root cause analysis
June 10, 2014 / benchmarking, best practices, blade failure, bottlenecks, continuous improvement, Cost Management, customer delivery, human capital, LIT, maintaining talent, productivity, quality, root cause analysis, Safety
When quality hiccups or bottlenecks occur, the first instinct is to blame the machine. A quick blade replacement or tooling adjustment is the go-to response, and in the short-term, the problem is addressed. Production continues, and the order is eventually filled.
However, industrial metal-cutting leaders know that quick fixes are not doing anyone any favors, especially when quality is involved. Fabricators with high quality standards need to be sure that all areas of their cutting operation are optimized; otherwise, their costs are going to go through the roof. For instance, an operator that doesn’t understand the proper speed setting for a specific type of metal might end up going through a half a dozen blades to maintain a square cut, when the job should have only required two blades.
The harsh reality is that today’s customers are demanding tighter tolerances and higher quality without the added cost. While it is tempting to make knee-jerk responses to meet tight timetables, fabricators that want to remain competitive need to focus on long-term solutions to improve cut quality. Really, you can’t afford to do it any other way.
With the right strategies in place, maintaining premium cut quality doesn’t have to cost a premium. Here are a few to consider:
- Evaluate your operators. Sometimes the root cause of quality or cost issues isn’t what it is cutting your metal; it’s who is cutting your metal. According to research from ARC Advisory Group, the global process industry loses about 5% of annual production due to unscheduled downtime and poor quality. But here’s the kicker: almost 80% of these losses are preventable, with 40% largely due to operator error, ARC estimates. When problems arise, don’t fail to consider the human variable. A lack of skill sets, business knowledge, and low employee morale can affect quality, as well as other areas like cost, maintenance, and safety. One way to address this is by implementing a strong ongoing training program, either internally or with the help of a trusted supplier. To read about more strategies for attacking the human variable, check out the white paper, Accounting for Operator Inefficiencies in the Metals 2.0 Environment.
- Break in blades. According to LIT’s benchmark study, breaking in band saw blade is a best practice among fabricators and other industrial metal-cutting companies. According to the study, 45% of organizations surveyed reported they “always” break in blades, 30% said they do it “most of the time,” and 15% said they do it “occasionally.” While breaking in a blade may seem tedious, highly skilled operators know that it pays off in the long run. A new band saw blade has razor sharp tooth tips, and in order to withstand the cutting pressures used in band sawing, tooth tips should be honed to form a micro-fine radius. Failure to perform this honing will cause microscopic damage to the tips of the teeth, resulting in reduced blade life and poor-quality cuts. Completing a proper break-in on a new blade will dramatically increase its life and cut performance.
- Communicate. As this Quality Digest article states, quality is no longer a topic for the Quality department; it should be a company-wide mindset. Talking to operators and maintenance personnel about how their actions affect quality—and then holding them accountable—promotes a bigger picture understanding of the role everyone plays in company success. You may even want to consider including a few key shop floor employees in quality meetings. According to the QD article, a growing number of companies are developing internal cross-functional quality councils that pull in personnel from across the value chain to gain different perspectives and identify new solutions to problems. This type of management encourages employee “buy-in” and creates a team atmosphere— both of which can help build a commitment to quality.
root cause analysis
May 10, 2014 / best practices, continuous improvement, Employee Morale, human capital, industry news, LIT, maintaining talent, operator training, quality, root cause analysis, skills gap
There is no question that the skills gap is one of the most pressing issues for industrial metal-cutting companies and, of course, the manufacturing industry at large. According to a recent article from 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 and more Americans age out of the workforce.
As we covered here, this has prompted industry leaders like GE and industry associations like the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) to take action. Just last week, JPMorgan Chase & Company announced a $5-million commitment to the city of Dallas to help shrink the skills gap within several industries. The move is part of a five-year, $250-million national initiative Chase launched in December to provide job training and fund local research to identify the areas most in need. As this video explains, the banking giant is using real data to identify real needs and then investing in those needs to fill the actual gaps.
