the growing importance of investing in employees and, more specifically, in their training. In today’s lean manufacturing world, metal fabricators and other industry metal-cutting organizations have been conditioned to think in terms of efficiency. This means that secondary activities like employee training are often neglected because they don’t directly contribute to the bottom line.

However, as stated in the brief, “Strategies for Training and Maintaining Talent in Industrial Metal-Cutting Organizations,” research shows that investing in areas like training can provide a host of benefits, including better quality, faster on-time customer delivery, higher revenue per operator, and lower rework costs. “Put simply, companies can’t afford to neglect one of its greatest assets,” the brief states. “By investing resources into the workforce, industrial metal-cutting leaders can better equip themselves for today, as well as the future.”

For shops that want (or need) to beef up their training programs, an article from Foundry magazine provides some insight on what it takes to create an effective training program. According to the article, training programs should include a strong combination of education, engagement, and use: “Training must educate by teaching skills, transferring knowledge, cultivating attitudes and hitting other specific targets. But training that is purely educational doesn’t get results. That is why training must present information in ways that are engaging, interactive and require the learner to think and use the information learned.”

The article goes on to describe a method often used in training known as VAK Attack. VAK is an acronym describing the three ways people learn, as spelled out below:

According to the Foundry article, effective training should include all three of the VAK principles so that employees can better learn and absorb the information presented. The author also suggests hiring an outside trainer to ensure long, impactful results. (You can read the full article here.)

It would be hard for anyone to ignore the advancements of the manufacturing industry; however, too many companies are ignoring the role employees play in today’s increasingly complex production environments. By investing in employees and their training, today’s metal fabricators can prepare for the future and, more importantly, stay competitive today.

How is your fabrication shop investing in employee training?

Create a Culture of Safety to Improve Your Metal Service Center

December 5, 2016 / , , , , , , , ,


Workplace safety is a priority for nearly every manufacturer. However, when industrial metal-cutting organizations need to do more with less to stay competitive, safety priorities can sometimes fall to the wayside—creating severe and costly consequences for workers and businesses alike.

Here’s the good news: According to OSHA’s “Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses,” private industry employers reported 48,000 fewer nonfatal injury and illness cases in 2015 compared to the prior year. Unfortunately, the bad news is that the manufacturing industry had the highest proportion of accidents. As reported by OSHA’s Severe Injury Reporting Program, manufacturing accounted for 57% of all amputations and 26% of all hospitalizations, closely followed by construction, transportation, and warehousing. In addition, of the Top 25 industry groups reporting severe injuries, architectural and structural metal and fabricated metal product manufacturing came in at 17 and 20, respectively.

Of course, workplace injuries come with a cost—not only to  employees’ health but to businesses as well. According to the 2016 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, the most disabling, nonfatal workplace injuries amounted to nearly $62 billion in direct U.S. workers compensation costs. That’s more than a billion dollars a week.

Workplace injuries also create production inefficiencies. As reported in the white paper, Accounting for Operator Inefficiencies in the Metals 2.0 Environment, a cleaner, safer work environment is a more productive, profitable environment. Often times, safety incidents may be rooted in issues such as lack of training, an unorganized shop floor, or poor workflow layout and ergonomics. Neglecting safety issues can lead to reduced output and, ultimately, a lower profit.

One way manufacturers can reduce workplace injuries is to not only make safety a priority, but to create a culture of safety throughout the organization. Tire manufacturer Goodyear, for example, reduced worldwide incident rates by 94% by creating an engaged safety culture in 49 facilities across 22 countries for its 66,000 workers.

In an interview with New Equipment Digest, Michael Porter, Global Environmental Health & Safety Director at Goodyear, said the key to building this type of culture is integration from the top down. “Starting from the highest levels of the company, we tie our EHS strategy down into our company’s overall strategy roadmap,” Porter explained. “Then that cascades down into how we operate on a manufacturing level.” This, he adds, includes everything from workforce organization and equipment care to continuous skills development.

