A shop's next big improvement in efficiency or capabilities may require the kind of understanding that can only come from personal investigation, or from experimentation.
New automation, for example, may require new operator procedures to be proven out. And high speed machining may require optimum cutting parameters to be determined through testing.
Contract shops in particular are often reluctant to take such steps, and the reason why is understandable. They're pressed for time. Customers for machined parts continue to get better at squeezing cost out of the supply chain. But there is a risk of starvation that accompanies this squeeze.
I don't know when the point of too much cost cutting occurs, because cost pressure in the supply chain does play a constructive role. I also don't know how best to hold out against this pressure. What I have observed is this: In an environment of aggressive cost pressure, it's easy for a shop to appear competitive while living on borrowed time. Allowing process improvement to be treated as an expendable luxury is a doomed strategy, because the savings are meaningful only until the shop across the street, or across the ocean, figures out how to cut costs further still. When this occurs, the shop that hasn't learned how to work better—either in the same arena or in a different one—may have nowhere left to go.
What that learning requires is excess. It requires excess time, excess cash, the attention of personnel both on and off the shop floor, and some machine availability. These resources are devoted to testing new approaches and gathering information about the process. In short, process improvement requires fat.
Wear it proudly. Not all fat is bad. We all have been drilled on the health risks of being overweight, but there are health risks that come from having too little fat as well. For a person or a shop, it is possible to be too lean.
Could your shop stand to bulk up? Next month offers an excellent opportunity. Send some people to Chicago; send them to IMTS. Go there with a plan in mind—products and suppliers you want to be sure to check out—but go there with some open time, too. Encourage the attendees from your shop just to roam the aisles and look around. They'll be exposed to new products and new ideas, and they may stumble onto something that will set your shop experimenting toward its next big improvement. Your shop will start to put on weight.