April 28, 2014 / continuous improvement, Cost Management, human capital, industry news, lean manufacturing, LIT, predictive management, preventative maintenance, strategic planning
For most of the industrial metal-cutting industry, things are staring to look up. Earlier this month, the World Steel Association released its Short Range Outlook for 2014 and 2015. The forecast projects that global apparent steel use will increase by 3.1% in 2014 and by 3.3% in 2015. Regional projections are also positive. While the U.S. showed a decrease of -0.6% in apparent steel use in 2013, the global association forecasts that apparent steel use in the U.S. will grow by 4.0% in 2014 and by 3.7% in 2015.
However, even with its positive forecast, World Steel expects continued volatility and uncertainty to create a challenging environment for steel companies this year. And many metals executives are feeling that uncertainty. As stated in LIT’s 2014 Outlook for Industrial Metal-Cutting Companies, most industrial metal-cutting companies are only cautiously optimistic about today’s market.
This is especially true of many forging industry executives, who were encouraged by sales increases in 2012, only to be disappointed with no growth and some decreases in 2013. Specifically, the Forging Industry Association (FIA) reports that total industry shipments for the custom impression die forging industry were at $7.313 billion in 2013, down slightly from $7.337 billion in 2012. Meanwhile, 2012 total industry shipments by the custom open die forging industry were 15% below 2012, and shipments for the custom seamless rolled ring forging industry were basically flat. (You can view FIA’s final sales data here.)
As forging executives move into the second quarter, there are some trends unfolding in 2014 that they should be watching closely. A recent column from IndustryWeek does a good job of describing five higher level trends that are affecting most of the manufacturing industry. These include the following:
- Increased reliance on automation and robots
- Rapid prototyping
- Smaller orders
- Leaner factories
On an operations level, there is perhaps one prevailing trend—the relentless push for continuous improvement. In an uncertain market, operations managers are realizing they have no choice but to optimize and become more agile. In some cases, this requires capital investment, but many industry leaders are discovering alternative ways to improve operations. LIT’s benchmark study of industrial metal-cutting companies, for example, identifies three key areas where managers can make improvements without adding new capital expense:
- Invest in Smarter, More Predictive Operations Management
- Embrace Proactive Care and Maintenance of Tools & Equipment
- Invest in Human Capital
Of course, there is no crystal ball for what 2014 will bring, and as the last few years have taught manufacturing executives, nothing is ever certain. In the end, the key will be for forging companies to strategically consider industry trends (i.e., smaller orders), while also proactively improving what is happening inside their doors.
April 20, 2014 / continuous improvement, human capital, industry news, LIT, maintaining talent, operations metrics, operator training, performance metrics, skills gap, strategic planning
Here’s the good news: Data continues to show that 2014 will likely be a year of growth. Gardner’s most recent metalworking business index (MBI), for example, showed that conditions in the metalworking industry expanded in March for the third straight month and the fourth time in five months. According to Modern Machine Shop, this was the fastest rate of growth since March 2012. Additional MBI findings revealed positive trends in several key business areas, including new orders and production, capacity utilization and spending, employment, and supplier deliveries. You can read the full report here.
All of this good news, however, comes with some uncertainty. As reported in LENOX Institute of Technology’s (LIT) 2014 outlook, most metals executives are only cautiously optimistic about the near-term future. Political issues, pricing pressures, and talent shortages are issues weighing heavily on industrial metal-cutting companies, leaving executives with no choice but to focus on continuous improvement as they attempt to strategically approach a shaky marketplace.
For machine shops, taking the time to make improvements is a challenge in itself, especially if business is starting to pick up. However, leading-edge shops know that in today’s demanding market, optimization is the only way to stay competitive. In other words, they are making time.
While you may not have the resources to undergo a major improvement initiative in 2014, the following are two key trends today’s machine shops need to consider:
- Data-Driven Manufacturing. Yes, “big data,” the Internet of Things, and digital manufacturing have all become industry buzzwords. But as this article from Modern Machine Shop Editor Mark Albert suggests, behind all of this terminology is a trend that can’t be ignored: Today’s machine shops need to make decisions based on information. In fact, Albert says this is the only way that production can move forward. “Facts and figures determine the path a manufacturing process should take, and they propel it ahead,” he states. “To drive manufacturing, factual information has to be available so that people, as well as computers, can use it.” Whether you are manually measuring cut times or implementing cutting-edge monitoring software, the point is that today’s manufacturing decisions need to be based on real, quantitative data.