To help create a culture of safety, there are a few strategies metal service centers can consider. Dave Stauffer, director of SBM Management, recently told attendees at the 2016 Safety Leadership Conference the eight building blocks his company has used to create a culture of safety in its 500 operating locations. The following are SBM’s top four strategies (You can read all eight here, as reported by EHS Today.):

  1. Employee observations. Coach and mentor employees to validate that they are doing their jobs safely. Ensure employees are wearing their personal protective equipment (PPE). Observe employees to make sure they are working effectively.
  2. Safety engagement. Establish rapport with employees to help reduce unsafe conditions and at-risk behavior in the workplace. Actively involve all employees in the health and safety of the workplace. Verify employees are engaging in the correct safety behavior.
  3. Employee recognition programs. Reward employees for safe job performance. Reinforce and recognize positive work culture. Celebrate employee successes.
  4. Interactive audits. Supervisors and managers should complete the observations daily and document them. Engage in conversation about safety and assure each employee has the skills, knowledge and training to perform their job safely.

The Metal Service Center Institute also recognizes the importance of safety and recently partnered with the National Safety Council (NSC) to release new safety resources optimized for the metal industry. The new tools include:

While there is no magic formula for creating a “zero-incident” service center, industry leaders are taking steps to ensure their operations are safe. Creating a culture of safety can help identify and eliminate process bottlenecks, improve production, avoid costly injury implications, and most importantly, keep operators and workers safe.

What safety programs do you have in place at your metal service center? Do you consider your center to have a culture of safety?

Should Industrial Metal-Cutting Companies Still Think Long-Term?

December 1, 2016 / , , , , , , ,


Over the last few years, uncertainty has plagued the manufacturing industry. Currency fluctuations, material costs, customer demands, labor shortages, and political issues are just a few of the factors feeding into an overwhelming feeling of doubt and apprehension among manufacturers.

Instead of fearing change, most companies have come to expect it. This has led many industry leaders to focus their efforts on becoming more “agile” so they can quickly respond to changing customer demands. As explained here in a blog post,  “agile organizations operate on a ‘sense and respond’ mode rather than the ‘predict and control’ mode.”

An agile company is able to take advantage of short windows of opportunity and adapt to fast changes in customer demand. According to a previously published blog, this tactic can be especially attractive for industrial metal-cutting companies that are trying to gain an advantage over offshore competitors.

However, the question is whether this renewed focus on agility should come at the cost of long-term planning. While short-term goals and gains are important, is it really wise for today’s manufacturers to ditch long-term strategic planning because the future looks uncertain? Does it really pay to be shortsighted?

An article from Forbes suggests that the answer to that question is no. According to the article, one of the top-five questions managers should ask during a strategic planning session is where they want to be in the next three years. “While some might balk at long term plans, they help people to frame a future vision,” the article states. “When teams don’t articulate long-range goals, they get trapped into incrementalism. Each year a little more growth is expected, a few changes are made and revenue and profit targets are increased. The result is a business that probably inches forward.”

According to an editorial from IndustryWeek, there are also risks associated with companies that are fixated on the short term. In fact, the article asserts that short-term goals can often lead to long-term problems. “I am a firm believer in capitalism but capitalism cannot thrive if we remain focused on short-term profits at the expense of long-term sustainability,” the article author states.

From an operational standpoint, this theory holds some weight, as short-term decisions can have long-term consequences. The white paper, Tackling the Top Five Operating Challenges of Industrial Metal Cutting, gives two examples:

While there is no question that today’s companies need to be able to adapt to change, long-term thinking and planning are still an important part of business success. An article from Harvard Business Review puts it this way:

“Don’t just say that the future is uncertain, and that you will act when it gets here. It is the responsibility of a forward-looking leader to share a point of view about the role the company might play in specific scenarios. Communicate how customers are changing, and how your organization can address those needs in the future.”

What is your company’s long-term point of view?

Ball and Roller Bearing Manufacturers Focus on Sustainability as Strategy

November 30, 2016 / , , , , , , , ,


In today’s challenging market, any edge you can carve out against the competition is beneficial. While traditional improvement strategies such as lean manufacturing, ongoing training, and preventative maintenance can help improve your operational success, top performers are looking beyond long-established methods to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

According to the brief, “Resource Allocation Strategies for Leading Industrial Metal-Cutting Organizations,” industry leaders understand the importance of thinking outside the box. “In the spirit of continuous improvement, best-in-class managers need to explore all of the ways they can save their operation time and money,” the brief states.

Enter sustainability—the latest initiative manufacturers are using to reduce costs and gain a competitive advantage. Whether implementing strategic energy plans or adopting more environmentally friendly processes, today’s industrial manufacturers are finding that “going green” can provide bottom-line savings.

