Manufacturing AUTOMATION

This hour has 15 minutes

May 18, 2012
By Scott Hale

Businesses may grow and expand organically, but rarely in an organized fashion. As a result, what might have started out as a simple process can become wildly complex, slow and prone to error.

In most manufacturing facilities, employees actually work on the primary product or service offered for just 15 minutes out of every hour. This means that the product or service, and the customer, are waiting for something to happen for the other 45 minutes.

Most engineers don’t believe this until they map their workflow and assign actual times to every activity, including the time lags between activities. What they find is that 95 percent of all delays are usually caused by time gaps between activities. Now, I recommend software solutions for a living, but in almost every manufacturing organization, I have found that buying new design technology alone cannot reclaim all that lost time.

The most important step is to streamline and automate your existing design processes prior to acquiring new technology.

By mapping and redesigning the entire workflow to eliminate delays, it’s not unusual to reduce the total time to product by 75 percent or more. Simplifying and streamlining the workflow can be done quickly with the collective wisdom of employees.

So, if 50 to 75 percent of a manufacturing employee’s time is focused on non-value-added tasks, what are they doing? Mostly they are digging through files looking for design data, building bills of materials (BOMs) using spreadsheets, performing manual calculations, printing drawing sets for the shop floor and, of course, re-entering information over and over again.

The 4/50 rule
When approaching manufacturing productivity, I am a firm believer that a mere four percent of the process can reduce productivity by as much as half. I leverage this 4/50 rule regularly when working to solve customer issues. I hunt for the tasks that hinder efficiency, while keeping this huge potential gain in mind.

When you map your process out, you will typically find several areas where improvements can occur. But remember that a mere four percent of the process causes 50 percent of inefficiencies. Our experience repeatedly proves that it is worth spending time to identify those few areas that cause the biggest slowdowns and/or the largest number of errors. There are some typical areas where the biggest logjams occur.

• Sales: It all begins with sales. Sales teams often require drawings and BOM information upfront for client proposals. The traditional process for many is for the engineering department to create a submittal drawing of the product for the sales team. Then once the sale is complete, engineering will start all over again to develop actual production drawings.
Why not embed accurate drawings in your sales presentations from the start? If you automate the submittal drawings based on information the sales people collect regarding customer specifications, that information should drive the engineering process, which will keep your engineers from doing twice the work, save time and eliminate this common bottleneck.

• Engineering: If you are constantly redrawing from existing sets, take a look at automating the specification step. Many manufacturers make similar products with custom specifications. If your parts are essentially the same, but their sizes are different, you may be able to automate the design process by creating an easy-to-use interface that allows you to key in dimension parameters, select options and drive design rules to support hundreds of configurations.
Northern Extrusion Tooling, a company that manufactures tooling for the aluminum extrusion industry, developed an iLogic-based configuration tool to create new die sets based on an Inventor template.

“With the cost of steel skyrocketing, we were looking for any way to reduce costs in other areas. We were spending a lot of hours in design, so we took a look at how we could streamline that process,” said Todd Becker, Northern Extrusion Tooling’s head of die design.

Now, designers can configure new custom dies quickly through a rules-based system, allowing them to enter parameters such as blank and bolt sizes, customer information, hole locations, fillet tolerances, etc. — up to 50 different items that then automate the drawings. Entering the parameters for simpler sections takes only a few minutes and they can quickly show customers the drawings for custom parts. By automating and streamlining, they collapsed the design process to take only 10 percent of the time they were spending before. As a result, the company has seen a significant reduction in design cycle times.

When Megna Pools, a manufacturer of vinyl pool liners, automated its AutoCAD-based design process, a similar productivity gain occurred.

“Taking a flat piece of vinyl and turning it into a three-dimensional skin that fits perfectly into a pool with no overlaps or wrinkles is harder than you might think,” said David Rice, Megna’s operations manager.
Megna’s distributors supply a set of detailed pool dimensions and then Megna staff draw the shape necessary to make the liner fit the pool. In the past, it might have taken a designer an hour to produce drawings. With automation, the majority of the design is done automatically after the designer enters the dimensions into a dialogue interface with AutoCAD.

“Now we can produce a more accurate drawing set in 20 minutes, not 45,” said Rice. “This is a more than 50 percent savings in time. And when you are producing 5,000 units per year, all that time really adds up. As a result, our goal to eliminate overtime is becoming more and more a reality.”

• Enterprise resource planning: Purchasing and order processing can be bottlenecks. Do your engineers build a BOM in their CAD system, and then send that information to order processing or purchasing where they re-enter the same information into a different system that drives resource and material planning? If so, you’ve probably noticed that it’s an inefficient and error-prone process. Simply speeding up this process will result in making the same errors — only faster. Once an engineer builds a BOM, no one should have to re-key any of that information downstream. Engineering, ERP and production control systems should integrate so that one system seamlessly feeds information to the others.  

The race for time is continually escalating as efficiency becomes a competitive differentiator. If most of your hours seem to only have 15 minutes, you could be in trouble. Your competitors can be just as productive as you if you both invest in the same technology, but you will always have the edge if your process is more efficient. Just imagine what you could do if your hour included an extra 45 minutes!

Scott Hale is director of the Manufacturing Solutions Team with Imaginit Technologies (, a provider of enterprise solutions to the engineering community. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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