Lean on it

Despite roots in high-volume production, lean manufacturing can still help job shops

The FABRICATOR August 2004
August 10, 2004
By: Dan Davis

Mike Wriglesworth of W.W. Metal Fab, Milwaukie, Ore., is a convert. Lean manufacturing is his new religion.

At least, that's what he and the 85 employees practice at work. With the encouragement and financial backing of one of its largest customers, truckmaker Freightliner LLC, and the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership (OMEP), W.W. Metal Fab is on its way to tackling multiple lean manufacturing initiatives.

The baptism came last year when Charlie Martin, an OMEP manufacturing consultant, visited W.W. Metal Fab and took a close look at the shop floor, particularly the way a firewall tunnel for a military truck was made.

The firewall assembly is fabricated from 10-gauge steel and sits between the transmission and the truck's shifter. Fabrication involved bending several little brackets in a haphazard manner on a 14-foot press brake. W.W. Metal Fab operators, according to Wriglesworth, would bend only enough of the smaller components until they had the correct number to fabricate one firewall tunnel assembly.

Additionally, the fabrication process called for the components to be marked with part numbers. This process was taking place outside of W.W. Metal Fab's bending operation and eating up a lot of process time.

"With that particular part we used to say 'Ugh!' because we didn't want to do that part. It took us forever," Wriglesworth said.

Martin and a W.W. Metal Fab team looked over the process, charted out how things flowed, and reworked the flow. The team suggested spending a couple hundred dollars on new press brake tooling to expedite part marking.

"We ended up putting the part marking into the setup, and we ended up revising the tooling in the press brake so that all of the components in the kit could be bent at one time," Wriglesworth said. "Then the parts went down a conveyor, and we had a spot welder behind the press brake operator. He put the parts in a spot welded assembly. We literally had a flow of one part in and one part out, every time."

What took a week now takes only a shift to fabricate. In addition, W.W. Metal Fab doesn't have firewall tunnel components cluttered all over its shop floor for the week that was once needed to complete an order.

Wriglesworth estimated the company achieved a 30 percent labor savings once the changes were completed.

W.W. Metal Fab is not alone in finding lean religion. IndustryWeek's 2003 Manufacturing Performance Institute Census of Manufacturers reveals that 36 percent of U.S. manufacturers consider lean manufacturing to be their primary improvement methodology.

But that figure might include those manufacturers that like to think they are lean simply because they are forcing fewer employees to do more. George Koenigsacker, president of Lean Investments LLC and former president of the Hon Co., told Industry-Week late last year that he believes less that 5 percent of U.S. manufacturers are in fact "substantially lean."

Gary Conner, the principal for Lean Enterprise Training and author of Lean Manufacturing for the Small Shop, believes the numbers are worse for metal fabricating job shops.

"I present [seminars] at shows like Westec and IMTS [International Manufacturing Technology Show] all the time. I'm still surprised that I run across people who haven't even heard of the term," Conner said. "I'm not sure where they are living."

That's a shame because lean techniques can make a huge impact on the small to medium-size job shop, according to Brad Stump, director of manufacturing productivity, Manufacturing Extension Partnership of Louisiana. Unlike the bureaucracy and red tape associated with larger organizations, smaller job shops usually have company administrators who are also fabricators, more cross-trained employees, and facility layouts that are easier to manipulate.

Stump added that his experiences back up his observations. "The vast majority of people I've worked with are small mom-and-pop job shops," he said.

Lean Origins

Alas, most job shops simply don't believe that lean manufacturing applies to them. After all, the whole lean philosophy of production emerged from the high-volume world of automaking.

To be more exact, Taiichi Ohno, relying on his own experiences and on Shigeo Shingo's ideas related to tool changeover and defect detection and correction, created the Toyota Production System from which most lean manufacturing concepts derived.

Ohno joined Toyota as a young man and worked his way up through the ranks. As assembly shop manager, he started implementing his new approach for improving the production process.

Ohno really had no choice to concentrate on the process and not the technology. Because the occupying U.S. forces in post-World War II Japan had placed limits on the availability of credit, Japan experienced a collapse in car sales. Toyota was nearly bankrupt and couldn't afford new equipment, which many thought was necessary to improve production efficiency.

