Lean manufacturing leads to production gains

In this Plant Profile, a custom computer appliance maker increases jobs and profitability in Illinois.

By Mike Bacidore, chief editor

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In today’s app-happy world, it may come as a surprise that not all software is available as an electronic download or a cloud service. Some industrial-strength business applications are delivered pre-installed on custom-built hardware appliances to simplify installation, eliminate configuration headaches, and improve performance in the business environment. That’s where MBX Systems comes in.

MBX has focused on engineering and building these custom computer appliances since 2001. Each appliance platform produced at the MBX plant utilizes a different chassis, dozens of different components, and variations in processes such as cabling, branding, software image loading, and testing. One system may be the size of a set-top box, while another may occupy a 6-ft-tall rack large enough to hold 42 servers. Some will have video capture or TV tuner cards, while others will require encryption chips, solid state hard drives, or other specialty parts in addition to specific motherboards, processors, and memory. Customers provide products ranging from high-capacity data storage and network security solutions to video content management and media services. The finished systems are deployed in corporate data centers, media broadcast operations rooms, and other business settings from retail stores to Fortune 500 companies.

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Figure 1. The MBX plant in Libertyville, Illinois, comprises 20,000 sq ft of production and 37,000 sq ft of warehousing.

The MBX plant in Libertyville, Illinois, comprises 20,000 sq ft of production and 37,000 sq ft of warehousing (Figure 1). About 20 additional contractors complement the 125 employees at MBX, which has been in business since 1995. The plant has been in operation since 2012, when MBX moved from its previous facility into a new headquarters that quadrupled its physical space, allowed an eightfold expansion of the manufacturing floor, and provided the opportunity for plant upgrades ranging from 208 V wiring to new and more efficient manufacturing cell configurations.

The new plant also brought 32 new jobs, which translates into a 37% increase in the workforce. “Our build-to-order manufacturing environment creates special challenges,” explains Carl Nothnagel, director of operations. “No two MBX-built hardware platforms are alike, so the company has developed a variety of special strategies to maintain both quality and efficiency. These range from the use of iPads and barcode scanners to the Super Cell configuration that shortens the final stages of the manufacturing process for larger orders.”

MBX’s manufacturing controls begin with proprietary shop floor software designed to optimize scheduling, balance workload distribution, and provide built-in error detection. This software is populated with the bill of materials and customized workflow for each new appliance order, enabling critical checks and balances at each stage of the production process.

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Figure 2. At the picking stage, MBX’s production software interacts with iPads used in conjunction with barcode scanners.

At the picking stage, for example, MBX’s production software interacts with iPads used in conjunction with barcode scanners (Figure 2). “Instead of using printed tickets and manually crossing items off the list as they are picked, the ticket for a given order is served up to the iPad, each item is scanned into the tablet as it is picked, and the software automatically flags picking mistakes in real time so that they can be corrected before assembly begins,” says Nothnagel.

Barcodes are also affixed to each appliance and scanned as the unit arrives at each MBX workstation. “The builder at that station instantly receives build instructions related exclusively to the tasks for which that station is responsible, including visual build documents that show every component location, cable turn, screw torque level, and more to facilitate correct assembly,” explains Nothnagel.

If any step in installing/testing the customer’s application is overlooked, MBX’s shop-floor software automatically detects the omission and prevents the builder from signing out and passing the mistake on to the next work center. Every hardware system is also automatically tested to ensure that assembly technicians have installed the precise components listed in the bill of materials.

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Figure 3. Groups of servers are placed on a cart and rolled into a super-cell area, where a high-volume switch transmits software installation instructions and other commands to the entire group.

“All of these controls have helped slash workmanship defects to less than 0.5%,” says Nothnagel. “On the efficiency side, MBX has implemented lean strategies including the Super Cell workstation setup that allows a single technician to install and test software on up to 40 assembled appliances without plugging and unplugging each one. Groups of servers are placed on a cart and rolled into the Super Cell area, where a high-volume switch transmits software installation instructions and other commands to the entire group with a series of keystrokes and mouse clicks (Figure 3). This has not only eliminated eight steps previously required to position servers for final manufacturing procedures, but also quadrupled MBX’s build capacity from 5,000 to 20,000 systems a month per shift or more.”

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