Viewpoints: Process Optimization Ensures Continuous Growth
By Kurt Nordlund
Seco Tools Inc.
According to multiple industry indicators that we focus on, manufacturing in the United States will continue to experience positive growth in 2012. As with 2011, this new year’s growth will largely be driven by the fact that manufacturers are continuing to concentrate on the continuous optimization of complete manufacturing processes.
In the past, many aspects of part processes were overlooked. There was sometimes a tendency to focus heavily, or even exclusively, on machine tool technology. A machine was seen as the primary production component in the part-making process, to the point that equally important complementary technologies often were not paid much attention. Today, though, manufacturers have become much more thorough, scrutinizing every aspect of a production process to identify any area that offers the potential for improvement. This new mindset has proven especially relevant to tooling, software, and automation, all areas that used to be afterthoughts for many manufacturers.
Today’s manufacturing engineers are more open minded to change and constantly take advantage of newly available advanced technologies to achieve the goal of continuous improvement. These engineers consider every aspect of a part-making process as a candidate for optimization and no longer settle for leaving a "good enough" process alone because it is how it has always been done and is, for the most part, working just fine.
Consider a shop that purchases a new machine tool with the latest technological advances, but then equips it with tooling used on the shop’s previous machine. Multiple problems can arise from this scenario. At best, the shop will likely be foregoing getting the maximum performance out of its costly new investment, representing lost potential and wasted money. Even worse, the older cutting tools may perform worse in the new machine than they did in the old, and it is entirely possible to end up with the new process providing results that are inferior to what could previously be obtained.
With this drive for more comprehensive process optimization, shops are relying more heavily on their suppliers. The dynamics of these relationships have changed and grown into collaborations and partnerships, where both parties work together for mutual support, problem solving, and developing total manufacturing solutions. This has necessitated something of a transformation for many suppliers, as it’s now necessary to extend the value proposition to include much more than just products. To meet the needs of a manufacturer today, a supplier needs to work towards a complete understanding of that company’s processes and goals, so that it can provide relevant solutions.
With shops streamlining their operations throughout the economy of the past several years, many have turned to suppliers to take a more active role in driving process improvement. Utilizing suppliers’ in-depth knowledge of manufacturing technology as a resource allows shops to keep abreast of the latest advancements in manufacturing, as well as understand how those innovations can be incorporated for process optimization. The end result is that a shop continues to increase its competitive advantages and differentiate itself as a technology leader in the increasingly global market.
However, the responsibility for continuous process optimization should never be placed solely on the shoulders of manufacturing engineers or the shop’s suppliers. For sustainable success, companies must develop and integrate continuous improvement programs that drive and support business development.
Additionally, training—whether provided by shops themselves or by their suppliers—must accompany and further support any type of continuous improvement program. As part of the foundation on which such programs are built, training is critical and should be incorporated throughout the continuous improvement process. The more knowledge and training people have, the more energized, enthusiastic, and motivated they are to offer suggestions and to work together for continuously re-evaluating and re-optimizing manufacturing processes.
Continuous improvement programs may not require fully staffed physical departments, but they do have to strongly encourage and support a company-wide continuous process optimization initiative. At every level of the organization, there must be a true drive to improve. ME
This article was first published in the January 2012 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.