4 steps to improve productivity in small batches

The manufacturing industry is changing from mass production to individual production: Previously, there were large series with fixed prices. Today, prices are different every day, series sometimes up to size 1 and more and more variations in the type of request: different materials, processing and delivery dates.

In addition, requirements for administrative matters such as certification, traceability and First Article Inspection (FAI) are also increasing. All of this must be managed properly, as a mistake is easily made.

The impact on the organization of this is:

  • Increased pressure on work preparation and sales.
  • Margins are tighter because customers prefer not to pay for administrative fees.
  • Finding workers is getting harder: broader and more highly skilled personnel are needed.

All these things lead to one conclusion: We need to work differently to keep up with the market.

Here’s a four-stage cycle you can use to increase productivity:

  • Step 1: Automate data entry: Ensure that orders are automatically entered into an ERP and/or manufacturing software (MES) based on data import and give customers real-time visibility of progress through a portal or supply chain integration.
  • Step 2: One piece flow: Plan according to lead times rather than efficiency. Train people so they understand the process from A to Z and can make improvements on it. Eventually a self-regulating system emerges here, e.g. POLCA from QRM or similar kanban systems (bottom-up approach!)
  • Step 3: Work digitally: Have the shop floor work across the flow based on databases and 3D models (instead of 2D DXF and work orders). If data entry from production is strictly necessary, do it on the floor, such as via tablets/scanners or other smart devices/machines.
  • Step 4: Data-driven improvement: Use algorithms and formulas to determine prices and schedules, eliminating reliance on human input. Use historical data from machines, employees and process data (including post calculation) to automate formulas.

Repeat the above steps until the administrative tasks are fully automated. This is achieved when employees provide only high-quality knowledge and professional work instead of the daily grind.

Note: You do not have to perform steps in every area of the business at the same time, or in a set order. Your company’s digital maturity plays a big part in this.

If you have saved some time with automated order entry, your business may be at different stages of the cycle in different parts of the company.

For example, you are in the one-piece-flow planning phase for specific customer segments or order types, and the data-driven phase with quotation software, and the 3D modeling phase with your engineering team.

The point is:

To be competitive in the new world, small batches should be seen as an opportunity to work smarter, not a threat.

A small batch at the expense of mass production is possible, provided the processes and automation are designed accordingly.

If you are still trying to make great series while holding on to the past, “Step 0” may be quitting with that.

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