Machine Shops

Creating a Visual Workplace in Your Machine Shop

October 20, 2015 / , , , , , , , , ,

As manufacturers continue to look for new and creative ways to gain productivity and engage employees, many are adopting a lean manufacturing concept called the visual workplace. The idea is for managers to use visual devices and cues to not only better organize their workspaces, but to help workers better understand their tasks.

Visual management expert and author Gwendolyn Galsworth defines the visual workplace as follows:
“a work environment that is self-ordering, self-explaining, self-regulating and self-improving—where what is supposed to happen, does happen, on time, every time, day or night—because of visual devices.”

However, this means much more than simply hanging up a few posters and signs. Specifically, Galsworth wrote in Quality Digest that a visual workplace should meet the following criteria:

So what does that look like in practice? This will likely vary depending on the culture, layout, and goal of an operation. In fact, this is where managers and operators can get creative. Visual devices can range from a green flag that tells a supervisor that a machine is producing on schedule, to a color-coded chart that prioritizes an operator’s tasks. In general, the goal is to utilize as many visual cues as possible to keep the workplace organized, productive, and safe.

LENOX, for example, recently instituted a Safety Sticker program, which visually displays whether or not its operation has had any safety incidents. Sticker dispensing stations and a safety calendar are located at every entrance to the facility, and every employee is required to put on a green sticker with the number of days “accident free” written on it. When a recordable accident occurs, everyone in the facility changes from a green sticker to a red sticker for a seven-day period. After seven days, everyone reverts back to the green sticker. According to Matt Howell, senior manager, the program has been “a good rallying point for the facility and builds energy around safety.”

Another industrial metal-cutting company, featured here in a white paper, has color-coded its blade stocking process. Each blade is marked with a colored tag, which corresponds to a chart that helps operators easily determine the right blade for the job. Stocking shelves are also color-coded, allowing operators to quickly locate and restock blades. This has improved operator efficiency, reduced the occurrence of operator blade selection errors, and prolonged overall blade life.

A recent column from Modern Machine Shop describes a few other creative visual tactics that have been successfully implemented at machine shops:

Regardless of the methods you choose, the purpose of creating a visual workplace is to improve organization, productivity, safety, and, of course, communication.

What visual devices could you use to improve operations at your machine shop?

Machine Shops

Reducing Metal Scrap and Rework in Your Machine Shop

September 20, 2015 / , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In any manufacturing operation, a small amount of scrap is inevitable. However, reducing material waste should still be a top goal for machine shops that cut and process metal. Like all other forms of waste, scrap can negatively affect profitability, especially if it is generated as a result of an error.

The truth is that any amount of scrap or rework you’re experiencing in your operations provides an opportunity for improvement. Taking the time to reduce scrap often leads to better productivity and higher quality cuts. As this article points out, eliminating scrap and waste also contributes to your company’s environmental efforts, which may be important to some customers.

How can you keep your scrap and rework costs low? While there are several ways to accomplish scrap reduction, below are a few simple strategies any machine shop can implement:


Machine Shops

Using Predictive Maintenance in Your Machine Shop

August 20, 2015 / , , , , , , , , , , ,

With changing customer requirements and an increasingly competitive marketplace, leading manufacturers are finding it pays to be proactive—not reactive—in their strategic approaches. Instead of simply measuring performance, many companies are taking the next step and using measurement to anticipate and prevent future challenges—a concept known as predictive operations management.

This trend has found its way into industrial metal cutting. According the LENOX Institute of Technology’s benchmark study of more than 100 machine shops and other industrial metal-cutting organizations, companies can gain additional productivity and efficiency on the shop floor by “investing in smarter, more predictive and more agile operations management approaches.”

One such approach is predictive maintenance. Not to be confused with preventative maintenance, which uses planned maintenance activities to prevent possible failures, predictive maintenance (also known as condition based maintenance) uses tools to predict failures just before they happen.