- Closing the Gap. For years, experts have been warning manufacturers about the skills gap, but it is just now starting to have an impact. Case in point: Prime Advantage Corporation, a buying consortium for midsized manufacturers, recently conducted a survey of CFOs from its member companies. According to the results, 65% of those surveyed said they have open positions that they are seeking to fill, but are having difficulty filling the jobs because of a lack of qualified labor. Other reports are revealing similar trends. To close this gap, companies are discovering that they need to start investing in their human capital. This is a change from the last few years, when metals executives invested more in technology and equipment. In addition to addressing the skills gap, LIT’s benchmark survey of industrial metal-cutting companies provides evidence that investing in areas like training can provide additional benefits, including better quality, faster on-time customer delivery, higher revenue per operator, and lower rework costs.
To read more about trends we expect to see in 2014, check out LIT’s 2014 Industrial Metal-Cutting Outlook.
April 5, 2014 / best practices, continuous improvement, human capital, industry news, KPIs, LIT, maintaining talent, operator training, performance metrics, skills gap, value-added services
As the industry heads into the second quarter, uncertainty remains. In fact, as we state in our 2014 Industrial Metal-Cutting Outlook, uncertainty may be the only thing that is certain right now.
Like most sectors of the metal-cutting industry, metal service centers have experienced little if any growth in 2014. January started off with a much-needed improvement over December, with small increases in shipments and reduced inventory levels. However, February wasn’t as strong as many had hoped. According to the latest figures from the Metal Service Center Institute, U.S. service center steel shipments in February 2014 increased by 0.4% from February 2013, and 2014 year-to-date steel shipments increased by 0.2% from the same period in 2013. When looking at total volume from January to February, service centers’ shipments of steel and aluminum actually declined, reports IndustryWeek.
In other words, we aren’t quite there yet. Experts like the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) are hopeful that the rebound is coming, but until then, there are several industry trends that we feel will be key for metal service centers in 2014. Here are a few to keep in mind:
- Diversification. Shrinking profits and political issues like budget sequestration are making diversification a key strategy for service centers. In a recent column appearing in the March/April issue of Forward magazine, business journalist William P. Barrett stresses that this is especially important for companies that service the military. He states, “But it also seems prudent, in these times of daffy congressional budget strategies, to diversify as much as possible to dilute the risk that haunts the business of military contracting.” In some cases, this may mean forming new customer relationships, or it could mean offering existing customers a few value-added services (e.g., sawing, laser cutting, and parts fabrication) for a more predictable stream of revenue. You can read a great case study of one metal-cutting company’s successful “reinvention” here.
- The Skills Gap. We’ve all heard about the skills gap, and at this point, we may even be sick of hearing of hearing about it. But the issue is real, and like every manufacturer, service centers need to address it. For example, the latest U.S. Total Manufacturing Index revealed that manufacturing job openings for the latest three months is 16.1% above the year-ago quarter, and the rates-of-change are improving. According to analysis from IndustryWeek, this means that manufacturers should “expect upward pressure on wages as skilled labor becomes even harder to find.” While finding and training new employees is a large part of addressing the gap, as this white paper from LIT points out, it is just as important for today’s industrial leaders to focus on maintaining and improving their existing workforce.
- Metrics, Metrics, Metrics. Continuous improvement is the mantra of most manufacturing leaders these days, and as any lean consultant will confirm, this requires measurement. There is no question that industry buzz words like “metrics” and “KPIs” will continue to be important tools for industrial metal-cutting leaders; however, knowing where to start and what to measure can be a daunting task. Although the “right” KPI will vary by organization, as this blog discusses, there are a few simple guidelines managers should follow to determine the most effective performance measurements for their metal-cutting operation. For those who want a more in-depth look at metrics, MESA International is offering a webinar, “Manufacturing Metrics that Really Matter” on April 16. Based on a 5-month research study by MESA and LNS Research, the webcast is targeted at manufacturing executives, continuous improvement team members, and plant managers/supervisors that want to use metrics to optimize their business performance.
