Busy or slow, manufacturer never stops improving

October 28, 2012
By: Tim Heston

If tragedy has a silver lining, it is that it brings everything else into stark clarity. Those who suffer usually either wallow or emerge triumphant. Chesterfield, Mo.-based Cambridge Engineering did the latter.

As Vice President of Manufacturing Michael Mueller put it, “We had a new spirit, and we had to survive.”

The maker of heating and ventilating systems suffered a huge setback in 1993. The Missouri river crested and the plant flooded. That part of the river hadn’t flooded in decades, so the company had canceled its flood insurance. Murphy’s Law works.

The flood was a turning point. It gave the company a fresh slate. Cambridge invested in new, CNC machine tools. “The new technology opened our eyes to the possibilities of setup reduction,” said Mueller, who explained how during the past 10 years the company started making a formal continuous improvement effort.

The company hosted a shop tour during last week’s St. Louis LeanFab conference, organized by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International. The shop now is clean and bright, and the company strives for single-piece part flow. All sheet metal components that go into a product are transported on custom-built carts, from which operators can pull the parts necessary for the next operation. At Cambridge, batch-style processing is no more.

This is even more impressive considering that the company endures a challenging business cycle. The business runs flat-out for the last five months of the year, but orders can drop off a cliff come January.

Today the company makes a difficult business cycle work to its advantage, especially when it comes to improvement efforts. The company’s CPI, or continuous process improvement, teams consist of about seven or so people from each department. They meet regularly to discuss improvement ideas, from clear work instructions to simplified workholding during component assembly. The improvement efforts shift into high gear during the slow months, and Cambridge reaps its reward--that is, significant throughput improvement--during the busy months.

Cambridge can’t do much about the nature of the construction business. Some times are busier than others. But as employees have come to realize, slow times on the shop floor are a gift that shouldn’t go to waste.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314