What Does It Take to Be an Industrial Metal-Cutting Leader?

January 30, 2014 / ,

Like every other U.S. manufacturer, industrial metal-cutting companies have spent the last few years focusing on mere survival. Most companies have been forced to run “lean” and, in turn, have had to make some changes. However, a few organizations have risen above the fold and emerged as industry leaders. The question is how? While your goal may not be to make it onto IndustryWeek’s Manufacturing Hall of Fame, the fact is that today’s competitive market will continue to weed out companies that remain stagnant. In other words, “getting by” just isn’t going to be enough.

So what does it take to be an industrial metal-cutting leader? Below are a few of the common traits found among best-in-class companies:

Industry leaders understand the importance of continuous improvement. Experts like consultancy McGladrey continue to find that thriving manufacturers have a “relentless focus” on continuous improvement. According to McGladrey’s latest Manufacturing & Distribution Monitor Report, this is especially true as the economy emerges from the recession. As stated in the report, industry leaders are starting to realize that continuous improvement is vital because “increased profitability will likely need to come as much from productivity improvements as it will from revenue growth.”

Industry leaders invest in training. Investing in the right machinery is an important aspect of every metal-cutting operation; however, leading manufacturers know that productivity starts with the operator. All three of the industrial metal-companies featured in this series of case studies from LENOX Institute of Technology (LIT) have thorough training programs for both new and seasoned operators. Metal Cutting Service, Inc. (MCS), for example, offers an intense 40 hours of training when operators are first hired, as well as ongoing training at least once or twice a year. According to MCS president David Viel, “You are no better than your employees.”

Industry leaders work closely with key suppliers. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of an increasingly competitive market is that many suppliers are offering value-added services to differentiate themselves—a trend that is especially beneficial for smaller manufacturers. Support in areas such as preventative maintenance, troubleshooting, and even software tools can help improve productivity and, ultimately, save costs. As stated in this article from ThomasNet, suppliers possess deep knowledge about the products they produce, and manufacturers should tap into this expertise and use it to their advantage. Global manufacturing giants like Unilever have even established long-term supplier partnership programs to help achieve specific company goals. To read how this can work in an industrial metal-cutting environment, check out this white paper from LIT or this case study on Aerodyne Alloys, a leading metal service center.


Allocating Resources in Forges

January 25, 2014 / ,

Strategic allocation of resources is critical in today’s competitive marketplace. As customers continue to demand tighter tolerances and faster turnaround, operations managers need to be tactical with their existing assets while also knowing when it is time to make some upgrades. The challenge, of course, is making the right call by investing in the areas of your operation that will bring the best return.

While there is always an element of risk to any strategic decision, the following are a few best practices today’s managers should consider as they allocate resources in their operations:


Meeting Demand In a Machine Shop Means Reducing Bottlenecks

January 20, 2014 / , , ,

Recent data continues to confirm that business is on the upswing. In fact, according to latest Business Conditions Report from the Precision Metalforming Association (PMA), metalforming companies can expect a spike in incoming orders during the next three months. In a recent press release, PMA president William E. Gaskin said shipments could increase three to six percent thanks to strong auto production and the general sense that fundamentals are improving.

As the economy continues to recover and customer demand increases, industrial metal-cutting operations need to be sure they are ready. Productivity will be more critical than ever, leaving no time for unnecessary bottlenecks. The question is—what are you doing to prepare?

While the nature of a machine shop makes it difficult to adjust for a sudden in-rush of orders, there are some strategies managers can use to keep production moving and reduce the number of potential bottlenecks. Here are a few best practices to consider:

Of course, bottlenecks are an inevitable aspect of any metal-cutting operation. However, as demand increases, so does the negative impact of downtime. One misstep can lead to a domino effect that can throw off an entire production schedule. By taking proactive measures, managers can reduce the chances of unexpected events, eliminate potential bottlenecks and, at the same time, improve productivity and quality.

Getting to the Root of Performance Issues

January 15, 2014 / ,

Let’s paint a possible scenario in an industrial metal-cutting environment: After reviewing monthly costs, a manager notices that tooling costs are up. Upon further investigation, the manager discovers that operators have been replacing blades more frequently than usual. In other words, a blade the company has been using for years is now failing. What does the manager do?

A. Contact the supplier to complain about a bad shipment
B. Research new blade options
C. Check equipment settings
D. Evaluate operator performance

In most cases, the answer is likely going to be A or B. When a problem happens on the cutting room floor, most managers want to fix it and move on. And if the problem appears to be mechanical, the natural instinct is to blame the machine. However, these issues can also be symptoms of larger, operator-based problems such as improper blade usage, lack of training, and poor maintenance.

