Lean means

We spend a lot of time spotlighting automation and control best practices among machine builders, yet there’s not a lot of conversation about what lean manufacturing means for them.

Joe FeeleyBy Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

We spend a lot of time spotlighting the automation and control best practices that manufacturers enjoy as a result of their machine builders’ innovation, sweat, and customer support.

Some of these successful manufacturers credit a lean-manufacturing approach, in conjunction with those marvelous, automated machines, for their abilities to adapt, deliver, and succeed. But among machine builders, there’s not a lot of conversation about what lean means for them.

During Automation Fair late last year, I ran into two top execs from two different machine builders, who talked about how they’ve taken lean manufacturing to heart, and with good results.

“There’s more to building a solid relationship than price,” said Bern McPheely, general manager and CEO of Hartness Int’l., Greenville, S.C. “We must compel our customers to do business with us because we provide the greatest value. There are no excuses.”

Low-cost goods are a positive for everyone, acknowledged McPheely. “Seemingly crippling obstacles such as shortages of North American engineering talent, high costs of labor, benefits, and taxes are real, but we need to realize that government can not force change,” he said.

For McPheely controlling cost meant going lean. A traditional business strategy didn’t do what Hartness needed. “We spread our risks, diversified across major packaging segments, and pretty much did what the textbooks said, but costs and competitive pressure made us  embrace lean manufacturing,” he stated.

So what does that mean, and how does that translate for small companies as well as big ones?

Michael Senske, president and CEO of end-of-line machine builder Pearson Packaging Systems, Spokane, Wash., believes lean involves far more than just the manufacturing operation. He said his company’s manufacturing successes come from a lean/Kaizen/Six Sigma approach.

The question for Pearson was how to take lean principles into a low-volume/high-variability business? Most companies rationalize that they can’t do it. Most of us have heard similar disclaimers.

The starting point for Pearson is standard procedures. “We can design and build most machines the same, even with customization,” Senske said. “The results are a consistent process that eliminates variability, and improves quality.” He pointed to a 5s Kaizen mantra: Sort: get unnecessary items out of the production space. Set in Order: arrange manufacturing cells the same everywhere, so the builders are familiar with the environment. Shine: make it clean, keep it clean. Standardize: establish standards for the build, for the parts, and follow them. Sustain: Keep doing it.

A large part of the company’s lean success is inventory management. “We buy parts today that we’ll use tomorrow,” said Senske. “Eighteen months ago, we turned inventory six or seven times. Now we turn 19-20 times with multiple daily deliveries from our suppliers, often right to the manufacturing cell.”

Flow is another mantra. “We’ll do anything to reduce flow,” he tells fellow employees. “When you improve flow, everything else improves.”

Special emphasis on reliability means Pearson tests components and sub-assemblies in accelerated conditions. “Establish component reliability in an extreme condition, and you dramatically increase overall machine reliability,” he stressed.

The results have been pretty rewarding. “Assembly time now is around 70 hours, down from 180 hours,” said Senske. Leadtime dropped to about 35 days from 90 days. It means being able to pass cost reductions along to the customer.”

Finally, said Senske, “Make an effort to involve customers in creating the functional specifications. Involved customers don’t require as much future customization.”

What’s your take on being lean? Machine Builder Nation is a tough place–we need to learn how to make this work. These guys did.