Continuous Improvement In Practice

At Century Die Company in Fremont, Ohio, continuous improvement is more than just a buzzword—it is a critical strategy for operating a business. Century Die is a successful manufacturer of custom molds and dies used in a variety of industries.

Columns From: 8/1/2003 Modern Machine Shop,

At Century Die Company in Fremont, Ohio, continuous improvement is more than just a buzzword—it is a critical strategy for operating a business. Century Die is a successful manufacturer of custom molds and dies used in a variety of industries. These molds and dies are very complex, requiring a great deal of design work followed by numerous close tolerance machining and finishing operations.

Recently, I spent time at Century Die, observing some of the good things the company has done and working with the Century Die team to do even more. This need to keep getting better is one of the keys to the company’s current success. This starts with the general manager, Gary Bewley. When I asked Mr. Bewley how business was, he responded, “Very good, but we want it to be better, and we are doing everything we can to make it better.” Mark Carter, Century’s CNC supervisor, echoed this sentiment when he said, “We are always searching for better ways to make our parts. We are always looking to do as much as we can in one setup.”

Century Die has a modern facility with good machines and talented people. The company finishes complicated molds in just a few weeks (about half the time it used to take), and this makes its customers happy. Century Die offers process assistance to customers and even has a molding facility in which it tests its molds to ensure that there are no surprises when they are put in use. No wonder its customers keep coming back!

Century Die’s desire to keep improving stems from the belief that a company must get better just to stay even. With this in mind, Century Die wanted its employees to learn more about lean manufacturing techniques and decided to invest the time to train a large number of its key employees. During the training, employees learned that lean manufacturing was not about making people work harder, or even faster, but about working smarter. Because the focus of lean manufacturing is not on the processes that add value, such as machining or assembling products, but on the manufacturing wastes that do not add value, the training enabled Century’s employees to look at things in a new way. As a tool and die shop, Century Die does not have the luxury of high volume production runs that tend to absorb many of these manufacturing wastes, so it is even more important for everyone to be able to identify and eliminate them from the production process.

Once Century Die completed the lean manufacturing training, the company set out to generate a value stream map for one of its key products. As effective as the company thought its processes were, the value stream map pointed out some specific improvement opportunities. For one, the complexity of the tools produced resulted in lengthy machine cycle times, followed by labor-intensive finishing operations. This would lead to the inevitable bottleneck at various points in the overall process. In addition, the physical distance between certain steps in the process made workflow difficult at times. It was also noted that with so many jobs in process at any one time, scheduling could get difficult.

The conditions validated by the value stream map would have been serious obstacles to many companies. To the Century Die team, however, they represented opportunities for the type of improvement effort at which the company excels. The team started brainstorming ideas for improving the situation. Exploring options such as rebalancing the machining processes, instituting a pull scheduling system, relocating equipment, and even making use of less “efficient” yet effective equipment to bypass bottlenecks and ensure product flow, the team is working to improve the manufacturing process and cut lead times even further.

Of course, with design being a critical step in the overall process, Century Die’s value stream map did not focus solely on manufacturing operations. The engineering process also received a thorough review in an effort to identify opportunities for streamlining. A team is now charged with exploring options for eliminating or reducing any non-value-added steps in the design process. At Century Die, nothing is immune from continuous improvement.

Today, after completing lean manufacturing training and developing a value stream map, Century Die is working on plans for continuous improvement. “Our customers have been great,” Mr. Bewley says. “There was a time when we weren’t so good, and they stuck by us. We now owe it to them to provide a level of service that gets better all the time. The only way we can do this is to adopt a continuous improvement philosophy plant-wide and stick with it.”

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