When a performance issue arises on the cutting room floor, managers should have procedures in place that help determine the underlying causes of the failure. This will not only solve the problem at hand, but can also weed out any “hidden inefficiencies” that could be negatively impacting the bottom line. In the aforementioned scenario, for example, premature blade failure not only increases tooling costs, it also creates bottlenecks and decreases quality. If the real source of problem is a poorly trained operator, a new blade isn’t going to solve any one of these issues.

Forward-thinking managers know the key to optimal performance is identifying the root cause of failure so that it never happens again. Below are a few strategies managers can use to uncover the source of operational issues:

Balancing Speed and Quality

January 10, 2014 / ,

Delivering on time and without error have always been the two key principles of customer service. However, most fabricators would agree that “on-time” now means “in half the time” it took just 5 years ago. Quick turnaround is not a trend—it is the new reality.

While automation and lean manufacturing strategies are helping fabricators complete jobs faster, it is important that shops don’t forget the other side of the delivery equation—quality. Maintaining accuracy is critical to gaining and maintaining customers, especially as they continue to demand tighter and tighter tolerances. Slow and steady may no longer win the race, but neither does fast and sloppy.

Today’s managers need to have a balanced focus on both efficiency and excellence. If your shop is sacrificing one to achieve the other, it is time to take a closer look at your operations. Below are a few strategies that can help keep your processes balanced:

Facing the Workforce Challenge

December 20, 2013 / , ,

While finding “good help” seems to be an age-old management challenge, it has become a critical issue for today’s manufacturing industry. It’s no secret that a large percentage of skilled manufacturing workers are facing retirement in the coming years, while only a small percentage of younger workers have an interest in filling those roles. What may be surprising, however, is that most manufacturers are doing nothing about it.

According to’s Industry Market Barometer, the manufacturing industry continues to be heavily populated by Baby Boomers, the post-World War II generation that is at or near retirement age, while workers ranging from 18-32 remain completely untapped. According to the recent survey of more than 1,200 manufacturing companies, three-quarters of respondents report that 25 percent or less of their workforce are in the Generation Y age group. And while 29 percent of respondents say they will increase employment of Generation Y workers in the next two years, 49 percent expect the numbers to stay the same. In fact, ThomasNet believes the manufacturing industry is up against a “biological clock” that is rapidly winding down when it comes to recruiting and training the next generation of workers.

An article from echoes the same sentiment, stating that “a dearth of workers will cause the manufacturing industry to hit a wall in the future.” This, the article says, is the main reason why industrial metal-cutting companies need to consider strategies that will help them cultivate future talent—and fast.

Of course, one way to address this workforce issue is for managers to actively hire a new generation of workers. However, the real challenge will be finding ways to ramp up their skills and knowledge base so that both quality and productivity are comparable to that of seasoned workers. As described in the white paper, The Top 5 Operating Challenge For Metal Service Centers, there are two key tactics managers can use to encourage a high-quality workforce, regardless of experience level:

There is no doubt that today’s industrial metal-cutting companies need to make hiring a new generation of workers a top priority. Indeed, the workforce issue can no longer be ignored. However, hiring “good help” isn’t going to be enough. To be successful, today’s operations managers need to make sure they are also training and maintaining that help.

Being Proactive Is the Key to Smarter Operations Management

December 19, 2013 / ,

With increased competition and uncertain economic conditions, today’s operations managers have to be more than just good problem solvers. Yes, they still need to be able to handle unforeseeable crisis on the fly; however, now, more then ever, managers also need to have strategies in place that predict risks. By using a more proactive approach to management, industrial metal-cutting companies are finding they can actually reduce the adverse effects that can happen in a manufacturing environment.

In a recent market research report, Aberdeen Group details a predictive, more agile management strategy called Operational Risk Management (ORM). According to the firm’s research, best-in-class manufacturers are taking a risk-focused approach for three main reasons:

Put simply, these leading companies are using ORM to improve operating performance. Aberdeen says the goal of this type of management is to create “a framework that helps executives, employees on the plant floor, and maintenance personnel understand and manage the risks impacting their organization, establish processes to effectively address these risks, and implement procedures for corrective and preventative actions.”

Several leaders in the industrial metal-cutting segment are finding ways to use proactive operations management. In fact, data from the LENOX Institute of Technology’s Benchmark Survey revealed that companies with high machine uptime are benefitting from investing in smarter, more predictive and agile management operations approaches. For example, 76 percent of industrial metal-cutting operations that followed scheduled and planned maintenance on their machines also reported that their job completion rate is trending upward year over year. In addition, more than half of organizations that “always” follow preventative maintenance (PM) plans reported that they can “always” or “mostly” predict blade failure.

