Employee Morale

Machine Shop Outlook for 2016

April 20, 2016 / , , , , , , , , , ,

Like the rest of the metal-cutting industry, machine shops were eager to see the end of 2015 due to weak demand. Unfortunately, experts are anticipating that market conditions in 2016 will, at best, be a mixed bag.

Changing Conditions
Taking a look back, 2015 started off strong. According to Gardner’s metalworking business index (MBI), industry conditions expanded in March 2015 for the 15th consecutive month. The streak stopped in April when the market contracted for the first time since December 2013, with the largest month-to-month decline since April 2013. Production also slowed while new orders declined. That contraction continued until the industry bottomed out in October and November and then ended the year with a slight uptick in December.

While growth did return at the start of 2016, it was often short-lived and fragile. For example, industrial production decreased 0.5 percent in February after increasing 0.8 percent in January, according to the Federal Reserve. On the other hand, according to Gardner’s most recent MBI index results, as reported by Modern Machine Shop, the metalworking industry has started showing signs of life. Despite the industry contracting as a whole, the trade publication says the market has improved significantly since December.

Spending trends are also a bit mixed. According to the Modern Machine Shop report, while future capital spending plans are still below the historical average, those rates are on the rise and have increased to their highest level since last March. “Compared with one year earlier, planned spending was down just 1.2 percent in March, the slowest rate of contraction since September 2014,” the trade publication reported. “This trend indicates that capital spending could begin improving later this year.”

Preparing for Returned Growth
While the start to 2016 hasn’t been the best the industry has seen, it also isn’t the worst and creates an opportunity for machine shops to invest in their operations, especially if they can afford the time to do so.

Like in 2015, most shops will continue to work on process optimization to increase productivity. However, this year, industry leaders will also need to focus on the next generation of machine shop operators to fill any skills gaps and prepare for an eventual market rebound. Based on the “Top Shops” benchmarking survey from Modern Machine Shop, leading U.S. machine shops are doing that and more.

Findings from the publication’s fifth annual survey revealed that leading U.S. shops are  focusing on the following four key areas in 2016:

Operation Optimization
As the past few years have taught us, no one can truly predict what the rest of 2016 will bring for machine shops and other industrial metal-cutting organizations. However, leaders remain focused on optimizing operations. By investing in workforce training and talent, improving shop floor practices, and investing in future technology, machine shops can survive current market conditions and, more importantly, prepare for growth in the future.

How are you preparing for growth? What is your shop focusing on in 2016?

Employee Morale

Why Ball and Roller Bearing Manufacturers Should Consider Taking a Gemba Walk

March 30, 2016 / , , , , , ,

Like every other high-production manufacturing segment, ball and roller bearing manufacturers have embraced lean manufacturing and the benefits it can bring. Some industry leaders like Timken have gone through total lean transformations, while others have opted to incorporate some simple lean tools or basic principles into their operation.

One lean manufacturing tool that continues to gain popularity among operations managers is “going to the Gemba” or taking a “Gemba walk.” This practical lean tool gives management a clear view of what is happening on the plant floor and, more importantly, reveals areas for possible improvement.

As explained in the eBook, Five Performance-Boosting Best Practices for your Industrial Metal-Cutting Organization, “Gemba” is the Japanese term for “actual place,” but has been redefined by lean thinkers as the place where value-creating work actually occurs. In a manufacturing environment, this is typically the shop floor. Many lean experts advise manufacturing executives to make time to visit this place—known as taking a “Gemba walk”—so they can see their operation from the front lines.

“Managers are not supposed to use this walk as a time to find fault or enforce policy, nor as a time to solve problems or make changes on the spot,” the eBook states. “Instead, a Gemba walk should be a time of observation and learning. Leadership should go on the walk with an open mind and welcome suggestions from operators and other shop floor employees.”

Why is a Gemba walk so important? A recent article from The Leadership Network provides three reasons why a regular Gemba walk is beneficial:

  1. First-hand knowledge is the highest form of information. A regular Gemba walk will give managers transparent and unmediated knowledge that is needed to challenge and validate assumptions made by data.
  2. Perspective is gained through experience. A regular Gemba walk allows managers to understand the challenges employees need to overcome on a daily basis to deliver the results that are being promised in the boardroom.
  3. Both people and process matter equally. A regular Gemba walk will help develop a culture that fixes the problems in a process and not one that blames the people performing the process.