For example, according to The U.S. Green Building Council report, LEED in Motion: Industrial Facilities, more than 1,755 industrial facilities have received a voluntary green building certification system called LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. As stated here in a blog from Frost & Sullivan, experts believe that the operational efficiencies gained by following LEED building principles are real and measurable.

Take Fiat Chrysler’s Trenton South Engine plant as an example. The Michigan-based facility was the world’s first engine plant to achieve a Gold LEED rating, which has helped cut the plant’s annual CO2 emissions by 12,000 metric tons, reduced energy consumption by 39%, and saved about $1.6 million a year.

Ball and roller bearing manufacturers are following suit. For the last 17 years, industry leader SKF has been listed as one of the most sustainable companies by the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index (DJSI). “Our long-running inclusion in the DJSI is something that we are all very proud of within SKF,” stated Rob Jenkinson, director of corporate sustainability at SKF. “Sustainability issues for businesses have evolved during this period, with an ever increasing focus on reducing negative environmental impacts and doing more for society as a whole. We maintain our focus on understanding these issues and the role we can play to help address them—now, and in the future.”

New Hampshire Ball Bearings, Inc. (NHBB) is also focused on sustainability as a strategy and has a formal Energy Management Plan in place. “Energy management is at the core of our strategy to achieve sustainability because it is so vital to our long term health,” the company says on its website. “Rapid economic growth, especially in the developing world, is expected to increase global energy consumption 40% by 2035. The expected increase in energy costs and the potential for supply disruptions compels us to identify and implement aggressive energy efficiency improvements.”

Instead of embracing sustainability as something that’s just “good to do,” more and more manufacturers are realizing that there are practical short-term and long-term financial benefits to implementing environmentally conscious improvements, according to a blog from the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). The industry group lists five key business advantages to adopting sustainable practices. The following are the top three: (You can read the full list here.)

  1. Reduce Energy-Related Costs. Energy and water costs are a prime concern for manufacturers. Focusing on improvements can reduce these expenses, typically on an annual basis. In addition, switching to energy-efficient lighting and adjusting lighting levels in accordance with your production schedule will reduce your long-term electrical costs. Regular equipment inspections can also prove beneficial.
  2. Attract New Customers and Increase Sales. Green and sustainable practices can make your company more marketable. Consumers are more conscious of the environment, and making improvements will strengthen your reputation. Whether you’re an OEM or a supplier, highlighting your initiatives to the public will help you attract a whole new base of customers, resulting in increased sales.
  3. Tax Incentives. There are a variety of tax credits and rebates on both the federal and state level for manufacturers who proactively implement more sustainable improvements. There may be incentives available to your business. Check out the U.S. Department of Energy’s website and the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

Of course, the bigger picture benefit of sustainability is its positive impact on the environment. However, as Fiat, SKF, NHBB, and many other industrial manufacturers are discovering, developing and integrating a detailed sustainability vision into your long-term strategic plan can have real, measurable business advantages that contribute to the bottom line.

Enhancing Customer Service In Your Metal Forge

November 25, 2016 / , , , , , , , , ,


There is no question that customer expectations are changing. Companies like Amazon have raised the bar on what customers should expect from a service provider, whether that means Sunday deliveries or using the latest technology to improve the purchasing experience.

Not surprisingly, the so-called “Amazon effect” has found its way into industrial manufacturing. Supply chain consultant Lisa Anderson says she has seen this first hand with all of her manufacturing and distribution clients. On-time deliveries, she says, are no longer enough. Today’s customers are looking for suppliers that can offer faster lead times and value-added services that will benefit their bottom line.

While same-day delivery may not yet be feasible, industry leaders are finding several ways to enhance customer service. According to the brief, “Strategies for Improving Customer Service and On-Time Delivery in Industrial Metal Cutting,” the following are just a few of the strategies industrial metal-cutting organizations are using to better meet the demands of their customers:

Many forges and other industrial metal-cutting companies are also diversifying their services to better serve new and existing customers. In fact, Ampco-Pittsburgh Corporation has built diversification into its corporate strategy. Earlier this month, the Carnegie, PA-based forging operation announced the acquisition of ASW Steel, Inc., a steel producer based in Welland, Ontario, Canada.Commenting on the acquisition, John Stanik, Ampco-Pittsburgh’s CEO, said:

“This acquisition is a very important element in Ampco-Pittsburgh’s strategic diversification plan. ASW’s proven broad expertise in flexible steel refining methods will provide us with the capabilities to manufacture the additional chemistries needed to expand our reach in the open-die forging market. The transaction also enhances our ability to grow in markets in which we currently participate and to add new markets for customers in the oil and gas, power generation, aerospace, transportation, and construction industries.”

