Improving manufacturing practices through Lean implementation

Tips for helping your company be ready for improvement at all times.

By Chip Johns, Butler Automatic

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Reducing waste, implementing efficiency-promoting practices, and continuously improving manufacturing operations are the main goals of Lean manufacturing. While these tasks may seem daunting for a manufacturer at the start of an improvement program, there are many concrete steps that can be taken to shift the culture at any company. For many companies, all it takes to dramatically increase efficiency and reduce waste is a commitment to dive right in and a willingness to continue trying new and creative ideas to find out what works best.

If you are able to simplify your manufacturing tasks, increase spatial and workflow organization, take steps to reduce errors, and listen to employees on the manufacturing floor, your company will begin to see reduced waste, improved employee morale and training, improved efficiency, and a greater ability to manufacture products on a predictable timetable.

Consider cellular manufacturing to simplify tasks

At the heart of waste reduction and increased efficiency is simplifying the processes related to each manufacturing task. Without a critical eye towards opportunities for simplification, manufacturing tasks can grow inefficient and lead to wasted time, wasted resources, and inconsistent product quality. Finding an appropriate method for simplifying manufacturing tasks is, therefore, an important first step in any company’s improvement.

One practice that can help is cellular manufacturing. With this method, cells are set up on the manufacturing floor, one for each different component of the final product and step in the manufacturing process (Figure 1). The individual cells are tailored to their function in terms of materials, tools, and design. In this way, efficiency is increased and waste reduced because all of the appropriate materials and tools are already at workers’ fingertips.

Cellular manufacturing also calls for the same process to be followed each time a certain part is produced or altered. Possible errors are reduced by this increased repetition and operator training is made simpler. Perhaps most important to the Lean manufacturing process, repetition makes it easier to make iterative changes and track whether these changes have a positive effect on the overall efficiency of the process.

Though cellular manufacturing is not the only way to simplify manufacturing operations, it is one of the most effective, and provides an excellent example for the positive outcomes that can result from implementing Lean practices. Cellular manufacturing may be right for your business, or you may want to try to find a different way to simplify tasks. Either way, finding a way to simplify your manufacturing process that leads to repeatable quality and easily traceable results is an important first step in the journey of improving your manufacturing practices.

Increase organization

In addition to simplifying your process, organizing your manufacturing floor and workflow can have a great impact on increasing efficiency. Spatial organization of tools, materials, and manufacturing space cuts down on search and transport times, while neat and orderly workspaces help workers to feel more relaxed and able to work quickly and efficiently. General cleanliness from dirt, dust, spills and more is important, not just because of its positive impact on worker morale but also because it helps to improve safety of workers and final product quality. Cleanliness is fairly easy to maintain if cleaning supplies are easily visible and readily available. Organization, on the other hand, usually requires a more codified system.

Visual systems are particularly useful when it comes to manufacturing organization. For example, job boards directly on the manufacturing floor help to convey instructions and customer needs directly to those who need them (Figure 2). These boards can include what jobs are currently on the manufacturing floor and their status, instructions, or any other relevant information for managers, operators, and other staff. Similarly, job books can include more detail about each individual product and can be made accessible to all workers who need access to the information.

With these two systems as an example, you can see how organization can help ensure that everyone is working from the same information; when everything has its own place, and everything in its place has a purpose, all forms of waste are drastically reduced.

Take steps to reduce errors

All of the steps that are taken to improve organization can help in the prevention of errors in the manufacturing process. Errors are, of course, an inevitable part of manufacturing, regardless of the level of automation, organization, and simplicity in the system. Recognizing common sources of errors beyond organizational issues and working to improve them can help to limit those errors, and therefore positively impact your process.

For instance, the number of times a part or product is handled often leads to an increase in the likelihood that an error occurs. Conversely, limiting a part or product’s handling time will decrease the chance that an error will occur. Taking steps to limit material handling is, then, one way of promoting error reduction in your process.

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