Machinists Need to Know These Lean Principles

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Lean principles may need no introduction. These tenets aim to create the most value possible while using the least amount of resources. Above all, adherents to the lean philosophy endeavor to understand the customer’s values and meet those needs in a highly efficient way.

Why shouldn’t there be lean principles for machinists? Lean is not a set of fixed steps but a mindset. Machine shops and manufacturers are becoming hotbeds for innovation, customization and essential fabrication, so lean might be more relevant here than ever. Here are a few lean principles that readily apply to machinists and machine shops.

1. Reduce Defects

Reducing defect rates is one of the primary tenets of lean production. Some of the most common reasons for flaws and rework include machine malfunctions, poorly calibrated instruments, badly planned processes or inadequately trained operators.

This is quite a range of causes, but getting them under control has a single, welcome effect: fewer product defects and less wasted time and manufacturing capacity.

One interesting way machine shops reduce flaws is by separating their shop into two halves: one focused on producing mature, finished components and one engaged with more experimental, customized or technology-focused work.

Although employees may move between the two, the result is less shifting among different headspaces and tool sets during the day and an improved sense of continuity and cohesion within both shops — especially the one devoted to more mature workflows and clientele.

2. Avoid Overproduction and Underproduction

Amid intense labor turnover and supply-chain upheavals, there’s a necessary compromise to find between “just in time” and “just in case” manufacturing. Technology may be able to help machinists and manufacturing experts find that compromise. The major reasons for overproduction are inadequate planning and mismanaged orders for components.

Research shows that around 75% of manufacturing and adjacent organizations still use spreadsheets or other manual methods for planning supply-chain functions. Just 20% have adopted machine learning to improve demand forecasting and enterprise planning. This means a lot of teams are missing opportunities to fine-tune their production lines and save themselves from over- and underproduction.

3. Eliminate Wait Time

Idle time means lost profits — whether you’re following lean principles for machinists or not. One kind of wait time results from critical materials being unavailable. The previous point about machine learning and advanced enterprise planning may help machinists and manufacturers avoid the sting of running out of essential additives halfway through a contract.

Other forms of wait time may result from unplanned machine breakdowns and poorly managed teams. The Internet of Things (IoT) may be a worthwhile investment for machine shops wishing to avoid unplanned downtime. IoT-equipped production equipment automatically relays machine telemetry data to operators, who can intervene before the machine fails.

Poor timing or team management on the shop floor may actually be the tougher nut to crack. Perhaps interdependent departments or processes are always waiting for each other or stepping on each other’s toes. In that case, it might be time to revisit those processes and look for ways to stagger them better, retrain or replace coordinators or leadership, or hire more hands so work doesn’t continue to bottleneck the other interdependent workflows.

4. Manage Talent Wisely

The non-utilization of skills is as much a cardinal sin as not meeting capacity in machining, finishing and manufacturing.

There’s no money to invest here — only time and attention. Process managers and supervisors should look for intuition and talent worth fostering and keeping in the company. Other investments in this area may involve partnering with local schools or organizations — like those connecting former service members with new employment — to shore up their supply of focused, sharp, detail-oriented talent.

Another way leaders can manage talent wisely is to ensure it’s properly supported. Companies may lose conscientious, detail-oriented employees because shops and plants are understaffed. Adding collaborative robots (cobots) to assembly lines and shop floors could pay huge dividends. Some robots are up to 40% more accurate than people, meaning they can carry out work that requires strength, repetition and accuracy. Human employees can remain focused on tasks requiring intuition and design creativity.

5. Spot Unnecessary Motion

People or resources repositioned for a reason not directly related to creating value for the customer should be unnecessary. The most common causes are poorly designed production environments, improperly positioned workstations, badly drawn travel paths, and inefficient or dangerous material-storage solutions.

Technology can help with some of these pain points. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) can bring raw materials to workstations quickly and safely without employees moving to retrieve them. It’s also possible to invest in machines with greater travel distances and those designed to multiply the effort of equipment operators. One upgraded device could result in an attendant doubling their output without doubling a whole assembly line.

It might take time to address other causes, like a poorly thought-out production environment. It’s possible your teams and company mission changed and expanded over time. However, it’s probably time for a revamp if you’re spotting a lot of contrary motion, unnecessary travel, and wasted or unsafe motions on the production floor.

Some companies assemble small teams with members from each department to help make deliberate, future-focused changes to workflows, travel paths and workstation placements. Sometimes it doesn’t take much housekeeping to free up wasted time in processes that no longer fit their environments. Moving a single machine or inventory location could eliminate travel time and even some avoidable workplace injuries with the right logical, safety-focused layout.

Understanding Lean Principles for Machinists

Clients seeking the assistance of machine shops are looking for a partner that can add value to their work. For machining, polishing and finishing service providers to stand out, they need to be as committed as possible to eliminating waste, rework and redundancy.

Using lean principles for machinists keeps you capable and competitively priced. It also positions you to pivot more quickly from project to project and client to client.

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