By Katie Freeman
When creating a brand-new production or assembly process, many things are looked at and studied to create the best capacity possible. Organizations consider what and how much equipment they will need, design jigs and fixtures to help mistake proof the process, define the order of operations, and determine what competencies are needed to perform the work.
Once the process is up and running and consistently producing quality product, it is generally not revisited unless there is a quality issue or a request for changes from the customer. Without an inciting event necessitating an examination of the performance level or capacity of the process, the process can, over time, become stagnant.
But is that a bad thing? Why fix something that isn’t broken, right?
There are many good reasons to occasionally revisit how a process is structured. One of those reasons is something manufacturers everywhere are currently dealing with, a reduction in work force due to COVID-19. Manufacturers find themselves in a position where they need to continue to meet the needs and demands of their customers while not operating with a full staff.
So, what do you do if you no longer have what is considered the ideal number of people to make the production processes continue to run as they always have? You can always throw money at it, buy more machines, put in some robots, or try to ramp up hiring. But there is another possible solution, to re-evaluate the current order of operations to see if there is a way to maintain the same level of production with fewer people.
An organization in Cedar Rapids found themselves facing this exact issue. They have an assembly line that is normally staffed with ten operators to meet the production needs of their customer. However, since the onset of COVID-19, they have been forced to staff the assembly line with only seven operators, which has delivered a huge hit to their part production numbers.
At first, the operations manager thought the solution was to create a specialized fixture or perhaps even purchase some specialized equipment to increase the production level at the presumed bottleneck of the process. However, after spending just a half day observing the line, they noticed a few things:
- There was a lot of movement involved just to bring parts to the line.
- Some operators were constantly working, while others were idle waiting for the step prior to theirs to be completed.
- The people at the start and end of the line had time to do their tasks as well as help bring components to the line for other operations.
After the observation time, they made some simple changes in what tasks were assigned to which steps (also known as level loading), how parts were brought to and staggered at the line, and the roles of the people at the start and end of the line. These changes required absolutely no money. They implemented them within an hour and conducted some trial runs. The trial runs showed that these small and simple changes could increase productivity back to the level required by the customer, while maintaining fewer people on the line. An unexpected benefit was when they realized that they can grow capacity in the future by duplicating the new line set up while utilizing ten operators.
This organization reviewed this process because it was necessary in order to meet the demands of the customer. However, the operations manager admitted that he wished they would have reviewed the process years ago because that would have helped them put staffing in other places that needed it more.
The moral of the story is to take the time to review your processes regularly, even if there is no “need” to do so, because you never know what you will find!