Reliable Plant defines predictive maintenance as “the application of condition-based monitoring technologies, statistical process control or equipment performance for the purpose of early detection and elimination of equipment defects that could lead to unplanned downtime or unnecessary expenditures.” By using tools to predict and then correct possible failures, operators can keep machines running while eliminating unnecessary preventative maintenance downtime and reducing reactive maintenance downtime.

Monitoring tools typically include vibration analysis, infrared thermography, motor circuit analysis, sonic and ultrasonic analysis and other technologies that can find defects while the machine is in normal operation. In most cases, condition-based monitoring won’t interfere with production schedules—a huge plus for any manufacturer.

If predictive maintenance is effective, maintenance is only performed on machines before failure is likely to occur. According to, this brings several cost savings, including:

While this can translate into less maintenance downtime compared to preventative maintenance, predictive maintenance also has some drawbacks, including:

According to an article from Life Cycle Engineering, creating an effective predictive maintenance program is a bit more complicated than it appears. The magazine poses four questions managers need to address before implementing a predictive maintenance program:

  1. Can predictive maintenance technologies provide real value to your preventive maintenance program?
  2. What is the most effective predictive technology for your plant?
  3. Can you provide the right training?
  4. Will you actually use the information?

In the end, predictive maintenance may not be an option for every shop or every piece of equipment, but many manufacturers find it worth the investment for machines that have a critical operational function and have failure modes that can be cost-effectively predicted with regular monitoring.

For more information on predictive maintenance, read the full Life Cycle Engineering article here or click here for dates of upcoming training seminars.

Machine Shops

Putting Continuous Improvement to Work in Your Machine Shop

July 20, 2015 / , , , ,

Over the last few years, most manufacturers have touted continuous improvement as a top priority and company goal. Case in point: two of the three industrial metal-cutting companies in our feature on top performers listed continuous improvement as an imperative operational strategy and best practice that sets their shops above the rest.

In theory, the concept of constantly improving a business sounds good. However, the truth is that many managers are still unsure of what continuous improvement looks like in practice. Below is a brief overview of this often over-used, but misunderstood term and how you can actually put it to work in your machine shop.

Defining Continuous Improvement
Continuous improvement is an active plan where employees proactively work together to achieve regular, incremental improvements either in a product, service, or process. Most companies achieve this by either adopting one of the well-known continuous improvement methods or through the combination of two or more tools.

According to ASQ, the most widely used tool for continuous improvement is a four-step quality model—the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle, also known as Deming Cycle or Shewhart Cycle. Other widely used tools include Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, and Total Quality Management.

Choosing the right continuous improvement tool should be based on a company’s resources, staff, and long-term goals. In some cases, companies combine multiple methods to achieve better, longer-term results. For example, as discussed in an earlier blog, many manufacturers have found it beneficial to combine lean manufacturing principles with Six Sigma methods.

Putting It into Practice
Once a company decides on a continuous improvement method, managers need to think about how they are going to put it into practice—a daunting and overwhelming decision. Like any strategic endeavor, the key is to understand that continuous improvement is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. There are models companies can follow, but in the end, the most effective continuous improvement strategy is the one built around your company’s unique culture, resources, and long-term goals.

Plast-O-Matic Valves Inc., for example, has based its continuous improvement strategy on four key elements. According to a feature from Modern Machine Shop, the manufacturer is focused on:

Power tool manufacturer Bosch, on the other hand, has taken what it calls a “Shark Tank approach” to continuous improvement. As reported in this IndustryWeek article, managers are asked to come up with continuous improvement ideas and then pitch them to a panel comprising senior plant leaders and a local lean project coordinator. After asking questions on each idea, the panel decides which pitches to implement and which ones to cut. Bosch says its team typically chooses ideas that can be executed in a 90-day cycle and make the most impact on performance.

Getting on the Right Path
There is no question continuous improvement is critical to succeeding in today’s market, and best-in-class managers are proactively encouraging change at all levels of their organization. However, as the above examples show, continuous improvement needs to be both systematic and strategic to be effective. By using a combination of improvement tools and creativity, today’s machine shops can develop a continuous improvement plan that lines up with their goals and, hopefully, puts them on a path of continuous success.

