Ace Metal Crafts brand of lean puts employees in the drivers seat
August 26, 2008
Ace Metal Crafts has promoted its own brand of lean that, more than anything, gives employees ownership over the process.
Most managers at Ace have been with the company for years. President Dale Ball joined the firm 21 years ago. CEO Jean Pitzo took the reins of her father's business in 1989.
Visit Ace Metal Crafts Co. in Franklin Park, Ill., a stone's throw away from landing lights at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, and you'll see how transformative colored tape can be when put to good use.
On each department floor, blue tape and an arrow labeled "flow" mark the path of lean part flow (see Figure 1 and Figure 2). This track for work-in-process gives employees and visiting customers alike a visual cue of how parts move on the shop floor. The idea came about at one of many brainstorming events since the job shop decided to adopt lean manufacturing techniques in early 2001, during a slow patch that began with a mad cow disease scare. A big portion of Ace's business comes from the food processing industry, and with the scare came a significant drop in business.
So, managers had time to look inward.
"We were slow for 18 months," said Jean Pitzo, CEO, "and when 9/11 hit, business just dropped to a pretty scary level. The company was almost depressed." The financial situation forced managers to lay off employees, and at a certain point "we didn't want to cut any more," she said.
Instead, the company focused on something else entirely. During the cutbacks Ace sent one employee to a seminar on lean manufacturing. The employee came back beaming. "It really turned our focus around and got us motivated in the right direction," Pitzo said.
"It wasn't cheap to do this, either," added Dale Ball, company president. But culturally, it helped the company "kick off with some momentum into lean."
Employees weren't just sitting around waiting for work. They were working to make things more efficient. They organized machinery in cells, identified value streams, reduced inventory, and literally built a classroom near the front of the building for lean training and brainstorming sessions. To make these investments during slow times was risky, to be sure, and unconventional.
But for Ace, the bet paid off.
The company always has had an independent streak, it seems, going back to 1960 when 16 sheet metal fabricators from several companies each put $10,000 together and left their employers to start a shop devoted to stainless steel fabrication. In 1983 entrepreneur Jack Lichter bought the company, and by 1989 his daughter Jean was running it, along with Jean's sister, Mary Lichter, vice president of administration.
Ace has kept its focus on stainless steel through the years, serving industries ranging from food services to packaging to pharmaceutical. The high-end-material niche has paid off, but not without its challenges. Stainless reacts differently to welding, finishing, and other fabrication processes, so the company can't hire just anyone off the street (see Figure 3 and Figure 4).
"Being a stainless shop, it's much harder to find a skilled labor force," Pitzo explained, adding that welding is especially critical. "There's a lot of pressure to make a beautiful weld, because the better the weld, the less it takes to grind and polish it."
"It also involves more custom work," Ball added. "Not many customers buy 100,000 parts of a stainless steel item."
Until 2001 the company manufactured the way most job shops have always done. Parts passed through the cutting department, then the bending, welding, and finishing. With no permanent product line, grouping like processes within the company's 40,000 square-foot facility made sense, to a point. During the 2001 slowdown, company managers began to see things differently. Instead of hunkering down and riding out the recession, hoping to come out standing at the end of it, management took a proactive approach.
Over five years the company changed its manufacturing process from a batch to a flow concept and identified value streams. Step one was to divide shop work into different product groups, then design cells around those products.
"We first put a prototype cell in to see if it worked," Ball recalled. "We saw very quickly that by flowing the work, and not working departmentally, and by making cells dedicated to different product groups, we were really able to see some big benefits."
Machine layout hinged on part groups, not on the metal fabrication process. Value streams were divided into cells, and employees were cross-trained so they could work on multiple machines and cells to clear bottlenecks as needed.
Although the company does have a classroom where it holds periodic training sessions on lean fundamentals and brainstorming sessions for some of the major proposals, most of Ace's lean transformation did not come about through formal events. The real brainstorming happens on the floor through numerous informal meetings between workers, each discussing incremental changes that could eliminate waste.
