Lean Six Sigma

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

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Each cart contains up to 40 systems for an order. There can be multiple carts for an order, for example, seven carts for a 280-system order. Carts are wheeled into the Super Cell where they’re configured — customer software and other applications are installed — and tested. A single keystroke sends a command simultaneously to all the systems on the order. Up to 10 carts can be connected to manage configuration and testing for 400 systems at once. “In addition, any of MBX’s 10 Super Cell configurations can be linked together to handle orders of up to 400 units,” says Nothnagel.

Bottom-line benefits

MBX also added safety-related improvements to the plant. “New pushbutton lift tables reduce manual lifting of server appliances as they are moved between workstations,” says Nothnagel. “New racking systems accommodate the lifts and also provide safer loading and unloading of larger server systems weighing 80 to 198 lb.”

In the past three years alone, MBX has realized a 39% increase in bottom-line profits through use of automation and various assembly improvements. “These strategies have also reduced production costs per system by 12%, cut time to market by up to 36%, and slashed workmanship defects to less than 0.5%,” explains Nothnagel. “MBX worked closely with its assembly technicians to develop the new build procedures, as well as a unique process-based training system to ensure compliance by the manufacturing team. The company gathered employees to describe their build processes, determine best practices, and solicit recommendations for process improvements. These ideas drove many of the manufacturing changes, including the custom-built shop-floor software, visual build documents, and the Super Cell workstation arrangement. Continuous improvement is achieved on an ongoing basis via employee suggestions, performance metrics displays on the manufacturing floor, and user-modifiable build documents.”

Effectiveness and efficiency

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Plant Services and has been an integral part of the Putman Media editorial team since 2007, when he was managing editor of Control Design magazine. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning a Gold Regional Award and a Silver National Award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at 630-467-1300 ext. 444 or mbacidore@putman.net or check out his .

“Having the right tools for the job can make a big difference in quality, as well as efficiency, so be sure to evaluate your equipment regularly to determine if you can benefit from upgrading to new technology,” says Nothnagel. “MBX’s Super Cell implementation, for example, was made possible in part by a new KVM — keyboard, video, mouse — switch that boosted the number of units that can be configured simultaneously at each workstation from 8 to 40. Deploying the new switch has not only quintupled each technician’s capacity but also boosted quality by reducing keystrokes and providing real-time feedback enabling technicians to check configuration results.”

Quality assurance is challenging in a high-mix, low-volume environment like MBX’s, where the product roster is in constant flux. Yet many of the principles used in large-scale manufacturing can be applied on a smaller scale to run a tight quality ship. Concepts such as eliminating non-value-added work and identifying processes that can be replicated are as useful in high-mix operations as on mass production lines. “The rest of the quality equation in this kind of setting boils down to things like documentation and training to compensate for the constant shifts in manufacturing assignments,” says Nothnagel. “MBX operates in an extreme high-mix environment. As many as 150 different server configurations may be going through the plant at any given time, each with a different chassis, dozens of different components ranging from motherboards, processors, and memory to encryption chips, solid-state hard drives and video capture or TV tuner cards, and variations in processes such as cabling, branding, software image loading, and testing.”

Much of the assembly is necessarily manual, and quantities can range from single-piece orders to 600 units or more. “To maintain quality, every manufactured appliance — not one unit in 10, 100, or 500, but every hardware system built in the plant — is inspected at least five times,” says Nothnagel. “Both manual and automated inspection procedures are built into every possible checkpoint on the shop floor and applied to every single unit, even on large-volume orders.”

Despite having to essentially reinvent the wheel for every platform it manufactures, MBX has developed a proven formula to handle high variability, as well as high volume without sacrificing quality.

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