March 30, 2014 / continuous improvement, Cost Management, forecast, human capital, productivity, supplier relationships, value-added services
Steel has a rich history in America and around the globe. It has often been called both the backbone of manufacturing and the building block of society—and rightly so. We rely on steel in many industry sectors, including automotive, aerospace, infrastructure, and consumer durables. The health of our sector is critical to the economy, as well as the quality of life that many of us enjoy.
As a global company that services the industrial metal-cutting industry, we at LENOX Tools have a unique vantage point of what is happening within the larger metals market. We have watched some companies barely survive these last few years, and we have also seen leaders rise to the occasion. And while there is still a lot of uncertainty within the marketplace, we are confident that with the right tools, 2014 can be a year of opportunity for many of our customers.
According to the Steel Manufacturers Association, the short-term prospects for the steel industry are no more certain in 2014 than they were in 2011, 2012, or 2013. While 2012 was a good year for the industry, with significant increases in both crude steel production and consumption, 2013 wasn’t as good as everyone had hoped. According to the World Steel Association, U.S. steel production was down 2% in 2013 compared to 2012, and forecasts estimate that apparent consumption only grew a mere 0.7% in 2013 over 2012. (Final data has not been released.)
But there are some promising signs. The World Steel Association’s October outlook stated that steel demand is expected to increase by 3.0% in 2014, aided by the improving global economy and activities in the automotive, energy, and residential construction sectors. In addition, as reported by Modern Metals, both automotive sales and construction housing starts are expected to increase in 2014.
Even with these positive indicators, most metals companies remain cautiously optimistic about the near-term future. According to an annual survey of metal executives by American Metal Market, the majority of respondents expected business to improve, with only 8% stating they were less optimistic about business as they headed into 2014. However, three in four respondents said political events have heightened uncertainty, and only 30% of executives expected the economy to turn around this year.
As the industry continues to wait for a true economic comeback, we are seeing some major strategic shifts in the businesses that we service. Unfortunately, a few businesses just could not find a way to survive, but many others were able to adapt and found smarter ways to work. They became leaner, more productive, and made investments where they mattered. We have also seen the emergence of several industry trends, such as consolidation and an influx of new services and products, as companies attempt to remain profitable.
One trend that we hear a lot about is “on-shoring” or “near-shoring”—the process of moving a business operation from overseas back to the local country. China, of course, has been the common landing spot for outsourced manufacturing in recent history. However, with rising labor and energy costs, China’s cost advantage is disappearing. That, along with the difficulties in managing a business across the globe in countries with vastly different work and social cultures, is helping drive the “on-shoring” trend. This is great news for the U.S. metal-cutting industry, as we will help rebuild America one business at a time.
When the market does finally rebound, companies need to be ready. Based on our experience, we at LENOX Tools see the following best practices as critical action items for companies that want to be prepared for quick growth:
- Equip Employees. To succeed in today’s competitive market, industrial metal-cutting companies need to optimize all aspects of their operations, including their human capital. This is especially important as the industry deals with a major skills gap. 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 for companies that have multiple shifts and a diverse mix of talent. 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.
- Build Partnerships. 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 industrial metal-cutting companies. Support in areas such as preventative maintenance, troubleshooting, and even software tools can help improve productivity and, ultimately, save costs. By leveraging the knowledge and services of trusted suppliers, companies can turn vendor relationships into strategic partnerships that have a real impact on the bottom line.
- Invest in the Right Tools. Forward-thinking managers know that long-term success usually requires some investment, whether in time or capital. Now more than ever, companies need to weigh their cost expenditures against the benefits or detriments of dollar-allocating decisions. However, managers need to be sure they are not shortsighted by upfront costs and, instead, consider the long-term benefits of improved productivity. For example, many of our customers that deal with hard, difficult-to-cut metals have found that investing in carbide-tipped band saw blade is worth the up-front investment because it improves cost per cut. Shop-floor decisions and investments need to be strategic and should help achieve larger company goals.
Another Year of Improvement
The reality is that no one knows what 2014 will bring, which makes agility and strategy critical. In fact, uncertainty is perhaps the only thing that is certain in this market. However, there are two things the last few years have taught us: you can never be too prepared, and there is always room for improvement.
Industrial metal-cutting leaders know they cannot afford to rest on their laurels—not in 2014 or in the future. Continuous improvement is the only way to succeed in today’s market, and best-in-class managers are proactively encouraging change at all levels of their organization. We at LENOX Tools are ready for another year of improvement, and we look forward to helping equip our customers and their employees with the tools they need to make this year one of their best.
