Beginning the lean manufacturing journey

LAI International takes the first steps, reaps rewards right away

The FABRICATOR August 2009
August 1, 2009
By: Dan Davis

LAI International, Scottsdale, Ariz., is a precision manufacturer that supplies specialized parts to many of the most-demanding OEMs in the world. Even with that success, the company realized there was still room to improve. As a result, it embarked on a lean journey and is seeing immediate results.

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The resume for LAI International, Scottsdale, Ariz., is an impressive read. The company boasts $60 million in annual sales; five manufacturing locations stretching from Scarborough, Maine, to Tucson, Ariz.; 250 employees; and a customer list that reads like a who's who in the aerospace and energy industries. The company's engineers have developed product designs—such as screen panels for fighter jets, flexible tubing for medical applications, and specialty parts for turbines—that aren't easily duplicated by rivals.

The company is approved to ISO 9001:2000, AS9100, and Nadcap standards. It has manufacturing skills in the areas of waterjet cutting, laser processing, and machining that make the company a strategic part of OEMs' supply chains. In fact, LAI has developed its own technology for waterjet cutting of complex geometries in coated jet engine and power system components.

But resumes don't tell you everything.

They don't list areas of improvement and give you only a superficial view. It's only after an in-depth conversation that you get a clearer picture of the entity behind the fancy grade of paper.

After such an interview, you find out that LAI has room to improve and eagerly wants to explore those opportunities. Company leaders aren't afraid to admit that the company can do things much more efficiently.

This realization came when LAI hired individuals who had experience with lean manufacturing—the practice of rooting out waste in processes. Lean manufacturing and Six Sigma, a quantitative, analytical method that seeks to remove the causes of errors and variation in manufacturing processes, became regular parts of the LAI lexicon. Then came the realization that to make the largest impact on the organization as a whole, lean had to be "institutionalized," according to John Rogers, LAI's vice president of operations.

Frank Bailey, plant manager, LAI Midwest, Minneapolis, Minn., is a certified Six Sigma black belt and helped to establish training goals for the company. Over the past couple of years, thousands of dollars have been spent training people in the ways of lean manufacturing and certifying them as black or green belts in Six Sigma.

"We think continuous improvement has to come from the top. And it has to be done at every level of the company. That's how we run the company," said Stewart Cramer, LAI's president.

Ultimately, the improvements will make a difference with LAI's customers as well.

"[Our customers] are very sophisticated and demanding. Many of them are further down the path in lean than we are. Many of them come into our facilities and want to see what we're doing with those types of skills and tools," Rogers said.

"That's another motivation," he continued. "We actually want to get out ahead of the curve on that. These folks that have a lot of experience in these disciplines will be the first to tell us that we are not very far along. But we have reaped some benefits, and we have captured some low-hanging fruit."

These small victories have helped to energize the entire company as it moves forward on its lean manufacturing journey.

390 Ways to Improve

When LAI's Rich Technology International in Maine launched its lean training efforts, facility leaders met with small groups of people, teaching them the basic ways to help identify waste, selling them on the idea that this was necessary to stay competitive, and reassuring them that this wasn't a secret effort to reduce labor. Each of these groups also was involved in brainstorming sessions to think of potential projects.

That resulted in 390 ideas, according to Melanie Wintle, an LAI lean coordinator. Those ideas were categorized into long- and short-term projects, and a few of the short-term projects were tagged as prime opportunities to chalk up quick successes. The groups then appointed product champions—nonmanagement types—to lead the project teams made up of people from across all shifts.

"We established clear project plans, set goals and roles for the team, and made sure we had management buy-off," Wintle said. "Then we set out to implement the plan."

One plan called for eliminating as much unplanned downtime as possible. The project team developed a total productive maintenance program that involves all of the operators on the shop floor to address this issue.

Operators now are responsible for a lot of maintenance chores on their machines. They follow daily and weekly machine check lists to keep up with simple maintenance tasks. A visual management approach is used to ensure the right fluids go into the right receptacles; a bulk fluid tank with a blue cap goes into a receptacle on the machine tool that has a blue top. Markings also have been made on tanks to let operators know where fluid levels should be for optimal machine operation.

Another plan was based on single-minute exchange of dies, a practice stampers use to quicken the replacement of dies in a press. In this instance, however, the team focused on reducing the time spent attaching a grounding wire to a fixture (see Figure 1). It used to take about 90 seconds to find the proper Allen wrench, unscrew the wire, move the fixture, and reattach the screw. The operator also had to cope with nuts and washers that could easily be mishandled. The resolution called for the use of a quick-release plug that attaches to the other half of the wire, which is permanently attached to the fixture. No wrenches or bolts are required, and ground wires on fixtures now can be hooked up in seconds.

The team also addressed clamping of fixtures (see Figure 2). Nuts and bolts were replaced with twist-and-lock/quick-release clamps, which dropped changeover time for a general fixture from six minutes down to 60 seconds.

The Maine facility also wanted to work on elements of 5S—sorting out what's not needed, setting in order tools and supplies, shining up everything to improve workspaces, standardizing processes, and sustaining the discipline and commitment to this program—all while keeping safety in mind.

The first example (see Figure 3) is an area that had a shelving unit holding supplies for operations that were located nowhere nearby. The supplies were moved, and the area cleaned. Machine guarding was added to the fixture, and yellow paint was used to signify potential pinch points.

Another example (see Figure 4) actually started as an improvement idea. Shop floor personnel turned to mobile carts to move pumps from machine to machine to improve fluid exchanges, but soon found that it was difficult to keep the carts organized. Now point-of-use pumps are located at each machine, and if it is needed, the line no longer has to be flushed because that line is dedicated to that machine.