While these types of large-scale initiatives might be left to large-scale companies, Chase’s strategy is one that just about any fabricator can apply to their own operations. Like Chase, fabricators that want to make a real difference in their business need to identify the actual gaps within their own company walls. This is especially true if a large number of your workers are headed for retirement. Once you have identified the gaps within your organization, you can determine the skills that are needed and then adjust your training and hiring programs accordingly.
The following are two strategies that can help you determine if (and where) there are skills gaps in your operation:
- Map them out—literally. Marlin Steel, featured in a profile on thefabricator.com, is using a Skills Matrix to ensure that its shop always has someone available to perform the necessary skills. In a Q&A with the trade publication, Marlin Steel President Drew Greenblatt explains that the Skills Matrix is essentially a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that identifies each worker’s skill set. Each skill is awarded a point value and, in essence, ranks workers by their skill level. This helps the shop identify strengths, gaps, and individual opportunities for improvement. It also encourages cross-training. To make it a win-win situation, Greenblatt provides financial compensation every time a worker adds a skill. (You can read the rest of the interview here.)
- Identify problem areas. Another method for identifying skills gaps in your fabrication shop is to evaluate your workers on the job to determine whether or not they are causing avoidable errors or inefficiencies. Here are a few tactics described in a white paper from LIT that can help managers identify problem areas:
- Conduct a time analysis to measure shop floor efficiency. You can read the specifics on how to conduct an analysis here. Once the analysis is performed, managers can review the results to identify inefficient workers, patterns when certain tasks are performed (i.e., cutting different grades of material), and baselines for improvement. Ideally, this is performed without worker knowledge in order to get a more accurate picture of performance.
- Take a close look at inventory levels. Even if an organization is meeting customer orders, high levels of inventory can indicate “hidden” inefficiency and quality issues. Waste and remnants are often the result of operator errors such as incorrect machine settings and improper blade usage—both of which point to a lack of training or knowledge.
- Implement some form of process control. Without a paper trail, it is difficult for managers to find the source of operational issues, including problem operators. By having processes in place to hold operators accountable such as daily checklists, maintenance reports, defect reports, and signatures to hold operators accountable, executives can quickly and easily pinpoint the cause of workflow bottlenecks, increased tooling costs, and other issues that can impact business performance.
As the skills gap is proving, investing in your human capital is just as critical as investing in your technology and equipment. Taking the time to identify strengths and weaknesses within your operations staff—and then encouraging and rewarding improvement—is one way industrial metal-cutting leaders can equip themselves for today, as well as the future.
root cause analysis
January 15, 2014 / costs, root cause analysis
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:
- Ask why. While this strategy may seem a bit simplistic, it is actually a lean manufacturing concept. According to online resource Lean Production, a common problem-solving approach within lean manufacturing is to ask “why” five times. The idea is that every time you ask “why,” you are moving a step closer to discovering the true underlying problem.
- Work with suppliers. No one knows your tools and equipment better than your suppliers, and many offer value-added preventative maintenance (PM) and troubleshooting services that can help you determine whether or not the issue is truly mechanical. They may also offer documents and online tools that can help aid in troubleshooting. Reference guides like this one from the LENOX Institute of Technology (LIT), for example, can help managers identify whether or not the source of premature blade failure is due to user error or machine error.
- Evaluate your operation. This includes everything from inventory levels and safety scores to cut times. As pointed out in the white paper, Accounting for Operator Inefficiencies in the Metals 2.0 Environment, high scrap rates, excess inventory, and low safety scores are often key indicators of operator-based inefficiencies. Cuts times are also critical to identifying the source of error. This, however, requires a baseline for comparison. If your facility hasn’t already undergone a time analysis to measure operational efficiency, this article from thefabricator.com gives a great overview of the process and how you can get started.
- Be proactive. Don’t wait for failures to occur to start looking for inefficiencies. Implementing proactive management strategies such as PM programs, formal training procedures, and lean techniques within your industrial metal-cutting operation can ensure that your equipment, operators, and processes are running at optimal levels. In essence, the more undesirable effects you can take out of the equation, the faster you can identify and respond to problems when they occur.