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Lean Manufacturing Helps ARS Take Dead Aim on Defense Industry Growth

Jim Lorincz
By Jim Lorincz Contributing Editor, SME Media

In 2015, American Rheinmetall Systems (ARS) turned to the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP) for assistance in developing a lean manufacturing program within its facility. ARS needed to streamline its operation and efficiency in order to free up workers to take on additional defense contracts. Its parent company, Rheinmetall Defence, wanted ARS to transition from being a workshop to being an efficient stand-alone business.

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 The ARS facility after Lean training with Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership is streamlined and efficient for assembly of defense-related electro-optic and fire control systems.

ARS is a mechanical and electro-optical engineering company specializing in system integration, assembly, and R&D. Its core business hasn’t changed over the years; ARS continues to support Kongsberg’s CROWS remote weapon station program that it took on under its previous name of Vingtech.

Assembly and testing are done at the ARS plant in Biddeford, ME, using components purchased from suppliers. Its assembly procedures involve a lot of hands-on work and, as a result, inefficiencies. No fabrication work is done.

Within a little more than two years, all of ARS’s existing work centers had gone through Lean manufacturing events and all production employees had participated in at least one project.

The initiative has the direct oversight of Brad Hittle, president and CEO. “We picked one work center at a time to do the inch wide, mile deep approach. By the time we got to the last couple of projects, there was real enthusiasm,” said Hittle. “It’s infectious when one group starts to take off on their own. The others see that and it’s inspiring. As we approached the last couple of projects, employees were saying ‘I’ve been waiting for you to pick my work center.’ That’s when I knew we had gone about this in the right way as it had started to build on itself rather than being a flash in the pan. By the time we got in the last Lean manufacturing project, there wasn’t any more selling to do.”

ARS’s products were designed in Norway and not originally expected to sell in great numbers. When the company landed a contract for 15,000 pieces, it found that its processes weren’t suitable for that kind of quantity. As it tried to scale up to do the required volume, ARS naturally did things like building huge batches and sub-assemblies, carrying a lot of WIP inventory, and sharing tools.

“Bruce McGill, one of GBMP’s continuous improvement managers, has been an awesome fit for us because he has such broad experience. We needed to communicate to staff that using single piece flow and 5S will make their job easier,” said Hittle. “That’s a hard sell, sometimes, to people who have been doing things the same way for several years. That’s where Bruce was invaluable to us because there wasn’t any objection that people came up with that he couldn’t counter with a demonstration proving that the lean manufacturing approach works better,” said Hittle.

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Before Lean training with GBMP, the ARS facility was crowded and processes were disjointed with bottlenecks and production was easily interrupted if even one person called in sick for a day. Space required was 20,000 ft2 compared to 9,000 ft2 after Lean training.

“ARS is serious about thinking differently,” said McGill. “Brad recognizes that Lean manufacturing is good for employees and for customers. He understands that sustainable change must come from their people, by allowing them to quickly apply what is learned through education and training to their own processes. I expect them to continue to make good gains as they use Lean manufacturing methods such as Value Stream Mapping to uncover more opportunities to strip non-value-added activities from their daily work.”

“When first approached with the prospect of introducing Lean into our organization, I was admittedly a bit skeptical,” said Chris Lamont, ARS production lead. “Sure, larger organizations with tons of resources could benefit, but would there be a positive impact on a modest operation such as ARS? The answer turned out to be yes. By simply removing as much waste as possible from each process, we improved productivity in measurable ways that were visible immediately by the whole team. With full support from top management, I believe we’ll be able to sustain continued improvements well into the future.”

“When the corporate folks are here from Germany, we show off a little by demonstrating that we are still doing the same amount of work in less space and they are very interested in that,” said Hittle. “We didn’t want to be constantly expanding the building and hiring new workers because there are inevitable ups and downs in the defense business. We’ve tried very hard to keep our workforce as steady as possible. In order to do that, we had to have a lot more flexibility in time and space.”

Through the various Lean events, ARS has freed up a huge block of space in the middle of its mechanical assembly production floor and is doing the same amount of work in 9000 ft2 (836 m2) of space as it was doing two years ago in 20,000 ft2 (1858 m2). This gives ARS the ability to put an additional line in on short notice.

As part of the Lean training, participants were shown how to create spaghetti diagrams to document their existing processes. This enables people to identify redundancies and wasted motion. Initially, one process had 72 different steps before it was reduced to 31 steps.

Significant cycle time improvements occurred in ARS’s Electro-Optics Assembly area. Originally there were multiple jobs and everyone controlled a small piece of the process. With some cross training, each employee can now build an entire camera from start to finish, reducing the amount of time needed to build a unit by 40%.

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ARS supplies mounts, firing mechanisms, and video imaging modules (VIM cameras) to equip the CROWS system, which provides an operator with the ability to acquire and engage targets while safely inside an armored vehicle.

“We had such a disjointed process with so many bottlenecks that if one person called in sick it could really throw a

major wrench in the works. Now, if one person calls in sick, it just takes out one-sixth of your production for the day and doesn’t affect the other five-sixths. We don’t have machines that do the work, we have people. For us, they are our greatest asset,” said Hittle.

Another lesson from the training was that “it doesn’t have to be perfect.” One group worked out of a makeshift cell for weeks and found more things that they wanted to improve as time went on. Eventually, they got to the point of wanting to build a more permanent setup but had gained greater insight into the process by taking baby steps.

“We used a typical kaizen approach,” said Hittle. “We didn’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. We didn’t take years and we didn’t have to take lines down. Employees just found a better way to do what they were already doing. They eliminated waste that was mostly in the form of empty space and lost time searching for tools and walking great distances. Now, everyone understands that continuous improvement is what we do. It’s a part of our culture.

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