The 5S program led to the creation of shadow boxes as well (see Figure 5).

"The idea here is that you can work into your own work environment, you know what needs to happen, you know what tools are needed to make it happen, and you absolutely know whether or not you have all of the tools at the workstation that you need," Wintle said.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

At LAI's Minneapolis location, facility leaders tried to keep everyone engaged and enthusiastic about ongoing kaizen events—focused activities targeted to improve a specific process. So the teams started giving kaizen events names that were similar to popular movies. That's how the "Tape-busters" project came to life.

More specifically, this project took a look at wasted movement in a cell dedicated to airflow testing of a power generation nozzle. (Applying tape to the nozzles to check airflow was an integral part of this cell's activities.) A team of five, which included at least one person totally unfamiliar with the process, went out and observed the testing process, documenting and timing all the steps. They also drew up the movements made in the cell in a spaghetti diagram, which often looks like a bowl of spaghetti noodles when all of the movements are documented.

"We found out that the probing and backlighting took a huge amount of time, and investigating the process we discovered that another group was already doing this function," said Laurie Schneider, a continuous improvement engineer. "So it was a redundant step that we were able to eliminate and get a huge amount of savings right there.

"The second thing that we noticed took a lot of time was the application of this fixture," she continued. "At the time, it was a solid square block with two holes in it. But they had to completely unthread the rod, slide the piece on, and thread the rod again."

The team set out to redesign the bracket, which was used to seal off cavities during airflow testing of the part, and came up with an E-shaped design that could slide easily onto the part for testing (see Figure 6). A quick turn of a nut now keeps the bracket firmly attached to the "critical-to-quality" part, according to Schneider.

Finally, the team got around to busting the tape problem. Originally the operator had to cut the tape to size for the area where he was going to use it, peel the backing off the tape, and then smooth out every single piece of tape applied. Now the facility outsources the tape cutting and the removal of the tape backing to a local nonprofit organization that specializes in helping people rehabilitate from injuries, and they organize the precut and prepeeled tape in color-coded boxes that can be accessed quickly and can act as a guide for new trainees in the testing cell.

In doing all of those things "we were able to reduce the cycle time by 58 percent, which allowed a 10 percent increase in the throughput through the entire value chain," Schneider said.

Cutting up on the Job

Stephanie Miller, plant manager of LAI East, Westminster, Md., admitted that her staff has really just begun the lean training. Nonetheless, she is excited about the prospect of rooting out waste in manufacturing the precision parts for the aerospace industry.

"It's a means of doing quality quick," she said.

That was just one goal of a kaizen event. The team assigned to the task wanted to increase cutting uptime for a duct component used to remove compressed air from aircraft engines as they are in use and reduce the inspection time of those same components.

After observing and dissecting the cutting process, the team determined too much time was wasted in unclamping, indexing, and reclamping barstock on the waterjet.

"Our focus was to try and reduce that setup time. We approached this through an automated fixture," said Keith Lemmer, an LAI engineer. "We had to use some in-house technology to develop some fixturing, which is not available in the waterjet world, to enable us to do that."

Now once the barstock is clamped in, cutting commences, and the material automatically feeds the waterjet. A "push-and-locate" bar positions the barstock in the exact position it needs to be, and material holding clamps ensure the material doesn't move during cutting. Cut parts and scrap material are then fed into a catch bin where an indexer segregates them.

This automated approach helped to increase waterjet cutting time on this particular part from 60 percent per hour to 90 percent per hour, Lemmer said.

Also, because of a project that helped to reduce the amount of variation in this part family, in addition to the automated fixturing, quality personnel no longer have to inspect every part that comes off the waterjet.

"This should cut inspection time to as little as eight pieces per shift due to the increased stability of the process and reduction in variation," Lemmer added.

Putting It All Together

Each of the tools associated with lean manufacturing efforts carries the potential for dramatic change, but when you take advantage of them when rethinking a specific process, the impact can be hard to fathom. Joe Wagner, plant manager, LAI Southwest, Phoenix, Ariz., found this out when a team went to work trying to reorganize cutting and assembly processes associated with an armor project for an OEM in the defense industry.

Wagner described the process as "pretty erratic." Shop floor personnel had to keep track of about 800 different parts that would be shipped to the customer each month in sets, groupings of armor components for 12 vehicles.

"The flow was uneven. We had a lot of missed assembly components," Wagner said.

A team was formed and a kaizen event took place. Applying 5-S thinking, the team cleared the assembly and packing areas. In line with visual workplace approaches, pictures of properly assembled components now act as constant reminders of what needs to be included in the sets to be sent to the customer. In establishing a pull system of manufacturing, the team now gets kanban boxes of cut parts from the floor when they are needed, not before.

Process mapping helped the team to rethink how shipping occurred; now incoming parts, rubber protection components, foam, and packing containers are organized according to the steps taken to ship products out the door.

Wagner reported that these changes have reduced the time required to assemble a 12-vehicle set from 100 hours to 56 hours. Correspondingly, labor costs have been reduced by more than 50 percent.

These sorts of results get LAI management very excited. Their biggest challenge then becomes trying to share these successes with other locations in the corporate family.

Cramer stressed that company leaders are communicating multiple times a day, but that may not be enough. As a result, LAI plans to organize lean summits a couple of times per year and have the lean facilitators share ideas and participate in brainstorming.

"We are excited. This certainly looks to us like the way forward for us to be the company that we want to be. The results have been very well-received by our customers," Cramer said. "The level of detail that we are engaged in and the exchange of information has been very empowering for both us and our customers."

Those are details that LAI definitely will want to include on the corporate resume.

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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