What does it take to keep your customers satisfied and, more importantly, gain their loyalty? 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. How you “amp up” your customer service game will largely depend on what you already have in place, but the above strategies are just a few ideas to get you started.

What is one thing you could do to improve customer service in your forging operation?

Keep Your Machine Shop Competitive with Value Steam Mapping

November 20, 2016 / , , , , , , , , ,


Research continues to show that leading industrial metal-cutting companies are focused on continuous improvement. For example, according to the latest Top Shop benchmarking survey from Modern Machine Shop magazine, “top shops” (defined as the top 20 percent of the 350 shops that were surveyed) are more likely to apply lean-manufacturing methodologies than other shops. They are also more likely to have cultures of continuous improvement. Specifically, the survey revealed that 62 percent of top shops have adopted formal continuous improvement programs compared to only 46 percent of other shops.

The survey also found that shops are implementing a variety of improvement tools to stay competitive. One tool in particular that is widely used is value-stream mapping (VSM). In fact, the survey found that almost 40 percent of top shops are using this lean methodology compared to only 20 percent of other shops.

As explained in the eBook, Five Performance-Boosting Best Practices for your Industrial Metal-Cutting Organization, VSM is a “paper and pencil” tool that helps managers visualize and understand the flow of material and information as a product makes its way through the value stream. The map is a representation of the flow of materials from supplier to customer through your organization, as well as the flow of information that support processes as well. According to iSixSigma, this can be especially helpful when working to reduce cycle time because managers gain insight into both the decision-making and the process flows.

Although it is easy to become overwhelmed by the terminology, an archived article from Ryder outlines VSM in five simple steps:

  1. Identify product. Determine what product or product groups you will follow. Focus on one product at a time and start with the highest volumes.
  2. Identify Current Flow. Once you’ve defined the scope, the next step is to create a “current state map,” or a visual representation of how the process (or processes) in the warehouse is operating at the present moment. Key data points such as units per month, shipping frequency/schedules, hours of operations (available time), number of shifts worked, or any pertinent information around customer demand should be gathered before beginning the current state.
  3. Observe. Get on the floor and walk the entire process through step-by-step. Take notes and compile data such as inventory, cycle times, and number of operators.
  4. Make the map. Literally map out the process you just witnessed by drawing it out on a board. Include the data you collected and place inventory numbers under each step in the process. This will identify your bottlenecks.
  5. Create (and implement) a plan. Now that you know what and where your process improvements are, choose one or two to focus and improve on in a set amount of time. Once those are complete, you can prioritize the other bottlenecks to improve lead times.

One of the biggest misconceptions about VSM is that it is only applicable to high-volume shops. Like many other lean tools, VSM can usually be adapted to fit high-mix, low-volume machine shops. In an interview with Fabtech, Mike Osterling, a senior consultant with Osterling Consulting, Inc., explains:

“Let’s begin by pointing out that the front office processes (order taking and management) for low-volume, high-mix production processes are much more complex than the front office processes for high-volume low-mix environments – thereby meaning those value streams are in much greater need of VSM alignment!  So we need to start those VSMs at the receipt of order (or at receipt of a request for quote), and we need to include leaders from those areas in the actual VSM activity.  In some cases we can identify VS product families if there are products that are different, but they go through common production processes. In those situations, there may be opportunities to create areas of flow (or mini-flow).” (You can read the rest of the interview here.)

In an industry driven on speed and schedules, taking a few days to complete VSM or other improvement exercises may seem like wasted time. However, managers need to consider the price of not taking the time to focus on continuous improvement. Investing in tools like VSM can help your shop operate more efficiently, reduce lead time, improve customer service, and as research suggests, help you keep up with your competitors.

If you want to learn more about value stream mapping, iSixSigma provides a wealth of information available here, and the Lean Manufacturing institute offers educational classes and webinars here.

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