"Everybody is trained on how to identify waste," explained Ball. "Then they can get together with workers on the floor and make decisions right there on the shop floor. That allows a lot of little things to happen, and that adds up over time."
Every morning begins with "the huddle." The workers in each workcell get together to discuss the status of work and schedule jobs for optimal work flow (see Figure 5). "Like a lot of shops, we used to schedule upfront," Ball said. Because operators are closest to the work, "we let the operators do all their own scheduling. They track what flows through the cell, and they know their productivity and how many hours they worked. So, it keeps it very interactive for the people involved."
In other words, it gives shop floor employees ownership. Instead of being told exactly what to do, when, and where, operators themselves look at what needs to be done and, judging from the status of other jobs in the value stream and the job due dates, decide how to schedule parts.
"It's very empowering, I think, to have people involved like that," Ball added.
These incremental improvements built on some of the major shop floor changes. Early on, for instance, managers knew they needed to identify value streams and adapt them to a job shop environment. With no product line, they looked at their work from a macro perspective. Different parts had different geometries and manufacturing requirements: How could the shop develop value streams around such a kaleidoscopic product mix?
The company focused on commonalities. Every part traveled around the shop floor in a certain sequence: cutting, bending, welding, then grinding and finishing. After analyzing the flow, the shop decided to divide parts into two groups. Parts with quick lead-time, often only two or three days, were sent through the "express" value stream. Complex parts requiring some engineering and planning time, often up to three weeks, traveled through the "power" value stream. Each was identified by that blue tape on the floor.
Designing a pure value stream, however, required some redundancy. As Ball explained, "One value stream has a laser, and the other one has a laser. One has a press brake, and so does the other one." Without redundancy, he added, the same old bottlenecks would emerge.
On occasion both value streams share a piece of equipment. For instance, the company has a 4-kW laser in one stream and a 2-kW in another, and a job may be moved to the high-powered laser that can handle thicker material. But overall, most jobs flow through equipment dedicated solely to the value stream.
The company further divided each stream into cells. The first, what the company dubs the "pacemaker" cell, includes most of the primary and some secondary fabrication processes: laser cutting, bending, deburring, sawing, drilling, and tapping. The remaining cells involve welding and finishing, two critical processes for stainless work, as well as shipping.
At the front end of the shop floor is an area the company calls the "production support cell," which includes purchasing, engineering, and project engineers. Before going lean, these departments were located in an office off the shop floor, away from the work. But through brainstorming, the staff discovered it would be most efficient to have their workstations right on the floor, close to the work.
Thanks to growth in recent years, the company could afford to make some significant capital investments, particularly in the laser arena (see Figure 6). It has a Mazak Hyper Turbo-X, a 4-kW flat-sheet-cutting laser with automated material handling that can cut up to ½-inch stainless steel. Its second laser is a 2-kW Mazak system that handles stainless up to 3⁄16 in. Most recently the company invested in a Mazak FabriGear 150-V, a 4-kW, 3-D laser cutting system with an integrated six-station tapping head (see Getting Creative With Tube sidebar).
The shop has embraced automation. Its press brake controls accept offline programming, and its high-powered laser with automated material handling can run unattended much of the time. During most operations, one cross-trained operator floats between the laser and bending equipment (see Figure 7).
Ask Ball about his work history, and he'll point to the Ace Metal Crafts sign. "That's it."
The company president joined the job shop in 1987, fresh out of engineering school, and never left. According to Ball and Pitzo, that kind of work history isn't unusual for the company, which today employs more than 70. The company has had issues finding some skilled workers, including qualified welders and finishers, but Ace managers said that overall they haven't been burdened with lengthy searches for talent.
"News has spread about our [company] culture," Ball said. "We empower people to make decisions, to make their jobs easier and the shop better. For instance, through the years we've had gifted welders. And yes, some have left for other jobs, but often they come back several months later."
Pitzo added a footnote. "They know there's something different here."