March 15, 2014 / benchmarking, Cost Management, human capital, KPIs, lean manufacturing, overall equipment effectiveness, productivity
Most companies that have adopted lean manufacturing strategies know the importance of measurement. When a metal-cutting operation can quantitatively assess their performance, it can start to make significant improvements and set realistic goals to stay competitive. It also allows them to benchmark themselves against other industrial metal-cutting organizations. However, metrics are only meaningful if they are tied to strategy. That’s where key performance indicators (KPIs) come into play.
KPIs are the measurements selected by a company to give an overall indication of the health of the business. KPIs are typically dominated by historical, financial measurements, but most experts agree that they are more valuable if they also include operational measurements. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds and takes careful consideration.
Case in point: Over the last several years, it has been popular for manufacturers to us overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) as a KPI. However, this blog post argues that OEE is not a KPI that should be measured at a company or plant level. In the blog, the author states five reasons why OEE is not a good KPI, including the fact that it is not comparable between different pieces of equipment and/or different locations. Instead, he suggests OEE should be used as a way to help identify and eliminate waste in front of a process, line, or equipment.
Although the “right” KPI will vary by organization, there are a few simple guidelines managers should follow to determine the most effective performance measurements for their metal-cutting operation. Below are a few strategies to consider:
- Plant-level KPIs should align with business objectives. According to this article from Control magazine, managers should begin by making sure plant-level KPIs line up with corporate goals. Is your company focused on growth, or is the goal to maintain existing customers? How does your KPI tie into those goals? As the manager quoted in the Control article states, a good KPI should consider the manufacturing side and business side of an operation.
- Keep the list short. If every KPI should help drive strategic intent, the list should be intentional and concise. As stated in this column from IndustryWeek, managers that measure too many things aren’t really measuring anything. While it is okay to add to your list of KPIs, as the IW author states, be sure to go back and edit the list to make sure each KPI works toward the overall company strategy. This helps maintain focus.
- Make it a team effort. KPIs must mean something to everyone in order to be effective. This means communication is critical. Key personnel and supervisors should understand what the KPIs are, why they are important, and how they are measured. Without explanation, team members can get frustrated, especially if goals aren’t being met. Managers can also take it one step further by defining employee goals in terms of organizational KPIs. According to this article from Mind Tools, this is the critical link between employee performance and organizational success. For more information on how to link KPIs with employee goals, you can read the full Mind Tools article here.
March 10, 2014 / human capital, lean manufacturing, quality, Safety
Over the last ten years, the term “efficiency” has moved beyond an industry buzzword to an industry expectation. Most fabricators have incorporated some form of lean principle into their operation, and those that haven’t are starting to consider it. In today’s market, only the “leanest” survive.
What many managers may not realize, however, is that lean processes can make jobs highly repetitive. As pointed out in this article from Industrial Engineer, this often eliminates critical rest time for employees. “The repetitive jobs take their toll on employees as stressful postures and high forces are repeated over and over throughout the day,” the article says. “In the long run, the financial savings from the productivity gains and quality improvements are used to pay for the higher cost of workers’ compensation claims.”
This is why many leading fabricators and other industrial metal-cutting organizations are incorporating ergonomics into their lean processes. Strategic equipment placement and improved ergonomics not only keep employees safe and healthy, but they are key aspects of high productivity and optimized workflow. The fewer times an operator touches a material, the fewer chances for injury and human error, both of which contribute to productivity.
Here are just two examples of how ergonomic improvements can make a difference in an industrial metal-cutting operation:
- Earle M. Jorgensen Company (EMJ), a metal service center featured in this white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology, recently performed an in-depth ergonomic study at one of its metalworking facilities. With the help of a third-party resource and input from its shop floor employees, the company made several changes to the shop floor to eliminate unnecessary handling and transportation of material. Ergonomic improvements ranged from repositioning band irons to adjusting the height of staging tables. By optimizing the workflow, the company has seen a reduction in employee injuries, improvements in operator efficiency, and increased output. EMJ has also seen an increase in shop floor morale, as operators feel they are playing a critical role in helping the facility succeed.
