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ADVANCED TECHNIQUES: MOVING
BEYOND THE OBVIOUS
By David Dixon (as printed in Fabricating and Metalworking)
In previous columns (archived at www.fandmmag.com) we have tried
first to dispel the notion that lean techniques and other world-class
improvement tools are not applicable in a job shop. We addressed
the requirements for leading the lean implementation and overcoming
resistance to change; we surveyed the lean tool kit and we looked
at demand-pull techniques and lean plant layout in more detail.
In this article, we will suggest that even with a basic lean infrastructure
in place, there will be more to do—more opportunities to remove
waste, drive productivity up, reduce lead time and inventory, and
improve quality. This will require an ever-increasing level of sophistication
in the use of lean techniques.
What follows is, perhaps, a look into your future. It is a longer-term
vision of where you will want to take your business if you are just
starting the lean journey or a set of "next steps" if
you are at a plateau.
Every successful lean implementation rests on a foundation of capabilities
and disciplines forged from lean principles and the application
of basic techniques. Figure 1 (also seen in previous columns) depicts
the lean tool kit. Many of these tools are fundamental to our success,
and we put them to work early. Examples are value stream mapping,
fast setup, focused layouts, pull systems, standard work, line/load
balancing, error proofing and 5S housekeeping.
Working from value-stream maps and market-driven performance-improvement
needs, projects will be selected and executed to set up lean pilot
cells, to elevate capacity at constraint operations and to remove
non-value-added time. One by one, these projects will bring us to
significantly increased levels of profitability and customer service.
At some point we are flowing small lots through cells to a demand-driven
It may be two to four years before we realize the full benefits
of our basic implementation. Eventually, progress will be stalled
out by realities embedded in process equipment and tools that drive
us to batching rather than flowing one piece at a time.
Common examples are paint systems, plating systems, heat-treating
ovens and any equipment that drives a lot size greater than one
owing to a long, complex setup. Further productivity improvement
may also be limited by process technology requiring a full-time
man/machine interface; that is, certain machines require full-time
As we face the "brutal reality" of these issues, we must
consciously decide if we want to take them on. Some companies have
done so, others are beginning. There are good reasons to consider
Approaching the One-Piece Flow
There is magic in the one-piece flow. It represents the ultimate
lean system, where we have the best chance of minimizing lead time
and cost. Throughput is fast and predictable, and problems are immediately
visible. People are ideally positioned to solve problems, balance
workloads, make good decisions and continuously improve. With this
in mind, every effort should be made to remove impediments to this
fundamental lean objective. There are many ways in which a mature
lean organization will work to break down the obstacles. We will
discuss three very important techniques here.
Right-sized equipment. Enormous amounts of waste are associated
with the need to remove product from a cell to perform painting,
plating, heat treating, deburring or other operations. To combat
this waste, many companies are developing smaller pieces of equipment
that are sized specifically for the geometry and the volume of work
being run in the cell. Sometimes the solutions are fairly easy and
inexpensive to develop; in other cases they are quite difficult
and expensive. One company developed a CNC-controlled, portable
plating machine to support cellular operations and eliminate a central
plating system. The equipment runs a wide variety of product and
requires virtually no setup.
The company built several of these machines at a cost of $250,000
Advanced lean thinkers will understand the pay-off provided by
these decisions. And because commercial solutions are often unavailable,
they design and build their own.
One-Touch Setups. Setup time is another formidable enemy of a one-piece
flow. Early setup reduction efforts often enable us to flow work
in much smaller lots, but setup time still drives us to a transfer
batch size considerably greater than one. At this juncture, we will
need to approach zero setup time. To achieve this goal, especially
in a job-shop setting, will require truly innovative thinking and
equipment/tooling combinations that allow an operator to accomplish
a setup with a single motion.
Here again, we will probably not find off-the-shelf solutions. Creative
design/build projects will be required.
Autonomation. This technology takes us to a new level of productivity
by separating the man from the machine. It is assumed that we are
already running a one-piece flow, multiple operators are working
in a cell and we are seeking to improve the output per labor hour.
This is accomplished by automating the machine cycles wherever possible.
Operators then load material or parts, initiate the machine cycle
and rotate to another workstation while the machine does its work.
Manpower requirements are reduced by the amount of non-value-added
wait time eliminated by automating the machine cycles.
Many commercial equipment builders provide this kind of automation,
but custom applications will eventually be needed. Again, you will
probably have to design and build your own.
How to Develop Advanced Techniques
Efforts to develop advanced solutions are usually focused on a
set of improvement objectives associated with a given value stream.
These objectives will give rise to performance specifications for
projects to develop right-sized equipment, one-touch setup and autonomation.
Other advanced techniques will also be selected and implemented
as needed to lean out the value stream.
At this point we adopt an R&D mentality. We will search the
literature, benchmark, brainstorm and collaborate with equipment,
tooling and automation suppliers to develop concept solutions. Stand-alone
experimental prototypes will be used to test the concepts, and model
lines/cells will be used to prove them out.
Patience and determination are critical. As in all breakthrough
thinking and related development, the sought-after solution seems
always just out of reach. Only the persistent reach their goals.
Industry Week magazine's 2006 survey of North American companies
reveals that only about 20 percent of the participants have yet
to begin a formal continuous improvement effort, and most of them
are using lean as the primary improvement vehicle. This suggests
that in the not-distant future, most companies will be enjoying
the benefits of a basic lean implementation. The "low hanging
fruit" will be mostly plucked, and the performance levels of
entire industries will be significantly better.
From a competitive standpoint, lean will have become a commodity.
Any competitive edge will then have to come from the mastery of
advanced lean techniques. Fortunately, the techniques discussed
above, coupled with other initiatives (e.g., Six Sigma, world-class
systems and resource management, and administrative lean) provide
ample opportunity for continuing performance gains.