February 5, 2014 / continuous improvement, resource allocation, Safety, training
One of the most common pain points for metal service center executives is allocating resources in the most efficient and economical way. From a strategic standpoint, it would be ideal for managers to make continuous changes within their operations, in terms of both equipment and human capital resources. However, budget and time constraints have made that a challenge for many industrial metal-cutting operations.
As stated in this article from McKinsey Quarterly, most executives find themselves stuck in the trap of allocating resources the same way over and over again and expecting different results. Specifically, the management consulting firm states, “Every year, they turn the handle on the same strategy-development, capital-planning, talent-management, and budgeting processes, and every year the outcome is only marginally different from the one they reached in the previous year and the year before that.” Alternatively, McKinsey suggests that managers who refocus these processes have an opportunity to deliver different results.
A separate article from Manufacturing.net goes one step further and says that 2014 should be the year that executives dump all “tribal knowledge”— the tendency to do things simply because “it’s the way we’ve always done it” — and start using actual facts and data to make decisions. “The bottom line in today’s mobile-enabled, hyper-connected world: Companies that continue to rely on tribal knowledge and myths alone are falling further behind enterprises that are dealing in reality and actionable fact,” the article says.
Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at how you are distributing resources within your metal-cutting operation. Do you find yourself using the same resource allocation strategies you have used for years? Are you using facts and hard data to make those decisions? Are those decisions improving efficiency? And, last but definitely not least, do you know what other metal service centers are doing?
A recent white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology (LIT) lists several ways leading metal service centers are choosing to reallocate their resources to improve efficiency. Below are two examples from the paper that show how technology investments like software can pay off:
- One metal service center developed an internal software system to automatically track the number of square inches processed by each saw and each blade. At any point, the manager can go to a computer screen, click on a saw, and see how many square inches that saw is currently processing and has processed in the past. This has allowed the service center to easily track trends and quickly detect problem areas. According to the company, the technology upgrade helps keep equipment continuously running, which has made it a worthwhile investment.
- Another service center is using technology to close an operational gap between its order-tracking system and sawing equipment. Historically, employees would input order information into the company’s system, print out a report, and deliver it to the operator. The operator would then have to reenter the data into the sawing equipment. By developing a communication bridge between the saws and the computer system, the company no longer needs to enter the same data twice. This has reduced the chance of human error and eliminated an unnecessary production step and, as a result, has improved efficiency.
Of course, managers can make other, non-technology related investments in areas such as training and safety and also get a high return. Every operation is different, with its own unique strengths to build on and weaknesses to improve.
The first question managers need to ask themselves is whether or not it is time for a change. Are you making strategic, proactive decisions for your industrial metal-cutting operations, or are you simply doing things “the way they’ve always been done?” As suggested in the McKinsey Quarterly article, today’s unpredictable market requires managers to be more agile in all of their business decisions, including resource allocation.
January 30, 2014 / continuous improvement, training
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.
December 10, 2013 / continuous improvement, quality, training
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.
- Create a Formal Training Program. If you don’t already have a formal training program in place for new employees, it’s time to implement one. Having a seasoned operator casually show someone the ropes creates a casual attitude toward the job at hand. A formal, organized approach will stress the importance of quality and will also make it easier to hold operators accountable. A recent editorial in Modern Machine Shop magazine provides a good overview of how to develop a formal training program. The article focuses on CNC training, but the general principles could certainly be applied to any production area of a machine shop.
- Define Training as an Ongoing Process. As highlighted in the white paper, Accounting for Operator Inefficiencies in the Metals 2.0 Environment, operator training needs to be ongoing. This is especially important in a machine shop, where there can be multiple shifts and an unequal level of talent on the shop floor. By instituting regular operator training, managers can level the shop floor talent and add consistency to production procedures. This also encourages a spirit of continuous improvement among experienced operators who often resist change.
- Make Training Part of your Quality System. While instituting formal training programs can be challenging, the real challenge is making them actually work. According to the white paper, The Top 5 Operating Challenges Facing Today’s Machine Shop Metal Cutting Operations, many industrial metal-cutting shops have found that the only time training programs became effective is when shop management merged training with their quality control initiatives and auditing processes. This elevates training from a well-intentioned priority to a standard operating procedure that is both effective and measurable.
December 5, 2013 / continuous improvement, workflow process
As customers continue to demand faster delivery, metal service centers have no choice but to optimize every aspect of their industrial metal-cutting process. This means squeezing out any inefficiencies that could be holding up production—a task most managers would admit is a lot easier said than done. While every operation wants to run as “lean” as possible, the challenge is finding the time and resources to identify workflow bottlenecks and then pinpoint the areas of improvements that will have a real impact on the bottom line.
As metal service centers juggle issues like multiple shifts, tight production schedules, and a high product mix, it can be difficult for managers to make any broad efficiency improvements. In fact, many companies don’t even know where to start and, in turn, end up pushing orders through instead of taking the time to reevaluate their processes. While this may work in the short-term, the long-term costs to areas such as quality and even maintenance can be detrimental to the economic health of a metal service center.
While efficiency initiatives are no small undertaking, even a few changes can make a difference. The key is knowing where to start. The following are some tips to help managers improve workflow on the shop floor and, even more so, start on a path toward continuous improvement.
- Monitor and Measure Processes. As the saying goes, “You can’t improve what you can’t measure.” However, measurement can take many forms. Some companies may want to go all out and conduct a detailed time analysis of every operation happening on the shop floor. Others, however, may want to take a more simple approach, like Micron Metalworks. The Minnesota fabricator, recently featured on thefabricator.com, used an observation technique it describes as the “13-second rule:” If anyone was stationary for more than 13 seconds, they marked that down as an area for improvement.
- Implement a Preventative Maintenance (PM) Program. While some maintenance downtime is inevitable, the goal of a PM program is to reduce that downtime as much as possible. PM programs can help extend the useful life of metal-cutting equipment, increase efficiency, and improve cut quality. However, because a PM program requires both time and resources, James Shorten, a technical specialist at Centris Consulting, says it will require a commitment from everyone in the company—from executives and production managers to the maintenance department and even operators. To keep production running smoothly, Shorten also recommends scheduling PM programs in the off-shift.
- Establish a Process Improvement Team. Perhaps the best way to attack workflow bottlenecks is to ensure they don’t happen again. As discussed in LENOX Institute of Technology’s white paper, The Top Five Operating Challenges for Metal Service Centers, one leading service center addressed this issue by assembling a process improvement team. Every time there is a bottleneck on the shop floor, the team investigates the issue, determines the source, and develops a solution. By getting to the root of the problem, companies will reduce the likelihood of dealing with the same issue in the future and, in the meantime, identify major operational issues that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.