- SIGCO Inc., a glass and architectural metal fabricator featured in Assembly Magazine, made an investment to replace the traditional jib cranes and hoists workers were using to move 500-pound products. According to the article, the operations manager acknowledged that each piece of new equipment cost less than an average worker’s compensation back-injury claim—an indication that it was well worth the investment.
To read more about the impact lean manufacturing processes can have on employee health, check out this article from the Safety Daily Advisor. While being “lean” may be expected of today’s manufacturers, as the article warns, fabricators need to be sure they aren’t becoming anorexic.
March 4, 2014 / employee incentives, human capital, optimization, training
For the last several years, most metals companies have been investing in technology to improve productivity. And as the industry tries to deal with the skills gap, that trend will likely continue. In fact, a report from Fabricating & Metalworking expects 2014 to be the year of “unprecedented automation.”
However, industry leaders also realize that automation isn’t going to be the panacea for their workforce challenges, nor is it the only way they can optimize their operations. A growing number of manufacturers are finding that plant floor workers can play just as much of a role in improving efficiency and, if leveraged correctly, can be more of an asset than a cost.
According to this article in The New York Times, a few years ago, motorcycle manufacturer Harley completely redesigned its production system around this concept. The company built a brand new plant, but instead of relying on robots to ramp up productivity, the well-known brand put its value in its workers and the problem-solving skills they brought to the table.
Of course, Harley is a custom, unionized shop. Can the same hold true in a high-production metal-cutting environment? A recent column from IndustryWeek says yes. As evidenced in the winners of its Best Plants Award, IW says that leading manufacturers—both union and non-union—are investing in their plant floor production staffs and are seeing positive bottom-line results.
Here are a few metals companies that also finding that to be the case:
- Yarde Metals, a metal service center based in Southington, CT, has found that employee incentives can pay off. According to a case study from the LENOX Institute of Technology, Yarde has instituted a bonus system that provides operators with financial compensation when the company does well. To keep operators up to date on performance, managers post daily scorecards next to the time clock that lists productivity stats and other key operation metrics. Greg Sioch, lead foreman of the facility’s plate department, says the system has been very successful and that operators are used to getting bonuses. “Everybody knows that if you don’t send out a good product, you are going to be held accountable for it and it is going to ultimately affect the bottom line for everybody,” Sioch said.
- According to the Modern Metals 12th Annual Consuming Industries Survey, several fabricators, service centers, and metals OEMs are investing in internal training and education programs to combat the growing void of qualified workers. Safety, forklift, first aid, lean manufacturing, and operational training are just some of the programs being offered. In the article, “A Mixed Bag,” the magazine quotes one fabricator as saying that it plans to hire unskilled labor at lower rates and increase their pay as they learn skills. Another fabricator tells MM that it pays for any education relating to the metal industry and that it also offers apprenticeship programs.
To succeed in today’s competitive market, metalworking executives need to optimize all aspects of their operations—and that includes their human capital. Whether it’s incentivizing employees to keep quality high, leveraging their problem-solving skills to improve productivity, or providing them with the training to acquire the skills required in today’s automated plant, it pays to value your operators. Like Harley, metals companies have a choice: They can either treat their plant floor operators as costs, or they can turn them into valuable assets.
December 20, 2013 / human capital, maintaining talent, training
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 ThomasNet.com’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 ModernMetals.com 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:
- Establish ongoing operator training. This can be done either internally or with a supply chain partner. By requiring training, managers can balance the level of skill on the shop floor and across different shifts. There should be a formal program for new employees, as well as ongoing programs to keep seasoned operators up to date on new cutting techniques and advancements. Many service centers are finding that their training programs are most effective when they are merged with the quality control system and audited accordingly. When instituted as a formal procedure, operators understand the expectations upfront and, in turn, can be held accountable when performance isn’t up to par.
- Encourage employee ownership or “buy-in.” Even the best-trained operators won’t be successful if they don’t care about the work they are doing. The so-called “magic” happens on the shop floor when an operator or process area becomes committed to their operation and, more importantly, takes pride in hitting productivity and quality goals. One way to instill this type of work ethic is to actively include operators in improvement initiatives. To foster a more team-centered environment, managers should ask operators for ideas to make processes safer and faster and, when appropriate, brings those ideas to fruition. This strategy not only improves operational efficiency, but shows operators they are a critical aspect of the company’s success. Bonus and incentive programs can also help boost employee morale.
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.