In theory, a Gemba walk sounds fairly simple. Walking around and talking to operators seems pretty straightforward. However, there are a few tips managers should keep in mind before heading to the shop floor. IndustryWeek offers managers five suggestions to consider as they prepare for their Gemba walk:

Could a Gemba walk benefit your operation? To read more about this lean manufacturing tool, check out the slideshare presentation, Gemba 101, or this overview article from iSixSigma.

Employee Morale

Three Ways Ball and Roller Bearing Manufacturers Can Empower Operators

February 29, 2016 / , , , , , , , , , , ,

As ball and roller bearing manufacturers strive for continuous improvement and optimization within their operations, there is no question that process improvement is a top priority. Leaders know that today’s competitive environment requires them to invest time and resources in finding new tools, technology, and strategies for increasing productivity and reducing waste.

However, managers need to be sure they are not so wrapped up in process improvements that they are neglecting the other half of the continuous improvement equation—people.

As explained in the white paper, Accounting for Operator Inefficiencies in the Metals 2.0 Environment, people affect process. “Mechanical inefficiencies can often be solved with technology, but industry leaders are finding they can no longer ignore the human variables that contribute to productivity,” the paper states. “A lack of skill sets, business knowledge, and employee morale can affect vital areas of an operation, from inventory and parts costs to output and safety.”

When managers fail to focus on their operators, they are likely hurting their processes and, even more so, missing out on a prime opportunity for improvement. According to an article from The Manufacturer, a valued workforce can make the biggest impact on a factory’s efficiency. “Creating an environment where your workforce feels valued and respected results in motivation and loyalty,” the article states. This, it adds, can add up to tangible benefits, including higher output and lower absenteeism.

“Studies have found if employees are engaged, they put in twice as much effort, and will take just two-and-a-half sick days/year instead of six-and-a-half,” the article states. “This involvement leads to staff identifying with the company, its products, and sharing the corporate values.”

Indeed, a growing number of manufacturers are finding employee engagement can be just as critical as skills training when it comes to operator productivity. According to the eBook, Five Performance-Boosting Best Practices for Your Industrial Metal-Cutting Organization, operators who take ownership of their process or work area can positively affect all aspects of an industrial metal-cutting operation, including quality, productivity, and in the end, the bottom line. “Similarly, when employees feel disconnected, those same business areas can be negatively affected,” the eBook states.

The following are three key ways managers can better engage operators and make them feel valued:

A recent article from the Liquid Planner also encourages managers to be intentional about creating a positive work environment by simply engaging in meaningful in-person conversations. “We’re all human, and most humans respond well to the real thing—in-person communication that says ‘you matter,’” the article states.

Perhaps an article from IndustryWeek states it best: “Most employees don’t need a $10 gas card; they just need to know that they can have an impact, their ideas matter, and they are appreciated.“

Yes, the idea of engaging and empowering employees sounds a bit cliché, especially as technology advances and competition intensifies. However, managers are finding that operators who feel valued are able to bring more value to the business.

In what ways could you better engage your operators?

Employee Morale

Bringing Mobility into Your Machine Shop

January 20, 2016 / , , , , , , , , , , ,

As smart phones and other mobile devices become ubiquitous among consumers, it’s not surprising that mobile technologies are also finding their way onto the shop floor. In fact, according to PwC’s 18th Annual Global CEO Survey, mobility is the top technology priority among industrial manufacturing CEOs.

For many companies, the choice to make their manufacturing operation “mobile” is strategic. As a recent article from Forbes explains, companies are designing mobility into new production strategies, processes, and procedures to gain greater accuracy and speed. “Augmenting existing processes with mobility is delivering solid efficiency gains,” the Forbes article states. “The net result is greater communication, collaboration and responsiveness to customer-driven deadlines and delivery dates than has been possible before.”

Of course, how you choose to use mobility in your operation will truly dictate its impact—both positive and negative. There are still a lot of managers who are hesitant to allow mobile devices on the shop floor, fearing that workers will be distracted and less productive. In some cases, those fears are warranted. One machine shop, featured here in Modern Machine Shop magazine, found that it was beneficial to completely ban cell phone use on the shop floor. While some employees resisted the change at first, the ban allowed the shop to avoid a hike in their insurance premiums, increased productivity, and eventually helped improve employee morale.

There are plenty of other ways, however, that manufacturers are using mobility for their benefit. Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Corp., featured here in a case study, recently replaced its card-based Kanban system with a more efficient electronic method that could better manage its just-in-time parts system. Using tablets and a custom mobile software application, Kawasaki eliminated the waste of 4,500 Kanban cards per day, which ultimately led to $3,500 in operational savings per day and a quick ROI, the article states.