Machine Shops

Taking a Gemba Walk in Your Machine Shop

June 20, 2015 / , , , ,

As any lean manufacturing expert will attest, improvement initiatives need top-down support to be effective. Everyone—from the CEO and vice president of operations to the floor supervisors and operators—needs to be on board to achieve real, sustainable results.

However, leadership isn’t “committed” simply because they fund a lean program or give the okay to implement a lean tool; 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 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.

To make any real change, managers 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 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 a recent article in Quality Progress, lean expert Michael Bremer stresses the effectiveness of  gemba walks for leadership in  driving alignment within an operation. Bremer explains:

“Metrics are important, but they are limited to things that are measureable. Much of what is important is not measureable—at least in the immediate moment—and is actually hidden beneath the surface. When you walk the gemba, you have an opportunity to see below the surface with your own eyes and more deeply understand what is really happening inside your organization.”

What does this look like in practice? Based on our research, below are a few tips for taking a successful gemba walk in your machine shop:


Machine Shops

Root Cause Analysis Helps Machine Shops Stay Lean

May 20, 2015 / , , , , , , ,

Successfully operating and managing a machine shop is no easy task. Despite a slowly growing economy, the challenges facing today’s machine shops are no less than they were before. In fact, this white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology describes the top five operating challenges a machine shop faces in its metal-cutting operations—challenges that are universal to every operation, regardless of market conditions.

According to the white paper, the top challenge for most shops is process and workflow bottlenecks. In most cases, lean practices are a huge part of the solution. Successful managers know that in order to achieve overall success, you need to actively identify and solve production issues.

This doesn’t come easy or naturally for every shop manager, however. As Wayne Chaneski says in this Modern Machine Shop article, “It’s surprising to me the number of business owners, division heads, operations managers, and even department supervisors who just don’t know what is going on in their areas of responsibility. To such people, I have a simple suggestion: Find out!”

Put simply: Identifying the problem is the first step. The next step is finding the cause and fixing it—permanently.

One lean manufacturing tool that many shops find helpful is root cause analysis. According to, root cause analysis is a problem-solving exercise that focuses on solving the underlying cause, not just the symptoms. There are several techniques that can be used when conducting a root cause analysis, including the following:

For more information on root cause analysis, check out this article from the American Society for Quality (ASQ), which includes an educational video from ASQ Fellow Jim Rooney.

It goes without saying that there are many tools that can be used to attack the common workflow challenges a metal-cutting operation encounters on a daily basis. However, a root cause analysis is one tool that can help shops uncover “hidden” problems before they turn into a full-blown issue that effects your production, your product, your deliveries, and, most importantly, your bottom line.

Machine Shops

How Machine Shops Can Be Successful in 2015

April 21, 2015 / , , , , , , , , ,

Will 2015 be a year of growth for machine shops, as many are predicting? Recent data is sending some mixed signals. Gardner’s most recent metalworking business index (MBI), for example, showed that conditions in the metalworking industry expanded in March for the 15th consecutive month and the 17th time in 18 months. New orders and production increased have also increased for the 18th month in a row.

This of, course, is good news. However, as Modern Machine Shop reports, compared with one year ago, the MBI index has actually contracted for three straight months. “So, the metalworking industry is growing but not as fast as it was at the beginning of 2014,” the industry publication says.

Meanwhile, industrial production decreased 0.6 percent in March after increasing 0.1 percent in February, according to the Federal Reserve. For the first quarter of 2015 as a whole, industrial production declined at an annual rate of 1.0 percent, the first quarterly decrease since the second quarter of 2009.

But not all hope is lost. Many experts are still anticipating growth in industrial production this year and next year. As the LENOX Institute of Technology reported in the 2015 Industrial Metal Cutting Outlook, the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) forecasts that manufacturing production will grow by 3.7% in 2015 and 3.6% in 2016.

