January 31, 2002
The flow of product through you shop is a key issue in determining your prosperity as a business. Drawing a little insight from the Chinese concept of feng shui might help you achieve the kind of flow you're looking for.
I was looking into information about feng shui (pronounced fung SHWAY) in an effort to apply it to my home when I realized that the principals of balance, harmony, and an uncluttered path could apply easily to precision sheet metal manufacturing and bring to bear the power of these invisible "forces" in the workplace.
Feng shui is an ancient Chinese method of arranging one's environment to allow the maximum flow of chi, the life force of the universe. The industrial equivalent is the lean manufacturing environment. The idea is to make product flow through a process or a manufacturing plant like water—chi likes flowing water, and the bottom line likes flowing product.
In China, feng shui is a deeply held imperative of architectural arrangement, applying to the interior and exterior designs of a building. It considers the interaction of all things, such as furniture or equipment placement. Mobilizing your equipment so that—like your furniture—it can be moved either across your facility or just a few inches to fine-tune product flow through production is the key.
The book of changes, the I Ching, describes yin as a passive and contracting force, as opposed to yang, an active and expansive force. Feng shui is said to exploit the creative and dynamic tension between the feminine yin and the masculine yang.
In Western culture, concepts such as feng shui and chi are not given too much credence. But in the manufacturing environment, we need to strike a balance between overdoing a concept and only paying it lip service.
Parts of feng shui and chi do apply to the modern manufacturing facility, as well as to your furniture, machinery, and architectural arrangements.
Though a complex concept, feng shui need not intimidate us. Feng shui can and does apply to both lean and cellular manufacturing environments. In practice, the simplest feng shui principle says to "remove clutter," which directly applies to precision sheet metal production.
A place for everything and everything in its place ... hmmm—sounds like 5S. The 5S concept refers to five Japanese words, all of which are feng shui in spirit: seiri, seiton, seison, seiketsu, and shitsuke. These words are expressions of the principles of achieving and maintaining an effective and efficient workplace.
Seiri means eliminating everything not required for the work being performed.
Seiton means efficient placement and arrangement of equipment and materials, allowing a better product flow.
Seison equates to tidiness and cleanliness.
Seiketsu translates to ongoing improvement.
Shitsuke means discipline with leadership.
Like many concepts, 5S, feng shui, lean, yin, yang, and chi all can be interpreted either narrowly or broadly, depending on the circumstances of their use and how well you want the "water flow" of production to be.
I am highlighting only the simplest principles of this ancient wisdom, and superimposing feng shui on the world of precision sheet metal manufacturing might be a stretch. Perhaps a master of these ancient Chinese crafts could do it justice, but not this apprentice. However, if in the spirit of feng shui, you can channel some chi through just one process or manufacturing environment, I am sure it will pay off.
What am I alluding to here is something most Western cultures would consider a new-age or faddish idea. However, by applying these principles through thoughtful placement of machinery, tool racks, and material handling, you can improve your shop's throughput.
For example, if you place a grainer next to a punch press, material can flow smoothly to the press brake without the appearance of shar-chi, the "killing breath" force that subverts the positive chi in the form of storage racks that hold in-process inventory, product that can't yet be processed, or merchandise that can't be sold.
At your press brake, feng shui and chi can be found in the flow of product from the grainer to the press brake without the flow interruptions caused by storage racks or unprocessed materials. It can take the form of set-ups that flow freely from side to side down the length of the press brake bed. It could be the use of quick-change tools or removal of general clutter around the press brake, hardware machine, or punch.
Think of a manufacturing cell as a small house. Good feng shui calls for, among other factors, easy entrance to and exit from a clutter-free room or work area. A clutter-free work area is where you get good vibes from the last machinery arrangement, where junk left by the last operator is removed, where the yin and yang elements create harmony, and where the chi-attracting objects or patterns are most purposeful and promote flow.
Here's a suggestion—remove chi-draining objects, such as general clutter and material racks, from the area and to a place where they can do the least harm. Create a winding, smooth-cornered path through which product can flow without stagnating or rushing (rushing leads to mistakes).
A feng shui cure can remedy any bad product flow in your shop. Equipment color, live plants, pleasant sounds, and even heavy or powerful objects such as punches or press brakes can promote chi. These are but a few of the ways feng shui can direct chi and cure the disrupted flow in a manufacturing plant.
To wrap up, a manufacturing plant is the whole work, one that should "sit in the belly of the dragon"—the feng shui metaphor for a perfect setting. Operators can be in harmony with their environment and with their machines. They can and should work in plants that are clutter-free, with product flowing like water and with the killing breath of shar-chi banished for eternity.