The Challenge: While the aesthetics of the company's board systems have dramatically improved over the years, production processes remained relatively unchanged until management adopted a Lean manufacturing philosophy in 2005. Before then, Sport Systems Unlimited used 2D design tools and manual techniques to manufacture its board systems. The manufacturer's adoption of a Lean manufacturing methodology required a move to 3D.
"We needed to take advantage of robotic automation to make manufacturing more efficient," explains Chris Henhoeffer, Sport Systems Unlimited's project manager and design co-ordinator. "Our objective was to automate production so we could shorten cycles, control costs, and increase capacity. Achieving consistent quality and expanding into new markets were also goals of our Lean manufacturing approach."
The Strategy: Sport Systems Unlimited chose to implement SolidWorks 3D design software as the cornerstone of its Lean manufacturing initiative because the software is easy to use and can drive the company's manufacturing processes, automatically generating robotics and CNC code from 3D solid models. The hockey boards manufacturer also acquired DriveWorks knowledge-based engineering software, a Certified SolidWorks Gold Partner Product, to automate the configuration of customized board sizes.
"Increased capacity was the key for us," notes David Staines, director of sales and marketing. "We believed that the move to SolidWorks software would support our Lean manufacturing transformation and help us grow as a company."
The Results: Using the SolidWorks Visual Basic for Applications Interface, Sport Systems Unlimited automatically creates tool paths and instructions for its CNC machines and robotic systems directly from SolidWorks software models. By automating its manufacturing processes, the company has slashed production time for custom rinks from 1,200 staff-hours per rink in 2006 to 450 staff-hours in 2009, a 62 percent reduction in production time.
"Switching to SolidWorks software was a critical move in our manufacturing transformation," Henhoeffer stresses. "SolidWorks software streams data out to our robot and CNC machine, and our line workers simply set up raw stock, punch in the SolidWorks software part code, and watch as the panel, part or aluminum member is machined in a fraction of the previous time."
"When we have the raw material in stock, we can deliver a rink in just three days," Staines notes. "This allows us to shorten delivery times, which provides added value to our customers."
With shorter manufacturing cycles, Sport Systems Unlimited has increased throughput at its 28,000-square-foot production facility. The number of dasherboard systems that the company produces has risen steadily year after year. In 2009, their throughput was more than three times what it was in 2005. Using SolidWorks software, the manufacturer has increased capacity without adding resources or sacrificing quality. In fact, because Sport Systems Unlimited has automated its processes - with tighter control of accuracy and repeatability - the quality of its products has actually improved.
"We can now produce more hockey board systems more efficiently with the same amount of staff and virtually no overtime, all of which sets us apart in the industry," Staines points out. "Our sales go up year after year, and our Lean manufacturing operation allows us to control costs and grow the business. We estimate that we now have 35 to 40 percent of the Canadian market, and 22 of the 30 arenas in the NHL have our board systems installed."
The transformation of Sport Systems Unlimited's production into a Lean manufacturing operation has enabled the company to not only grow its core business, but also expand its product line.
"Lean manufacturing, robotics and SolidWorks software have allowed us to branch out into new markets like indoor soccer, one of North America's fastest-growing sports, and even pharmaceuticals, where our partitions prevent cross-contamination of drug batches," Staines explains.
"The improvements we have made enable us to do more research and development into how we can apply our core expertise in other areas," adds Henhoeffer. "Working in 3D also has enhanced our ability to visualize and develop new concepts, and then show them to potential customers. This allows us to stimulate interest and secure business without having to make significant capital investments up front."
A version of this case study ran as part of the 2011 Software Case Study Guide in the September 2011 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.