I started this year with a spurt of shop visits-- a sorry excuse for my lack of blogging, but there it is. One high-mix, low-volume job shop is beginning the process of reorganizing its machines into cells: a sheet metal cutting machine next to a brake, next to hardware insertion. In a bold move, the company has eliminated its cutting, bending, and hardware insertion departments. Managers made sure that workers are cross trained, so they can follow piece parts through all three processes before sending a batch--a small one, as close to single-piece-part-flow as practical--to operations downstream.
Here’s the kicker: The shop did it all with no holiday shutdown.
At another manufacturer, a deep drawing specialist, press lines are aligned so the company can cost-effectively stamp myriad jobs with various volume requirements, from 100 piece-parts to thousands. The strategy has paid off: In its deep drawing niche, the company experienced some of its best years when so many others were struggling to keep their doors open. The success comes in part thanks to the company’s core product--filter shells, which are sold to an industry that tends to run counter to broader economic conditions. But managers also attributed the success to its customer service and flexible manufacturing environment.
Still another metal manufacturer--this one in sheet metal fabrication--has seen business tick up to record levels. The high-mix, low-volume job shop has almost a half dozen robots that process more than just large-volume work. Welding department personnel loaded and unloaded piece-parts into fixtures, and then spent mere minutes switching setups between low-volume orders. The robots may run a dozen of one part, 30 of another, 15 of another, and so on. The arrangement has relieved the welding bottleneck--a constraint common in many sheet metal job shops. The shop made it happen through some innovative fixture design.
All three shops will appear in upcoming issues of our print magazines. But most significant among all this, I think, is just how busy all these shops really are. It’s so refreshing, particularly after visiting so many quiet shops in 2009. Yes, uncertainty reigns, but it’s comforting to know that, at least in the here-and-now, times are good for many. The level of activity on shop floors does make it a bit of a challenge for an industry reporter. Shop personnel don’t have as much time to talk as they did during the downturn.
But, of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way.