Based on the financial restrictions, Ohno applied intellect instead of investments. The result is the Toyota Production System, which can be boiled down to three basic points:

  • Make only what the market demands.
  • Work in small batch sizes.
  • Create visual reminders throughout the production facility to indicate where action is required.

From there many of today's tools used to implement lean manufacturing were born.

The manufacturing approach catapulted Toyota into a carmaking giant and helped to revolutionize the auto industry worldwide. U.S. automakers and their supply chains are still striving to replicate Toyota's success.

Not for Me?

Of course, job shop readers of The FABRICATORare nodding their heads in unison right now and thinking a common thought: "That's a nice story, but my operation is significantly different from an automotive plant. What does this have to do with me?"

Vincent Bozzone, principal of Delta Dynamics Inc. and author of Speed to Market, said he has encountered that thought process repeatedly.

"Here's what happens," he said. "If a job shop is looking to improve, and they think lean might help them, they'll go to a seminar that describes lean.

"What happens normally is the people putting on the seminar come in and teach how to improve by using lean techniques. They don't differentiate very well between lean in a mass production environment and lean in a job shop. They think that their stuff applies everywhere.

"So the job shop owners are smart enough to realize that whatever the person is saying doesn't make sense, and they turn the speaker off," Bozzone continued. "They don't take the next step, and if they take the next step, they find it doesn't work.

"So it's a question of really educating the job shop owners and managers," he added. "If you want to get lean, you have to understand what that means in your environment."

For job shops, that means cutting waste. That's waste in the order and delivery process that balloons lead-times. That's an extra step in the production process that pushes cost up. That's unneeded production methods that put end-product quality at risk.

For job shops, lean doesn't apply to final inventory. Unlike automakers and others pumping out thousands of parts or products a day, job shops are working to complete a hundred different orders a day. It's made and out the door. It's also one of the keys to becoming a lean manufacturer.

"Matching supply to demand is already taking place in a job shop. You are already building to order," Bozzone said.

"So you ask how do you bring supply and demand closer then? In that environment, the difference is in time. If you want to bring the supply and demand closer together and the product is already exactly what's required, the only other variable in there is time," he said.

Fortunately, lean manufacturing principles, if applied correctly, can help job shops stop wasting time.

Getting Lean

Yet, for as many ways that exist to fabricate and form metal, just as many ways exist to apply lean manufacturing techniques to a job shop. The beliefs are many, and the tools almost as numerous. All successful implementations, however, share these traits:

An outside point of view. Job shop owners are more likely to roll out the red carpet for an OSHA inspector than a business consultant. If those same shop owners are interested in learning how to become a lean operation, they might want to reconsider their prior beliefs.

"I prefer to have an outside, intuitive mind coming in. I see this every day," said W.W. Metal Fab's Wriglesworth.

"Sometimes when you live it every day, you don't see the whole picture. You get numb to it."

After the first success, Wriglesworth invited OMEP's Martin back to his facility to take a look at three other areas for potential improvement.

Other fabricators, on the other hand, may not need repeat visits. The ultimate goal is to have someone become the lean champion on the shop floor.

"What I do is I educate people about how to think like a businessperson," Conner said. "Most people on the shop floors, they grew up like me. My dad was a bridge builder. I didn't have the chance to get an M.B.A. when I was a kid. I went to work in the shops.

"So from the perspective of having someone from the outside to educate people what to look for, yes, I think there's a great value to that. But in the end, the people have to end up doing it themselves. They are the experts."

Investment in training. Applying lean manufacturing techniques in a job shop requires more than hanging up some colorful printouts on the bulletin board and occasionally asking co-workers what they think about something. Time needs to be set aside to teach people how to think critically about their individual efforts and overall processes.

Craig Reynolds, a sales manager for Viking Tool & Gage Inc., Conneaut Lake, Pa., said 15 or 20 of the company's 120 employees went regularly to training sessions that spanned two weeks. In the sessions, the employees learned the costs behind the jobs and the rework, the plans to increase profits, and the traits needed to push continuing improvement efforts on the shop floor.

"We try to help employees understand that there is global competition out there all the time. You always have to be improving and doing better. If you don't, someone else will be doing that and taking work away from us," Reynolds said.