How can your shop incorporate mobility into your operation? LNS Research, a consultancy based in Cambridge, MA, lists nine key ways companies are using mobile devices in manufacturing environments. Below are the top-five uses (you can read the full list of nine here):




If mobility is something you want to bring into your shop, but you aren’t sure where to start, check out the feature, “7 Tips for Taking Your Operation Mobile,” published by American Machinist.

If mobility isn’t on your radar, you may want to reconsider. Slowly but surely, industrial manufacturers are finding that there is indeed “an app for that,” which means your shop may be missing out on some prime opportunities for cost savings or efficiency gains. In fact, according to Mike Roberts of LNS Research: “If you’re not on the path to using mobile apps to better manage your production operations, you’re seriously at risk of being stuck in the past.”

How could mobility help your machine shop function better?

Employee Morale

Ball and Roller Bearing Manufacturers Increase Safety by Getting Back to Basics

November 30, 2015 / , , , , , ,

Nearly every manager recognizes the need for workplace safety and aims to foster a safe environment within their operations. In fact, the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the rate for nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses continues to decline—and has so for the past 12 years.

According to OSHA’s “Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses,” private industry employers reported 54,000 fewer nonfatal injury and illness cases in 2014 compared to the prior year. Unfortunately, the manufacturing industry is the exception. OSHA data shows that although the total number of manufacturing cases remains unchanged, the number of cases that required a job transfer or restriction (DJTR) exceeded those that only required days away from work (DAFW). In other words, the majority of all manufacturing cases were serious enough in nature that those workers involved could not return to their job or had job restrictions after the workplace accident.

It is clear that industrial metal-cutting companies need to place a priority on safety—despite the many other priorities today’s high-production environment demands. As a white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology points out, ball and roller manufacturers are facing many operational challenges, but safety shouldn’t be pushed to the wayside. Instead, it should be integrated into day-to-day processes. By instituting standard safety procedures, industrial metal-cutting companies can ensure their workforce stays healthy and productive.

To help ball and roller bearing manufacturers improve safety in their daily operations, below are a few strategies to consider:

  1. First, managers must ensure that employees have shared beliefs and values. This is generally achieved and agreed upon during a Safety Excellence Workshop where employees agree about the current status of the workplace and opportunities for improvements and change. For example, the group can agree that they want everyone to go home safe every day and then identify and implement how that goal can be achieved.
  2. The second element of Partner-Centered Safety is focused on the workplace environment. During the Safety Excellence Workshop, employees discuss the challenges they face and then develop a plan to help and support each other during those challenges. This ensures that the best safety decisions are being made in the moment when action is needed.
  3. The third element, also developed in the workshop, happens intrinsically throughout the process. The third element provides cohesion and order for the organization. What Knowles calls “The Bowl,” is essentially a culture of safety where outliers are called out and leaders and managers help everyone understand and maintain the safe culture. This sense of behavior and standards creates an agreed-upon culture that provides cohesion and order for the workplace, and empowers employees to follow and enforce those shared values and action plans created earlier in the workshop.

How does your company promote safety in your daily operations?

Employee Morale

Machine Shops Use Ergonomics to Increase Productivity and Reduce Injury

November 20, 2015 / , , , , , , ,

Of all the challenges that industrial metal-cutting companies face, process and workflow bottlenecks are at the top of the list. While lean manufacturing practices have helped machine shops streamline production processes and improve machine efficiency, many shops are using other methods aimed at optimizing their human capital. One strategy is to improve ergonomics.

According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA), ergonomics is defined as fitting a person to a job to help lessen muscle fatigue, increase productivity, and reduce the number and severity of work-related injuries.

As a white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology explains, larger volumes and longer hours of operation can easily turn the smoothest running operation into a frenzied, disorganized, and dangerous mess. However, when an operation is organized with ergonomics in mind, workers can maintain a high level of productivity while also staying safe.

U.S.-based automaker Ford, for example, is working with ergonomic experts to analyze its assembly line and workstations to prepare for more than 100 new vehicle launches, reports IndustryWeek. Using technology used by professional athletes to assess their performance, Ford captured the data of arm, leg, back and torso movements with motion-capture sensors, 3-D printed equipment and virtual workstations. The experts then analyzed more than 50,000 data points related to muscle strength and weakness, joint strain, and body imbalance to improve plant design and operations. The changes resulted in two significant improvements:

Metal-cutting companies like California-based Earle M. Jorgensen Company (EMJ) are also using ergonomics as a smart business tool. After performing an in-depth ergonomic study at one of its metalworking facilities, EMJ made several changes on the shop floor, including repositioning band irons and adjusting the height of staging tables. As a result, the service center was able to reduce employee injuries, improve operator efficiency, and increase output.