Also, according to Shopfloor, the blog of the National Manufacturers Association (NAM), manufacturers remain mostly upbeat about additional demand and production in the coming months. “We have started 2015 on a softer-than-desired note,” the blog states, noting that a strong U.S. dollar, weakened economic markets abroad, lower crude oil prices, the West Coast ports slowdown, and weather have all eased growth in activity. The blog concludes, “Hopefully, we will see better production numbers in the months ahead.”

What Now?
Regardless of how the year shakes out, the fact is that machine shops need to continue to optimize their operations. Continuous improvement does in fact mean continuous, regardless of business conditions. The goal is to strategically approach those improvements with industry trends and forecasts in mind.

How can you be successful in 2015? A recent article Production Machining offers three strategies for increasing your chances for success this year:

There is no crystal ball for what will happen in 2015, and as the last few years have taught manufacturing executives, nothing is ever certain. But hoping for a better year isn’t really a plan. To strategically approach today’s market, managers need to consider what is happening in the market, while also proactively improving what is happening inside their doors.

Machine Shops

Five Ways to Optimize Your Machine Shop

March 20, 2015 / , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In an age of information overload, most managers know how their shops should run. They’ve read case studies about successful lean initiatives, benchmarking studies confirming the benefits of preventative maintenance, and forward-thinking editorials endorsing the “smart” factory. Yet, in the midst of in the day-to-day grind, it is often difficult to find the time and resources to make any real improvements, let alone put a plan in place to make them happen. As a recent article from Canadian Metalworking quips, many shops are too busy working on their business to work on their business.

However, taking the time to make strategic decisions for your shop is critical to its success. Maintaining status quo is no longer enough in today’s market. Modern machine shops need to have both short- and long-term plans, and they need to make the time to see them through.

But where do you start? At this year’s The MFG Meeting, Laurie Harbour, president of manufacturing consulting firm Harbour Results, Inc. (HRI), shared five best practices for leaders who want to start making real changes in their operations:

  1. Strategic Planning. Do you have a strategic plan? It’s not a mission or a value   Your company needs a strategy that outlines what its focus is and why that focus is important. Additionally you need a plan with actionable one-year objectives that are communicated at all levels of your organization. And, of course, metrics need to be in place to drive each employee’s role and responsibility in meeting the plan.
  2. Market Intelligence. To be successful you must be informed. Companies can no longer afford to guess or rely on “luck.” It is critical that you gather and review both internal and external data. Triangulation of customer information, industry knowledge/historical performance/experience and external market intelligence are critical to a successful demand plan.
  3. Demand Planning. Although difficult, demand planning can lead to driving significant efficiency gains within your business. Utilize market intelligence; talk with your customer and implement demand planning in your facility. Those that are doing so improve throughput by 20 to 30 percent, making profitability soar.
  4. Manufacturing Efficiency. Rather than just improving the efficiency of one or more machines, you need to look at the entire system for optimization. Rather than scheduling each and every piece of equipment that supports making the product separately, it is critical to schedule the system and how all the pieces interact. Analyzing the entire manufacturing operation as a whole helps identify opportunities for efficiency gain and process improvements.
  5. Labor. The manufacturing industry is facing a skilled-labor shortage and it is only predicted to get worse. To be competitive and maintain a productive workforce, you need to have a plan and be prepared to attract, train and retain a younger generation.

To help leaders take a deeper look at their operation, HRI also offers a Strategic Planning Worksheet, which lists some questions leaders can use to identify opportunities for improvement in each of these five areas. You can download the worksheet here.
Are you addressing these five major areas in your machine shop? In what areas could you use some improvement? Taking the time to ask critical questions like these—and those listed in the HRI worksheet—is the first step in optimization and, even more so, putting you on the right path to becoming one of those shops you always read about.

Machine Shops

Optimizing Your Machine Shop’s Precision Circular Sawing Operation

February 20, 2015 / , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

When it comes to circular sawing, productivity is always the goal, especially as demand increases. However, industry leaders understand that productivity isn’t about going as fast as possible. In fact, speed can be detrimental to cutting tool life—a fact that not only negatively affects your bottom line, but can also decrease your overall productivity.

