Make It Visual

I strongly believe in the benefits of the “Visual Factory,” one in which even an outsider can look around and understand what is happening. The theory behind the Visual Factory is that if it can help outsiders, then anyone working in the factory should have an even easier time understanding what is going on and, perhaps more importantly, what needs to be done and when to do it.


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All companies have some visual indicators, mostly related to safety. Easy-to-understand signs and color-codes help employees know where fire extinguishers, safety showers and emergency stop buttons are located. In this month’s column, I will share with you some of the clever visual indicators I have seen.

Valves, gages and sensors—How often have we looked at a gage and wondered what it was for or what the correct reading should be? One of the easiest ways to make a gage visual is to add a label indicating its purpose. For example, a gage that measures air pressure should have a label that reads “Air Pressure of . . . .” Likewise, valves and sensors should be labeled to show their purposes. If a gage needs to maintain a certain pressure, temperature or flow, that information can also be represented by “min/max” lines or color-coded range markings affixed to the gage (for instance, green is good, red is bad). With such visual markings, anyone can see if a problem exists and initiate corrective action.

Filters—Although most companies adopt some type of maintenance process, whereby filters are either cleaned or replaced on a regular basis, they don’t always communicate the maintenance requirements to users of the equipment. To remedy this problem, it is useful to post maintenance information either on or near the filter itself, in the same way that oil change places advise drivers of when they need to come back to pick up their vehicles. Information, such as date last changed/checked and scheduled date of next change/check, allows anyone working on the equipment to see if the filter maintenance was done and if not, advise the appropriate personnel.

Access areas around machines—All machines have areas that need to be accessed for maintenance, setup or operation, and these areas of access must be kept clear. Lines on the floor can visually communicate the need to keep areas clear. The lines can be made using tape (such as the standard yellow-black striped “Caution” tape) or paint if the environment is especially harsh.

Measurement devices—Did you ever have the experience of needing to find a tape measure or scale when setting up a machine? Why can’t the measurement device be attached to the machine? An example of this concept is a linear scale on a shear or a saw. In practice, you place the material against the scale to determine the location of the cut. With a scale attached to the machine, there is no need to search for anything. These visual indicators not only simplify the measurement process but eliminate the time wasted looking for the right measuring device.

Tools needed for a machine—I am a big proponent of “machine owned” tools, meaning the tools belong to the machine and not to any one person. If tools are to be owned by a machine, they need a “home” as close as possible to their point of use. For example, an Allen wrench that is used to attach cutting tools to a machine should be located somewhere near the tool turret. A clip with a label indicating the Allen wrench’s home is helpful; however a “shadow board,” with a visual outline of the tool, is even better for showing where the wrench belongs, and when it is missing.
Cleaning Supplies—Just as we need a specific location for the storage of tools, we need to show the specific location for storing brooms, mops, brushes, dustpans, spray cleaners and any other cleaning supplies. A shadow board can prove helpful when storing these items also.

Piping—Commercially available color-coded foam pipe markers are a great way to show what is running through a pipe. Combining these pipe markers with operating valves that are painted the same color increases the visual benefits. In this case, visual indicators not only lead to a clear understanding of what is in each pipe, but they can expedite the process of shutting pipes down.

Lights—Today, most machines include lights that will flash when a machine is not running. Some companies expand on this flashing light concept by adding different color lights to depict various machine conditions, such as material getting low in the machine or the need for a particular inspection activity. Lights can provide an up-to-the-minute sense of what is going on with each machine.

Try some of these visuals in your shop, or even better, be creative and develop some of your own. The more visual the factory, the more likely communication will be accurate and timely.