Sometimes The Obvious Is Not So Obvious

In my position at a major university’s industrial assistance program, I have the opportunity to visit many companies and offer advice on how they can improve their operations. I find many companies doing wonderful things, but frequently there are opportunities for major improvements from minor, seemingly obvious changes.

Columns From: 4/1/2000 Modern Machine Shop,

In my position at a major university’s industrial assistance program, I have the opportunity to visit many companies and offer advice on how they can improve their operations. I find many companies doing wonderful things, but frequently there are opportunities for major improvements from minor, seemingly obvious changes. It just takes someone to point out the (not so) obvious.

One very successful manufacturer of consumer products prided itself in offering high quality products in multiple configurations. Whatever special features the customer wanted, this company could supply. Unfortunately, due to this company’s manufacturing process, it was costing a lot of money to produce these custom products. One product consisted of just three components. Although each of the components came in a variety of shapes and colors, the manufacturing process was always the same and consisted of pressing two parts together, then cementing a third part onto the two pressed pieces. This company had always made the two pieces as a sub-assembly, which was placed in stock until matched with the third component on a customer order. I asked why it was necessary to stock the sub-assembly, instead of putting all three components together when the customer order was received. The answer was “efficiency.” The company believed it was more efficient to make a large number of sub-assemblies and add the third component later. When I pointed out that this “efficiency” was offset by the cost of keeping the sub-assembly in inventory, as well as the cost of additional transportation and handling, the company changed the process. Now, the three parts are assembled together when a customer order is received.

Another company, a manufacturer of packaging products, had two major operations, printing and cutting. The company’s factory had been set up in a departmentalized manner, therefore the printing was done in one department, and the cutting was done in another department. All products that were printed needed to be cut, so everything that was manufactured had to be carried from one department to the next. Fortunately, the cutting equipment was much smaller than the printing equipment, so it was possible to relocate some of the cutters next to the printers. I recommended this be done in an effort to streamline the process and reduce Work-in-Process inventory and overall cycle time. Again, a seemingly obvious idea, but one that had never been considered due to this company’s belief that a departmentalized layout was the most efficient.

Another company I visited was overrun with inventory. There were parts piled up everywhere in various stages of completion. I asked how much of the inventory was active and was told most, but not all. I asked if the company had an inventory obsolescence policy and was told it did not. In fact, some parts had been sitting around for so long they were literally covered with dust. I suggested a very simple inventory obsolescence policy to help reduce some of this inventory. The idea was to scrap a certain percentage of any part not used for two years, then if the part was not used during the following year, discard the balance of the inventory. By following this guideline, the company began to make a dent in its excess inventory and freed up some space in its manufacturing operation.

Another company produced a wide variety of castings for customers. The company had worked hard to become a turnkey supplier to its customers, providing fully machined and finished castings. The company was experiencing severe bottlenecks in its finishing operation. In visiting the finishing department, I learned that all the parts were being deburred by hand, using miniature grinders. In addition, many parts that were subsequently plated, or painted, were being deburred to a “polished” finish. This “over-deburring” was a direct cause of the company’s bottleneck. I suggested two courses of action. First, to test some parts in an automated finishing machine (either a vibratory finishing or tumbling machine). Next, to establish finishing specifications and put acceptable parts on a shelf for operators to use as guides. By showing the operators how much to deburr, and introducing a certain amount of automated finishing, the bottleneck was reduced.

As successful as each of these manufacturers were, there were changes needed in their operations that seemed obvious, but had not been considered. Try looking at some of your operations to see what improvements can be made. When you take to time to look, you just may uncover the “obvious.”

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