It is a work in process at MSI Mold Builders Inc., a project to make over a toolmaking plant that once looked tossed together, and turn it into a model of efficiency.
Yet, for many workers at MSI's bustling site in Cedar Rapids, the company already has come a long way. With the floor layout reconfigured to put like-minded functions close to each other and with an assembly-line approach to tooling that Henry Ford would admire, MSI has made sweeping changes in the past five years.
While workers have become specialists in their tasks instead of generalists, they appreciate the difference. Or, at least, they prefer it to the alternative.
``We might not always agree on everything being done,'' said Tom Roling, a senior employee who has worked at MSI for close to two decades. ``But we know that we might not even be working here at all if we didn't change.''
It is not fear that has driven the employees of MSI to make those changes; it is more a sense that the tooling industry in North America has needed a transformation to compete globally, said Shane Stech, another MSI employee. Stech and Roling have become specialists in electric discharge machining functions, while others are more allied with computer numerically controlled mills and other equipment.
Each piece of equipment sits in its logical place on the plant floor, lining up in position depending on work flow. The duties can become repetitive, Stech said. ``It's like dishwashing and laundry,'' he said. ``The work is never-ending.''
But compared with the tumult formerly at MSI, when toolmakers constantly ran between machines in search of decisions or changed jobs at the drop of a wrench, a new serenity has found its way to the Iowa plant. The floor is much calmer and the molds are in their places, like a school class with children sitting neatly in their rows. And the company is witnessing production gains of 80 percent compared with just five years ago.
``Toolmakers used to be known as journeymen. [They] would individually build a tool and be jacks of all trades,'' said Steven Kimm, MSI operations manager and the person responsible for implementing many of the company's changes. ``It could be chaos. We've worked to restore some order and to increase production efficiency.
``You can't be an expert at everything.''
MSI President Roger Klouda, whose parents founded the tooling company in 1971, launched the changes. The company has grown under Klouda's helm to three plants, more than 100 employees and $15 million in annual sales. But Klouda said he always thought production could be improved, even while growth was proceeding apace.
Those thoughts surfaced in the late 1990s, when most U.S. tooling shops had as much work as they could reasonably handle. No one had time for any serious change, he said.
``We knew we had to do something someday,'' he said. ``I had an idea of what the plant could look like. But, more recently, we found that we really had to change if we were going to stay competitive.''
Klouda's view crystallized in 2000 during a trade mission to China and the Pacific Rim that was sponsored by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. After witnessing how easily the Chinese shops could throw people at toolmaking projects and keep a tight lid on costs, Klouda realized that U.S. shops could not follow a similar path.
But the company could improve efficiency, cutting down costs while maintaining quality. While cost levels never could match those in China, tools could become closer in price, with other advantages, he said.
``Few Chinese mold makers know how to build a mold as well as a U.S. company,'' he said. ``We knew for five to eight years that we had to change and that we could compete better by doing that. Clearly, this was where we needed to go; this was something we could control.
The company, a custom maker of tools for injection molding, hired Kimm in 2001. Kimm had worked in engineering for Amana's refrigeration operations in Amana, Iowa. While the Amana plant could make 5,000 refrigerators a day in a highly automated system, MSI offered more variety of products in much lower volume.
But there were similarities in plant layout and in engineering and design functions. Amana had a dedicated, strict assembly process with segmented divisions and functions, he said. Kimm injected that approach into MSI.
``We rely on process-management tools rather than on journeymen to make decisions,'' Kimm said. ``Where people used to work all over the plant, we've developed more of a functional approach. It isn't quite like making refrigerators, but we're as concerned about performance.''
That work started in 2001, when a new system was implemented. The company set up a ``war room,'' where project scheduling is set before a job hits the factory floor. Projects are mapped out and targeted for different plant areas on certain dates, with lines drawn on a scheduling sheet to indicate when a tool has moved to another section of the plant.
Meanwhile, worker functions were reordered, with toolmakers assigned to different areas and duties in the assembly-line approach.
By 2002, work flow had been rearranged and data collected on efficiency. To date, the company has increased the speed of tool builds 20-30 percent, he said. At the same time, employment is down 20 percent at MSI, much of it attributed to attrition.
A year later, the company set up a General Electric-style, DMAIC system - standing for define, measure, analyze, improve and control - that allows the company to look at data for each job or even each employee to measure efficiency.
MSI has compared the number of hours worked each month to the value of a finished project. That way, production per employee can be measured, Kimm said.
``The payroll doesn't lie,'' he said. ``If we have too much downtime, it can get ugly.''
Changes at MSI continued last year with the addition of new equipment and the continuous movement of functions to logical places within the plant.
In the CNC department, for instance, all small CNC machining centers are grouped together. EDM work is done in a different area. And the company has what it calls a box department that does nothing but build ejector systems. In another area, eyeholes are drilled. And the company has created an assembly and final-sampling area.
Each job includes an assembly checklist to ensure all the jobs are completed before the tool goes out the door. The master schedule set by the war room is followed to the letter, Kimm said.
Workers still have some authority, referring to specification sheets at each machine and making changes when needed while in production, Kimm said. ``We don't need to be a paperless shop,'' he said. ``Just an efficient one. But all jobs go through the same process.''
The work-flow improvements have stopped some of the clamor among employees that MSI needs a larger plant, Kimm said. Waste has been reduced, and workers such as Roling and Stech are more energized, they said.
``We don't have to stop the line to make a decision, because the operation is much better,'' Roling said.
The company constantly makes adjustments. Few other U.S. toolmakers have made a complete switch to lean manufacturing, and the company does not have many role models for change, Klouda said. Some offer more automation than MSI, and some have a larger array of high-speed equipment.
But neither equipment nor automation offers the entire fix to buffer the U.S. mold-making industry against Asian competition. MSI prefers a whole-plant approach, looking at each step that a tool must go through to reach final assembly.
``Everyone here has ownership of the process as we go through the transition,'' Klouda said. ``We don't want to stop here. We're always looking at what we can do next.''