Latest from Issues and Ideas

For Investment Caster, Progress Starts with Mapping the Production Process

July 26, 2007
"The pipeline is starting to materialize. We're producing products more efficiently and with minimal waste and minimal rework. Our entire rework factor has been reduced from 30 to 10%, and our scrap level has gone down dramatically."

At Lamothermic Precision Investment Casting Corp. in Brewster, NY, "the pipeline is starting to materialize," according to Michael Steele, general manager. In other words, there are notable signs of organizational improvement, thanks to a training program in Lean Manufacturing techniques, developed and implemented by the Hudson Valley Technology Development Center (HVTDC).

Lamothermic's management noticed changes in their staff and daily operations immediately following an initial Lean 101 seminar conducted by HVTDC. "The very next day a number of staff members came up with ideas to re-arrange the machines and desks to reduce the distance the parts had to travel," Steele remarked. "By rearranging the tables and turning the machines around they can see where the parts are more readily."

The foundry began working with HVTDC in 2006, with a series of sales workshops conducted by HVTDC's director of sales, Ralph Brown. The Lamothermic managers learned how to look at their company's structure, evaluate their success, and why they lost quotes and bids, as well as their returns on advertising and marketing investments. After that series, they sought HVTDC's expertise to prevent consistent breaking of the ceramic molds produced at the plant. "We needed help to determine where the breakage was happening and how to prevent the ongoing problem."

Following the introduction to Lean 101, HVTDC introduced the staff to Value Stream Mapping (VSM) to look at the entire production process, think about each step, and ask questions — such as how to fix the breakage, step by step. VSM revealed how products flow from one production step to another and where the biggest problems occurred. The staff recognized that the middle of the process, where the molds are created, was where a lot of breakage was occurring and where defects take place. "Since that time we've established a Materials Review Board (MRB), consisting of quality controllers, department supervisors, and myself," explains Steele. "We meet first thing every morning to review everything scrapped and reworked the day before; we find the problem, and take care of the problem. This has made a big difference."

One year later, that difference is notable. "The backlog that was about $2.5 million, has now doubled to $5 million. We have raised our level of productivity from where we were shipping 400,000 pieces/month to where we are now shipping over 600,000 pieces/month," Steele comments. "The Value Stream Mapping worked out very well in two particular areas. We removed a shelf from one area and that allowed traffic to take a much shorter route. Plus, we cut an opening in a wall that eliminated a lot of distance the product traveled as well.

"By Value Stream Mapping our production line," explains Steele, "we've seen very good success with our employees taking steps to make changes to prevent breakage without a lot of expenditure. It's making a big difference in that it reduced the time our staff was spending moving molds from different points of production. The biggest impact is that it opened our staff's minds as to how to make successful changes in how we are operating. Plus, the staff trained in Value Stream have been bringing the techniques and methodologies to other areas of the plant."

Having completed their "Kaizen" (i.e., Lean Manufacturing improvement process) team training via HVTDC, Lamothermic's own Kaizen team custom-built carts to move products from one area to another. "These carts are specially designed to eliminate a lot of double handling and damage to our fragile products," according to Steele. Initially, the teams built a prototype in wood. Then, with some design improvements, they built finished carts in metal. The design improvements worked, and the carts help to eliminate double product handling, which in turn eliminates potential for damage.

Lamothermic's managers have noted their workers' enthusiasm and contributions over the past year, and now realize that employees have adopted the Kaizen techniques for themselves. "When a customer recently toured our facility to see how things are made, we saw that employees are creating their own teams because they see how it helps production. The culture of change has begun, and it's happening seamlessly without a lot of push by management."

In addition, the customer mentioned overhearing employees discussing their own ideas and initiatives, and how Lamothermic's management was listening to them and acknowledging their effort. Obviously, the employees are pleased to being taken seriously by the management.

"HVTDC's training of our supervisors made a big difference in how some of us now work with people, and how we can see different ways to handle various situations and people in conflict," Steele says. Employee interviewing has been updated, too. "It helped us to add guidelines for managing our interviewing process better. It helped us to weed out applicants who were not appropriate, and gave us the tools to better explain to our employees the caliber of candidates we are really seeking.

"Overall the most dramatic change," summarizes Steele, "is that everyone is involved on a daily basis in evaluating how we produce our products, and almost everyone has ideas that are being listened to. Our staff feels more comfortable coming to the management with their ideas for making the production process better. The bottom line is that we're all reaping the rewards."