Lean in the small shop

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by Jim Barnes

History of lean builds corporate culture of waste reduction for Ontario machine shop

Long accepted in large scale manufacturing plants in the automotive and aerospace industries among others, lean manufacturing has just as much to offer smaller shops. No shop owner wants to see waste in his operations, and lean is an important strategy in reducing waste and increasing efficiency in any shop, according to Steve Cote, machine shop manager, Veritas Tools Inc., Ottawa, ON. “Lean is applicable to machine shops of any size, absolutely.”

Veritas is part of Lee Valley Tools Ltd., established in 1978 in Canada and renowned as a retailer of high quality woodworking tools. Lee Valley started to design and manufacture its own tools in 1982 and its manufacturing division incorporated as Veritas in 1985.

The product line includes a wide array of tools such as planes, sharpening equipment, router tables and drilling accessories. As with any consumer-oriented business, costs are a focus and the efficiencies that lean brings to the company are important.

The shop totals some 2,787 sq m (30,000 sq ft) while other facilities assemble the tools. About 85 staff work in three shifts. The shop’s equipment includes horizontal four axis machining centres, vertical three axis machining centres, Swiss turn lathes, CNC lathes, surface grinders, knife grinders, lappers, and a fully operational tool room equipped with lathes and mills.

Lee Valley’s R&D/design team provides product design. Three programmers at Veritas handle CNC programming, using GibbsCAM.

Lean history
Lean is homegrown at Veritas. “Lean is internally driven, the company does not use outside trainers or consultants,” says Cote. It has been in use for roughly eight years. The firm’s manufacturing director, Lester Lamarche, was instrumental in the introduction of lean, notes Cote.

Both Cote and Lamarche have backgrounds in aerospace at Boeing. “We brought a lot of ideas with us from there,” says Cote. “I worked for 27 years at Boeing and I was part of the team that audited other Boeing divisions on lean.”

Lean has been spreading through the company, including the assembly facilities. It is “absolutely” as applicable to assembly as it is to the machine shop, notes Cote. “Some people consider assembly to be a low-hanging fruit. The programs and equipment may not be as complex, but that’s an area we’re working on right now.”

Lean is also integral to the company’s administrative processes as well–for example, the process of creating standard operating procedures and completing a request for a tool or equipment repair. “For all those processes, we use value-stream mapping and try to improve them constantly,” says Cote.

Work in progress
“Lean is always a work in progress,” notes Cote. Maintaining a sense of urgency about lean is key to the firm’s human resource efforts.

“The key element of lean is the people systems and the culture of the people in the creation of value. They need to be part of the dialogue every day,” notes Cote.

Every manufacturing cell meets as a team at the beginning of every shift to discuss elements of lean like total productive maintenance (TPM) and 5S, and identifies opportunities to eliminate waste, says Cote.

Chris Deschamps, tool setter, returns a toolholder to inventory. The target of lean is to reduce inventory, says machine shop manager Steve Cote.A cell can be comprised of anywhere between three and 10 people. The cells take ownership of the 5S audit, explains Cote. On a rotating schedule, they conduct 5s audits of other cells, not their own.

“We have a 5S standing committee that meets biweekly. Periodically, we will audit the auditors. Members of the standing committee will go to perform audits with the person responsible for the audits that week,” says Cote. The goal is to create standardization of audits across the board.

Rolling up the audits highlights underperforming cells. “If we have one team that’s not managing 5S properly, the overall score is lower. That helps maintain consistency,” explains Cote. “The audit is intended to improve 5S, so it has to expose at least one opportunity and drive one action to correct that opportunity before the next audit.”

Cycle times
“Our machine operators, machinists, tool designers and programmers are in a constant state of improving cycle times,” notes Cote. “When we start a new job, we will quote a cycle time. We’ll do a pre-production run to validate that cycle time,” notes Cote. After that, the shop starts to look for improvements.

Every job is different in a small shop, so consistent metrics on cycle time improvement are very difficult to generate. While he will not quote specific data, Cote does point out that cycle times are “constantly improving.”

One of the biggest obstacles to productivity in a machine shop is set up. Fast set ups are vital to reducing lot sizes and work-in-process inventories. “Continually reducing lot sizes exposes ways to drive improvement,” says Cote.

Lean’s answer to the set-up problem is SMED – single-minute exchange of dies. While Veritas does not use any equipment that involves dies, the SMED principle is applicable to reducing time spent in set ups, as well.

It is a matter of detailed preparation. “It is identifying elements of setup that can be externalized or done prior to the actual execution of the setup,” says Cote. The process of removing existing fixtures and tools, installing new ones and creating work coordinates for the CNC program is completely pre-planned. A high level of attention is devoted to specific staff requirements, processes and materials needed. According to Cote, watching a machine tool being set up under SMED principles is like watching a pit crew working on an Indy car during a race.

Operator responsibilities
The operator is front and centre in driving lean. Under TPM, most maintenance is the responsibility of the machine operator. In addition, the maintenance department carries out a predetermined schedule of regular preventive maintenance. The firm is in the process of implementing a proprietary database to help with TPM. “It’ll help us with scheduling and understanding the costs associated with maintenance,” says Cote.

The operator is a key driver for quality. “In this environment, quality assurance is owned by the machine operator,” says Cote. In lean manufacturing, quality problems are headed off at the source. The operator performs inspections and drives quality improvement directly. Veritas audits that performance.

If the operator detects an out-of-control condition or variation, changes are made before many out-of-spec parts have been manufactured.

High levels of inventory are a target of Lean manufacturing. “The inventory on the shelf doesn’t add value until the customer buys it, so the target of any organization should be to reduce inventory,” says Cote. In non-lean environments, inventory masks manufacturing problems. The less inventory you have, the more responsive you need to be to issues of waste and inefficiency, according to Cote.

Veritas is working toward implementing just-in-time delivery. Management is improving the flow of manufacturing in the plant with a view to inventory reduction. “We use value stream mapping to improve flow. We are working with the assembly operation to improve that flow.”

Getting started
How does a smaller shop get started with lean?

“At first, it’s a question of education, training, supplemental reading–read everything you can get your hands on in terms of lean. See what the leaders have to say,” says Cote. “Understand where we came from, how we got there, where we’re going. What is the current state of lean? What are the best tools?”

He also suggests an incremental approach. Choose one piece of the operation that can benefit from the reduction in waste. “It would be a mistake to take a macro approach to it and try to change the world,” says Cote. “It’s too mammoth a task to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to go lean.’ The fact of the matter is that you are never going to get there. Today, your processes are in the worst shape that they will ever be in. They’re only going to improve.” SMT

Jim Barnes is a contributing editor. [email protected]

Veritas Tools

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