Cash in on lean manufacturing

Fabricators say it isn't easy, but rewards are worth

The FABRICATOR January 2002
February 14, 2002
By: Tony Carroll

TRUMPF, Freudenberg-NOK, and Aero Gear Inc. share their experiences with lean manufacturing here and present the benefits and challenges of implementing it in the machine tool-making, automotive supply, and job shop environments.

Everyone is promoting lean manufacturing today, but some fabricators still have a lot of questions about it.

The FABRICATOR® looked at three types of manufacturing operations to characterize lean manufacturing, what’s required to get lean, and what benefits can result.

Getting a Handle on Lean

By common consensus, lean manufacturing is characterized by the Toyota Production System (TPS), the carmaking methods developed and perfected by Toyota Motor Corp.

Disagreements exist, but most proponents of lean manufacturing agree that it contains at least the following elements:

• Waste elimination throughout the entire production process (hence, lean).

• Adjusted product flow so that all production processes are value-added and production operates on a demand-pull basis.

• A policy of striving for continuous improvement at all times (kaizen).

• Team-based operations, frequently configured around workcells.

A Capital Equipment Manufacturer

Four years ago, TRUMPF Inc., Farmington, Conn., was growing too rapidly—about 20 percent per year. Operations couldn't keep up with demand for its laser cutting machines, press brakes, and punching machines.

Today TRUMPF has 550 employees (up from 300). It manufactures about 260 machines per year versus 150. "Without our new lean operations, we would have more than 1,000 people, would be working lots of overtime, and would still be missing shipments," said Robert A. Castonguay, Synchro manager.

Project Synchro, launched in 1997, focuses on a single product line at the start: TRUMPF's highest-volume unit, the L2530 laser cutting machine. "We were erecting them like buildings. It used to take 22 to 23 days to assemble one," Castonguay said.

The company applied a variety of tactics to the production line. To reduce work-in-process (WIP) inventory, a two-bin system was implemented. When one bin is empty, it's returned to the supplier for replenishment. Also, the company installed a creative material handling system. These, in addition to work flow standardization and computer scheduling, slashed machine assembly time to 11 days.

The same tactics now have been expanded to all four major product lines. Perhaps 150 kaizen workshops have been held over four years.

The results for TRUMPF have been impressive, Castonguay said:

• Productivity is up 30 to 35 percent, based on the number of people not hired as production ramped up.

• Floor space has been reduced by 45 percent.

• An estimated $8 million has been saved over the last four years.

"Our biggest challenge now is our supply chain: 40 percent of our materials come from Europe. There's never a shortage of areas to improve, that's for sure," Castonguay said.

A Large Automotive Supplier

Freudenberg-NOK (FNOK), with its headquarters in Plymouth, Mich., was formed in 1989 with $180 million in volume. The company lost money until 1991, when President and CEO Joseph Day decided to go lean. The program was called GROWTTH—Get Rid of Waste Through Team Harmony. In eight months it was rolled through all 14 of FNOK's Western Hemisphere facilities using kaizen workshops.

"We started by looking for the 'low-hanging fruit,' the easy opportunities to improve first," said Thomas A. Faust, vice president of GROWTTH and Continuous Improvement. "We put in U-shaped cells, reduced setup, and cut inventory." New stages in FNOK's lean journey followed, including Production Preparation Process (3P), an effort to create lean systems before ordering any equipment.

Faust, who came to FNOK in 1992, said that getting people onboard is the key to lean manufacturing success. "You try to bring it in, in a nonthreatening way. You spell out all the reasons we need to become lean. Start it as a pilot project, throw away all the old rules on the pilot, do all the right things to become lean, do it all with volunteers, see how it works. Then you talk about how you can do it on a large scale. The paradigms start shattering."

As for results, the company has grown to $1 billion in revenue and did it in the same floor space it had nine years previously.

In the Job Shop

Speed, cost, and quality were the priorities Mark Tustin had in 1997 when he was asked to head the lean manufacturing initiative at Aero Gear Inc., Windsor, Conn. Aero Gear basically is a job shop producing gears, gearboxes, housings, and other assemblies for the aerospace industry. In business 15 years with about 85 employees, it had more than 300 different part numbers to worry about.

Initially, Tustin said, the driving force was major customer Pratt & Whitney's urging to become lean. "But at some point, you have to drop lead times, cut costs, and improve quality. We're in a global market. Anyone can make these things, and you've got to be competitive."

After a two-week training period at Pratt & Whitney, field trips to nearby companies, and a lot of study, Tustin launched Aero Gear’s lean initiative with a single family of pumps comprising 75 part numbers. Next was a line of more complex spur and spiral gears. Other projects followed more rapidly.

The company cut lead times on the initial pump line from 12-14 weeks to four. It reduced floor space by 25 to 50 percent. Productivity went up from 35 to 50 percent. Part travel was cut by 75 to 90 percent. "We have flow lines now—parts don't bounce around the shop the way they used to," Tustin said.

When lean procedures were brought into the office, the time from receipt of an order to when it actually hit the shop floor shrank from 23 days to three. The big hurdle left is dealing with large-quantity orders, which tie up the job shop’s machines for extended periods and require schedule adjustments, Tustin said.

"Our most valuable resource is our people," he said. "We sold lean to them. We took them around to other companies, held meeting after meeting. We were moving them out of their comfort zone, so we knew we had to move slowly. But once they got onboard with the concept, there was no stopping them."

Tony Carroll is a free-lance writer based in Blue Bell, Pa., and can be reached at

Aero Gear Inc., 1050 Day Hill Road, Windsor, CT 06095, phone 860-688-0888, fax 860-285-8514, Web site


Freudenberg-NOK, P.O. Box 248, Morristown, IN 46161-0245, phone 765-763-7246, fax 765-932-3805.

TRUMPF Inc., Farmington Industrial Park, Farmington, CT 06032, phone 860-255-6000, fax 860-678-1704, Web site

Tony Carroll

Contributing Writer
Blue Bell, PA

Published In...



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.

Preview the Digital Edition

Subscribe to The FABRICATOR

Read more from this issue

Related Companies