While the benefits of workplace ergonomics are clear, how to successfully implement them on the shop floor can be murky. An article from EHS Today says the key is to engage your employees in the process by using the following five principles:

  1. Invite them. Be clear about your goals to create an ergonomic plan and have your employees be part of the process. Genuinely invite them to be involved, and let them know your intentions are to help make their lives easier and safer.
  2. Communicate. Continue the transparency by keeping the lines of communication open. Use announcements, bulletin boards, safety meetings, and training sessions to keep the ergonomic conversation going.
  3. Train your team members. A team is as only as good as its people. Train your employees for success with ergonomic awareness and skills development training. Use real-world examples (i.e., pictures and case studies) to illustrate the before and after.
  4. Celebrate wins. Celebrate ergonomic successes. This will help keep momentum going and shape a culture of safety.
  5. Respond quickly. When an employee suggests an improvement, respond immediately and with enthusiasm. Keep the team member updated on the improvement process—and don’t forget to say thank you.

Have you analyzed your workflow for ergonomic inefficiencies? If so, what changes have you made and what improvements have you experienced?

Employee Morale

Implementing Hoshin Kanri in Your Metal Service Center

November 5, 2015 / , , , , , , ,

In today’s lean manufacturing world, you don’t have to be an expert to know some of the lingo. Most manufacturing executives could easily rattle off terms like continuous improvement, kanban, just-in-time, and root cause analysis without even fully understanding what each entails, and many could probably provide a basic definition.
However, one lean manufacturing term that is not as well known—and even harder to say—is Hoshin Kanri. Although not as popular as some of the other lean strategies, Hoshin Kanri (also called Policy Deployment) can be a valuable planning tool for manufacturers. In fact, according to an article from IndustryWeek, the methodology is starting to gain traction among industry leaders.

“Hoshin Kanri is fast becoming an integral part of the strategic planning process at many organizations,” William Waldo, COO of consulting firm BMGI, writes in IndustryWeek. “From decades of refinement, this methodology has emerged as extremely effective in creating strategic alignment and galvanizing an organization toward achieving its vision.”

What is Hoshin Kanri?
Although difficult to pronounce, Hoshin Kanri is fairly simple in concept. The Japanese strategic planning process is designed to ensure that a company’s mission, vision, goals, and annual objectives are communicated and implemented throughout the entire organization, from top management to the shop floor level. According to, this alignment eliminates the waste that comes from inconsistent direction and poor communication. In essence, it aims to “get every employee pulling in the same direction at the same time,” the website explains.

Although experts often vary on the specific steps involved in Hoshin Kanri planning, Waldo of BMGI believes there are seven key steps to successful implementation. Below is a brief summary of each step:

Key Benefits
Like any lean manufacturing initiative, Hoshin Kanri can seem a bit daunting. However, many manufacturing leaders have had success with the methodology, including Bridgestone, Boeing, Motorola and Toyota, to name a few. Accuride, a manufacturer of forged aluminum wheels and other commercial vehicle components, was recently honored by The Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) for its continuous improvement efforts, including implementation of Hoshin Kanri at its Rockford corporate facility and factory, reports The Fabricator.

There are two main reasons why your service center should consider joining many others in adopting Hoshin Kanri strategic planning. First, it creates a shared vision across the entire organization, which fosters good communication and can be good for employee morale. In addition, it can have a positive impact on performance. “Implementing Hoshin allows an organization to build a high performance culture and measure the progress of culture change toward a high performance,” according to an article from iSixSigma. “Following this process on a set schedule for each of the fundamental plans and annual plans throughout the organization ensures achievement of the business mission and progress towards the business vision.”

Even if Hoshin Kanri is not for your service center, adopting some form of strategic planning is critical if you want to be successful in today’s market. As Confucius once said, “A man who does not plan long ahead will find trouble at his door.”

To learn more about Hoshin Kanri planning, read the full iSixSigma article here or check out a video tutorial here.

Employee Morale

Four Changes Ball and Roller Bearing Manufacturers Can Make to Address the Skills Gap

October 30, 2015 / , , , , , , , , ,

After years of focusing on automation and processes, today’s manufacturers are starting to realize the growing importance of allocating resources to the workforce. According to the U.S. News & World Report, it is estimated that more than half a million skilled manufacturing jobs remain unfilled due to the labor skills gap in the U.S., and that number will likely increase as more Americans age out of the workforce. This shortage in skilled production workers—often referred to as the “skills gap”—is forcing managers to rethink how they spend their time and their money.