The real goal for today’s machine shops should be optimization. This requires operations managers to adopt strategies that allow their shops to achieve the highest possible cutting performance without sacrificing tool life.

As this article from Canadian Metalworking points out, the overall performance of your cutting tool depends on a variety of factors, including speed, feed, depth of cut, and the material being cut. The ability to balance all of these variables is critical for companies that want to be productive and stay competitive in today’s challenging environment.

To help machine shops optimize their precision circular sawing operations, the LENOX Institute of Technology (LIT) created a series of charts that describes some common cutting challenges operators face. For example, here are some tips and tricks operators can use to prolong blade life and keep cutting operations running at peak efficiency levels:

Insufficient blade life

Another critical aspect of optimization is making sure you have the right blade for the job. Advancements in tooth geometries, wear-resistant materials, and blade life can offer significant improvements in productivity and quality that can contribute to the bottom line. In the spirit of continuous improvement, managers should re-evaluate their circular saw blade choices every few years, even if they feel satisfied with current results. Testing new blades and technologies can be a time-consuming endeavor, but if the end result is faster cutting times and lower costs, it can certainly pay off.

The key is for machine shops to run the right tools at the right parameters—an approach that is a lot easier in theory than it is in practice. However, by combining operational tricks and strategic investments, many of today’s shops are finding their “sweet spot” and striking a balancing between cutting speed, quality, and cost. In today’s competitive and growing marketplace, industry leaders understand that optimization can mean the difference between “getting by” and getting ahead.

For more information on optimizing your precision circular sawing operation, including best practices, white papers, and case studies, check out LIT’s resource center here.

Machine Shops

Identifying Waste in Your Machine Shop

January 20, 2015 / , , , , , , , , , ,

The idea of eliminating waste to increase profitability is nothing new. It is the cornerstone of the lean manufacturing movement, and even if you don’t consider your shop a “lean” operation, odds are you have spent the last decade or so trying to find ways to reduce downtime and other wastes from your operation.

However, just because you have made attempts to reduce waste doesn’t mean you are doing it effectively. In fact, despite a trend toward internal process improvements, machine downtime remains the top source of frustration for industrial metal-cutting operations on the shop floor, according to a recent benchmark study.

The reality is that many machine shops aren’t successfully tackling waste because either they don’t know where to start or they are looking in the wrong places. A recent editorial appearing in IndustryWeek confirms this theory, stating that the hardest part of gaining efficiency is correctly identifying the waste. As the article states, waste often “hides in plain site.” Using examples from light brick laying and fast food to light bulbs, the IndustryWeek author argues that the greatest stumbling block for eliminating waste is “not the absence of an off the shelf technical solution, but rather failure to recognize the waste in the first place.”

To successfully reduce waste, you need to identify and quantify the different types of waste that exist within your operation. According to, there are six types of loss every manufacturing operation faces, and each fall under three main categories—downtime loss, speed loss, and quality loss.

The following is a brief description of each of the Six Big Losses:

  1. Breakdowns. These are considered a downtime loss and could include tooling failure, unplanned maintenance, and motor failure.
  2. Setup and Adjustments. This is also a downtime loss and could include changeover, material shortage, operator shortage, and warm-up time.
  3. Small Stops. This is considered a speed loss, and it only includes stops that are less than 5 minutes and don’t require maintenance. This might include a blocked sensor or minor cleaning.
  4. Slow Running. This is another speed loss, and it covers anything that prohibits equipment from running at its optimal speed. Incorrect setting of parameters and equipment wear are prime examples.
  5. Startup Defects. This quality loss covers any scarp or rework that occurs during setup or very early in the production phase.
  6. Production Defects. This is the second form of quality loss. This refers to any scrap or rework that happens during the steady-state production process.

Once you have identified the Six Big Losses and the events that contribute to them, you can then begin to record and monitor what you find within your operation. This article from gives several tips for addressing each loss category and includes helpful links to help you accurately measure your losses.

As a machine shop that cuts and processes metal, the reality is that some waste and loss are inevitable. However, the only way to keep those losses from hurting your business is to identify, monitor, and attack them, one by one.

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