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Lean manufacturing has revitalized some tool shops

By Rhoda Miel

Lean manufacturing is not exactly new. It wasn’t even new 25 years ago when Plastics News began publishing.

Henry Ford was relying on lean nearly 100 years ago, when he needed an efficient factory to turn out cars at a low price while paying his workers $5 a day. Ford borrowed ideas already in practice in other industries.

Of course no one called it lean then.

It took Toyota Motor Corp. and its founder, Sakichi Toyoda, to truly study improved manufacturing methods and write down the key principles, creating what came to be called the Toyota Production System, before lean really took off.

Anyone in manufacturing these days has heard those names: kanban, kaizen and pull vs. push.

For a while, every company presentation at a conference seemed to include an accounting of how many lean manufacturing “black belts” the speaker’s company had.

Even today, if you go to an industry conference or seminar, you can count on some speaker bringing up his or her company’s version of “Genchi Genbutsu,” or going to see what the problem is. And each speaker who brings it up treats it as if it makes their company unique.

The thing is, it’s not really unique, is it?

Sure, 25 years ago, the terms were new in North America. But successful companies were doing some element of those lean practices as part of its regular operating rules, or they wouldn’t have been successful in the first place.

But business in general was different then. Going to see what the problem was at a customer’s facility was easy when the customer was just across town, rather than 12 time zones and a 17-hour flight away.

Image By: Plastics NewsRhoda Miel

Lights out production wasn’t necessarily needed when the product life cycle for new electronics was two to three years, rather than two to three months — or even weeks.

And of course global purchasing strategies have meant that machine operators in the U.S. are competing with people making a fraction of their wages elsewhere. So today’s work flow studies look at every step a worker takes, and come up with ways to reduce those steps and improve production.

I think what’s been more interesting than merely a recitation of the names and what they mean is to consider how far lean has come, and what it has meant. And what it has meant, most of all, is that manufacturing is still an important part of the economy, and one that is looking for talented workers.

Let’s face it. Any company that did not embrace lean, at least in part, probably isn’t around after the Great Recession. Being lean is not just a good business practice, it’s the bare minimum required to compete today.

Getting more parts out per person, combined with automation and technology investments, means that companies can begin to compete with lower wage workers elsewhere. Add in the shipping costs and complications that come with moving parts from one continent to another, and molders here can make a real business case for reshoring production.

Those gains are even obvious in industries that once had seemed to be beyond the reach of traditional lean practices. Mold makers once said lean did not apply to them. After all, each mold they make is unique, designed to work for one customer on one part. Besides, all those veteran toolmakers took pride in taking one mold from a steel block to a finished tool. How could a manufacturing system designed for high volume output possibly work for them? And besides, they would say, those veterans would never agree to it.

Yet tool shop after tool shop has come to find that not only is it possible, lean has given new life to an industry nearly crippled by the global mold making industry. Tools move steadily from station to station, rather than getting backed up, waiting for the one guy who knew some “secret” to getting just the shape on that corner.

And while there are stubborn holdouts in every business, mold makers who have implemented lean said that far from rejecting lean, most of their veterans have embraced it. For one, in part, because it’s a lot easier to accept change when you see other shops closing their doors, so toolmakers had an incentive to try something new.

But also, shop owners said they took care to explain that lean would make it possible for veterans’ expertise to be shared throughout the company. Rather than replacing their knowledge, they improved on it and embedded that knowledge in systems that benefit everyone. A steel block doesn’t just pass from one work station to another, it uses the “best-of-the-best” practices from decades of experience, and does so at a steady, reliable pace that allows those mold makers to compete on a faster production speed without sacrificing quality.

So lean means that toolmakers can deliver molds to a molder faster, and at a competitive price. Those molders can then turn out parts faster, and with a lower price. Their customers can then use those parts in appliances or toys or cars, get them on the market sooner, at a competitive price, and with the added benefit of being able to market it as “Made in America” or “Made in North America.”

Which means that even if lean manufacturing isn’t really new, it is still making a very big splash for companies everywhere.