Take Control of the Manufacturing Process

In the current market, it’s time to get started
By Ron Auletta, GED Integrated Solutions
January 15, 2008

You may be busy. You may be understaffed. You may even be in denial. But the time for action is now. In today’s market, window and door manufacturers need to cut costs, and they have to do it by getting manufacturing processes in order and under control.
Relax...it’s not nearly as scary as it sounds. There’s no need to spend $100,000 for the advice of an outside consultant; no PhD or MBA required. You can, and should, handle this yourself. All you need is common sense, discipline and determination.

In the late ‘80s, I took part in an intensive 32-week training program about the Toyota Production System. I thought I “knew” a lot because of this training. I was very humbled when I realized that this classroom training didn’t teach me much in a practical, hands-on way. I began to truly learn the day I started to work in manufacturing, out on the shop floor, making products. I had to understand the process and how it all came together. It may sound simple, but after implementing lean practices at eight different manufacturing operations, the lesson still rings true: taking control starts with a true, hands-on understanding of the process.

So let’s consider the window manufacturing process. Whether they are wood, vinyl or aluminum windows, there are two distinct processes of production: glass and sash/frame manufacturing. Within each of the two major processes, there are dozens of activities or sub-processes that take place to make an IG unit and a sash or frame. Complexity as we know it does not come in the form of a window. It comes in a highly configurable end product that has hundreds of thousands of different SKUs—all produced in a one-piece-flow, just-in-time sequence at any time during any given shift.

It is here where the breakdown begins and ends in many window and door plants. These processes are not properly defined, and they lack ownership and accountability. They have ill-trained operators and supervisors making a product that, in many cases, will carry a 20-year to lifetime warranty.

So how do you fix this breakdown? Take control of the manufacturing process by assigning a team of process engineers to own, design, document, manage and certify the process by which you make your products. This team is the key to your plant’s success and is charged with keeping the chaos to a minimum throughout the entire operation.

Here’s how to get started. First, break down the manufacturing process into manageable and distinct areas. For example, you could break down the glass process into:

1. Glass storage, cutting, washing and assembly (IG fabrication)
2. Spacer fabrication and application
3. Grid fabrication
4. Shapes

Next, assign a manufacturing process engineer to each of these four distinct and manageable areas. The engineer is responsible for the process from start to finish in that assigned area. He or she lives and breathes that section of the operation. He or she owns it and polices it. He or she is responsible for designing and setting in place the following “process controls” for his area of responsibility:

1. Maintenance procedures for all equipment
2. Scheduled TPM and maintenance records/logs for all equipment
3. Material handling procedures
4. Quality standards for product at each work station, including systems that detect inconsistent quality
5. Product specifications
6. Methodologies and best practices
7. Standard work procedures and visual factory practices
8. 5S practices
9. “Operator Certification Standards” and training programs for each workstation

In short, the engineer “owns” the process, product, materials, people and quality within his area of control.

The process engineer’s desk should then be placed on the floor in his or her assigned area. With this function in place, instruct anyone within the organization who discovers a problem in the chain to go immediately to the one who owns it to get a resolution.

Now that the glass process is under control, break down the sash/frame fabrication the same way, or assign a process engineer to manage one distinct window line. Follow the same “process controls” and, before you know it, the entire plant will be under control and running smoothly.

Now you can rotate your process engineers to different areas every 12 to 18 months. This creates a cross-trained process engineering team whose members will view a new and different process with a fresh set of eyes each time you rotate. It’s kaizen.

I know what you’re thinking—you can’t justify the expense of added labor. But I guarantee you, by breaking the process down and assigning a full-time process engineer to each of the distinct areas (if it is the right person), you will get your processes under control and significantly reduce scrap, waste, rework and trivial activities like looking for inventory.

Furthermore, when employees turn over, there is one person responsible for training and certifying the new employee—just correctly training an employee to a consistent standard leads to substantial savings.

The money you are currently burning through inefficient manufacturing will more than pay for the process engineering labor. You may even find that you do not need to hire degreed engineers to perform these very important tasks, although you should have a few on the team to help train the others.

Rest assured, the return on investment in the process engineer function will come when you leapfrog your competition in operational efficiency. If you think you cannot afford this, think again.

See? I told you it wasn’t difficult to get control of your process. Common sense, discipline and determination are all it takes. Every manufacturer in our industry should take a hard look at the performance of its operation and take steps to control the process. Stop thinking of outsourcing to China as the only solution to getting costs in line. If our industry wants to eliminate the outsourcing threat, we need to fix the processes within our plants that add cost to the products we produce. Master the process, and then offer more configurations and options to customers while producing them at a higher quality level in less time. No outsourcing strategy will be able to touch the cost position of a product made under your control. w

Ron Auletta is president and CEO of GED Integrated Solutions, the supplier of machinery and software for window and door production, based in Twinsburg, Ohio. More information is available at www.gedusa.com