"So it's helped us retain work, and we have been able to pick up a lot of jobs that were at other facilities. For one reason or another, they weren't competitive or they were having problems in their processes."

As an example, Reynolds pointed out that stamping cells for aluminum extruded parts used to have three or four people feeding material, unloading parts, and packing parts. Now, thanks to equipment reconfiguration and employee input, the cells work efficiently with only one person manning the job.

Expenses related to training can be minimized if they are a concern. Grants may be available, or local educational institutions may offer programs. Greg Cornett, an operations manager with Tennessee Stampings LLC, a supplier of metal fabrications to the automotive ride control industry, partnered with the University of Tennessee's Manufacturing Extension Program to help establish a road map for implementing lean concepts. Eighteen months later, the company is well on its way to seeing improvements, such as reducing redundant parts handling by 30 percent.

A "visualization" of what's to be accomplished. This can take many forms, but it's all related to giving the troops something more than their marching orders.

For example, OMEP's Martin conducts hands-on simulations with job shops to show the waste-reduction and improvement opportunities in a die change scenario. The simulation might last from three hours to a whole day.

Typically after that, value stream mapping takes place. This is the "map" that details the process steps and indicates where value and non-value efforts take place. This paper-based document charts the course for changes and potential savings.

"The visual part of it is breathtaking when you can actually see the dollars that are saved," Conner said.

A willingness to involve everyone. Lean principles apply not only to the shop floor but the front office.

Think about the time needed to put a job order onto the production schedule. Wriglesworth has given it some thought.

He is taking a closer look at streamlining his paperwork process. Now it takes about five days to process an order; he wants to get it down to one day.

"I'm kind of preparing ourselves for growth. We have so much to offer, and we are getting so much new customer activity right now. So I think we are really going to take off this next year, and I'm trying to get everything in order," he said. "The office efficiency is something we've struggled with."

A commitment to avoid layoffs. Many U.S. workers have lived through layoffs, plant closings, and reduced contributions to 401(k)s (if they are lucky enough to have them at all). To ask them to contribute to efforts that might mean eliminating or restructuring of their jobs sounds like they are being asked to dig their own graves. That's why it's important for management to pledge that no one will lose their jobs during the implementation of lean principles.

Jim Poe, engineering director, L.A. Darling Co., a manufacturer of metal retail displays, shared this thought in an e-mail: "The problem is often that management typically looks at lean as a means to increasing throughput with less people. The factory workers find out real soon, and this then greatly decreases the impact of lean. We want the people to help make improvements but if their friends start losing their jobs, the continuous improvement really slows down fast."

Possibly investing in technology. The investment in some cases may be as small as a couple hundred dollars for some new tooling or as large as several thousand for a new press brake.

Investment in technology is not a prerequisite to implementing lean principles. While it might help in some instances, most improvements will result more from productivity improvements related to equipment setup or process restructuring.

"Our dads and granddads could get the business just because they had the machine. That's no longer true," Conner said.

Keep the Faith

The times are indeed changing, and so is the approach to running a job shop. Lean manufacturing, tailored to the realities of job shop life, can help with the changes.

But, like in life, there are no guarantees. The experts interviewed for this article have seen failures in the application of lean principles, but the main reason for the failures is management's willingness to allow internal sabotage. All it takes is one person to stand in the way of meaningful change.

So it's up to management to lead the charge. If those in the management ranks remain skeptical, MEPoL's Stump offered one suggestion.

"Talk to other people. Talk to other companies that have done it. Talk to the believers and the ones who are involved in it," he said. "There's some stuff that's not that expensive and not that painful to do."

Live and lean. The true believers get it. Do you?

Delta Dynamics Inc., www.deltadynamicsinc.com
L.A. Darling Co., www.ladarling.com
Lean Enterprise Training, www.leanenterprise.bigstep.com
Manufacturing Extension Partnership of Louisiana, www.mepol.org
Metaldyne Hydraulic Controls, www.metaldyne.com
Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership, www.omep.org
Tennessee Stampings LLC, www.tennesseestampings.com
Viking Tool & Gage Inc., www.vikingtg.com
W.W. Metal Fab, www.wwmetalfab.com
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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