By having this “predictive downtime” information, managers can plan for downtime and actually use it to their benefit. This is quite different than “interruptive downtime,” which can negatively impact performance, customer delivery, and equipment and material costs.  Steel of Carolina LLC, a fabricator, featured in this case study from LIT, has said that weekly PM checks have become critical to keeping its saws operating as much as possible. To keep production running smoothly, the company schedules PM checks for the weekends (when equipment isn’t running) and also keeps specific wear parts in stock for quick replacement.

Of course, PM and parts inventory is only a small part of predictive management. Aberdeen outlines an entire roadmap for manufacturers that want to establish a formal ORM framework. You can download a copy of the report here and read information on technology enablers and a great case study on Coca-Cola.

In the end, there is no crystal ball. However, by implementing predictive strategies that go beyond simply reacting to crisis, operations managers can minimize risk, increase agility, and perform smarter in today’s volatile market.

The Value of Safety

December 15, 2013 / , ,

In an industrial metal-cutting environment, safety is critical. Everyone knows that. In fact, most managers would probably list it as a top priority. However, in practice, most of those same managers treat safety more like a necessary evil than a business strategy. In other words, their safety initiatives are built around simply meeting OSHA requirements, not as a means of maintaining—or better yet, improving—the bottom line.

The truth is that most managers need to shift their mindset when it comes to safety. Randy DeVaul, author of Performance Safety: A Practical Approach and Performance Safety: Lessons For Life, argues that safety should be viewed as a value, not a priority. What’s the difference? According to DeVaul, priorities change depending on the circumstances; however, a value is maintained, regardless of the circumstances. In other words, safety should be a constant, and it should be integrated into every aspect of your industrial metal-cutting processes.

The concept is actually fairly simple: Injured operators can’t be productive.

If your best operator is constantly calling off because of a bad back, someone else needs to be trained to take his place. This not only takes time away from production, it could also affect quality. And, of course, there is the cost element.

There are several ways safety can have an impact on overall business operations, but here are three key points today’s managers should consider:

While an operator’s wellbeing should always be the top concern, the value of safety goes beyond employee health. A safer environment is more productive; a more productive environment provides more output; and more output provides more money. Really, it’s that simple.

Why You Should Invest in Your Operators

December 10, 2013 / , ,

Over the last few years, the industrial metal-cutting industry has invested heavily in technology to ramp up productivity. While this is certainly moving industrial metal-cutting forward, it has also exacerbated the workforce challenge that has been threatening the industry for years. As confirmed by a joint report from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, skilled production workers are one of the largest workforce segments facing retirement in the near future, which will clearly have an impact on the number of experienced workers on the shop floor. This does not bode well for an industry that just ramped up its need for advanced skills.

The good news is that the solution is quite clear: You need to invest in your workers. While having the right tools for the job is important, it is perhaps even more critical to have people with the right skills operating those machines. In a band saw cutting environment, for example, an operator running a saw at the wrong speed and feed settings will drastically reduce blade life, increase the chances of maintenance issues, and create potential quality issues, all of which add up to wasted time and money—the exact opposite of productivity.

The only way to increase skills is to provide training. Unfortunately, this is not always as simple as it sounds. A good training program should provide new employees with a solid foundation, while also making sure seasoned employees know the latest techniques. Below are some suggestions that will help take your training program—and your workforce—to the next level.




New Approaches to Cost Management

December 10, 2013 / , ,

In an ideal world, a fabricator wouldn’t list cost management as a challenge. If production is running smoothly, maintenance is under control, operators are trained, and customers are satisfied, then costs should be relatively stable. However, at a time when the industry hasn’t fully rebounded and uncertainty about market conditions remain, cost is a concern for even the most efficient industrial metal-cutting operations.

The question, then, becomes: How can today’s fabricators better manage their costs? When many companies are already “running lean,” what other measures can they take to keep costs under control or, better yet, save money?

Unfortunately, there are no “one size fits all” answers when it comes to cost management, but the LENOX Institute of Technology (LIT) was able to find a few strategies currently being used by industry leaders. Below are some of the ways top performers are approaching cost:



All three of these methods suggest that successful cost management in today’s marketplace requires managers to look at cost from a high level before implementing any initiatives. In other words, gone are the days of “quick fixes.” By taking the time to approach cost strategically, fabricators can make improvements that have a long-term—and more importantly, sustainable—impact on the bottom line.

1 25 26 27 28