As explained in a white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology, there are two reasons for the growing skills gap. “First, a large number of workers are facing retirement in the coming years, which will have a significant impact on shop floor experience,” the paper states. “In addition, reports state that by 2020, companies will have up to five generations in the workforce at once. This unbalanced level of skill and experience in a metal-cutting operation can have a significant impact on both
quality and productivity.”

Michael Collins, president of MPC Consulting, feels one of the root causes of  today’s workforce challenge is the fact that companies haven’t invested in advanced training, either because they didn’t want to or because they didn’t have the money.  “It has been at least 25 years since the alarm was sounded on skills shortages in manufacturing and the threat of retiring baby boomers,” Collins writes in an article published in IndustryWeek. “Just about everyone who follows manufacturing has known about this problem for a long time. So the question is: Why didn’t we invest in advanced skill training before it became a serious problem?”

Collins goes on to suggest that it’s time for manufacturers to learn from their mistakes and to start making changes. Specifically, he lists four ways manufacturers can acquire the highly skilled workers they need. These include the following:

  1. Invest in training
  2. Recalculate the ROI of training
  3. Stop the pursuit of low-cost labor
  4. Demonstrate that manufacturing jobs are a secure career opportunity

Some industry leaders have already started to make some changes. As we reported here, ball and roller bearing manufacturer Timken Co. is working with Apprenticeship 2000, an apprenticeship partnership located in the Charlotte, NC region, to offer technical career opportunities to high school students and employment after graduation.

Pegasus Manufacturing Inc., a Middletown, CT-based fabricator of tubing and parts for jet engines, is taking advantage of its state’s training and efficiency programs. “Our focus on maintaining the workforce here in Connecticut and adding to it, getting the pipeline out of the technical skills system, making sure we have high caliber folks, is really second to none in the United States and probably worldwide,” Chris DiPentima, the Pegasus CEO, told the Hartford Courant. Since participating in the state-wide programs, Pegasus has added 16 jobs to its payroll in less than a year.

In the end, successfully managing the skills gap will require manufacturing executives to take a hard look at how they are investing in their workforce, whether that means investing money into advanced training programs or investing time into seeking apprenticeship opportunities. Companies that fail to make real, active changes now may find themselves dealing with bigger, bottom-line challenges in the future.

How is your company actively tackling the skills gap?

Employee Morale

How Metal Forges Can Keep Employees Engaged in Times of Change

October 25, 2015 / , , , , , ,

Thanks to the popularity of lean principles like continuous improvement, change is fairly commonplace in the current manufacturing landscape. Or, at least, it is supposed to be. Whether incremental improvements or major overhauls, manufacturing leaders are encouraged to make continual changes to products, services, and processes to achieve success in today’s market. Change is not only critical; it is necessary.

“Change is the only constant,” writes manufacturing consultant Lisa Anderson in a blog published in Liquid Planner. “Companies are looking for opportunities to improve margins, accelerate cash flow, and cut costs. Only those companies that change will endure.”

The problem is that most people resist change. This leaves managers with the challenging task of implementing and communicating the change, and more importantly, getting everyone else on board. According to Anderson, “only those teams that embrace change, and the leaders who engage people around change initiatives will thrive. The others will be left in the dust.”

There is no question that effective change management is hard, especially in a mature industry like metal forging, where seasoned operators can be accustomed to doing things “the way they’ve always been done.” Something as simple as adding preventative maintenance tasks to an operator’s typical “to do” list can quickly cause morale issues if not handled—or communicated—correctly.

When employees don’t “buy-in” into a change, they can feel disconnected from their job, which can negatively affect quality and productivity. On the other hand, when employees are engaged and feel part of the change, those same business areas can be positively affected. As stated in the white paper, The Top Five Operational Challenges for Forges that Cut and Process Metal, “communicating with shop floor employees and actively including them in operational decisions promotes a team atmosphere, and, therefore, motivates employees to achieve company goals.”

If your forge is currently implementing change or is looking to do so in the future, an article from IndustryWeek provides ten guiding principles for successfully leading change management. The following is a summary of some of the key principles, but you can view the complete IndustryWeek article and an accompanying video here [LINK]:

Is your forge going through a time of change right now? How are you keeping employees engaged?

Employee Morale

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?

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