February 27, 2003
The level of technology used these days in the tube and pipe fabrication industry varies quite a bit in terms of age. Some of it is a bit antiquated, to put it kindly. Many tube fabrication shops use equipment that is more than 50 years old.
Should you focus on new processes and procedures? Taking a look at newer equipment and newer philosophies could be worth your time and effort. If you don't, you could be missing out on many new opportunities. Here's a starting point.
Over the past 15 to 20 years, the most widely accepted philosophy in the industry is that tube fabricating equipment operators should hurry through one operation at a time. Companies move a single tube all over the manufacturing floor to complete six different operations. Along the way one operator picks up the tube, completes his one little operation, and puts it back in the bin for the next person. Then a forklift driver comes along and moves the bin to the next station.
This goes on and on all day long, and by the end of the day, more time has been spent taking the tube out of the bin and putting it back than actually performing the operations. Handling the tube doesn't add value, it merely wastes time. Your time. Think about it.
More and more companies are looking to shift operations to the cell environment.
I recently visited a company that was focused on improving operation flow. The company had an order for 1,000 pieces, and the tube previously had been cut to the required start length. Because the company's manufacturing approach was organized around the workcell philosophy, one person picked up the tube, bent it, cut off one leg to the finished length, deburred the cut end, coped the other end, punched a small hole in the middle of the tube, and then put it back in the bin. By the time the operator was finished with end forming operations, the next tube was ready to come off the bender.
About every 18 seconds the operator put a finished tube into the bin. One person completed five operations. I was in awe. Under the other manufacturing philosophy, five separate equipment operators would spend more than 18 seconds in handling time alone.
Now more than ever before is the time to be working on improving product flow and trying new processes. Savings can be justified pretty easily, and profits can turn around quickly on some jobs. In some instances, equipment can pay for itself in as little as two months after several jobs are switched to a cell environment.
Options are out there -- you just have to find them. Many times the educational process is much more elaborate than a salesperson sending you literature or stopping in on a cold call and finding you with little free time and unprepared.
Many new things are going on in the tubing industry. You don't have to spend large amounts of money on new equipment right away; rather, you can pull information together, find new processes that are available, put a plan in place, and make it happen when the time is right.
I predict the tubing industry will continue to be a tight market for a little longer. We do have indications, however, that in only a few months business will be rolling at a much brisker pace. Activity seems to be picking up with more inquiries and more quotes than usual.
Companies that stay current on new ideas and operations and that have plans in place are the ones that will gain market share as the economy embraces a robust recovery. It's not that far away.
Giving operators the right tools to work with and making sure they understand the importance of remaining competitive are major steps in the right direction. We continually hear about strides in manufacturing and how worker output is increasing. Tube fabricators have opportunities to make headway. Standing pat may be the easy way now, but getting caught too far behind could present major trouble in the future. Is your company prepared?
Dave Petrack is a managing partner of Proto-1 Mfg. LLC, 10 Tower Road, P.O. Box 399, Winneconne, WI 54986, phone 920-582-4491, fax 920-582-4492, e-mail email@example.com, Web site www.proto1mfg.com. Proto-1 Mfg. LLC manufactures cutoff, end forming, and deburring equipment for straight and bent tube.
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