Mold-Masters Ltd. is using lean manufacturing to meet demand for ever-faster delivery of its hot runners, by making flexibility the top priority over mass-production efficiency, company officials said.
``In the past four or five years, we've seen a dramatic push to decrease lead time,'' said Patrick Bennett, vice president of sales and marketing. ``The industry has challenged us, and challenged toolmakers to make very monumental shifts in speed and flexibility.''
Lean made sense, but it wasn't easy to make the change from making large amounts of products at a time - say, 50 parts - to small batches of 5, 10 or 15 pieces, company officials said during an interview at Mold-Masters (Booth N5133) headquarters plant in Georgetown.
Throughout the company's history, when Mold-Masters needed to ramp up production, it invested heavily in metalcutting equipment, computer-aided design and manufacturing and robotics - and hiring more people - to meet growing demand for its hot runner systems.
Hot runners are highly customized products with numerous components and a lot of variety. Every hot runner system is unique. Mold-Masters has 10,000 part numbers.
``We've always kept on the leading edge of any advantage we could get from a manufacturing technology standpoint, from automation, from machine tools to cut it faster, everything we could do,'' Bennett said.
Bennett likened Mold-Masters' situation to a charity car wash, ``where you put 50 hands on the thing and everybody's wiping at once.''
But adding technology and people are no longer enough. Bennett said that three or four years ago it took Mold-Masters seven to eight weeks to make a hot-half - the complete hot runner system for a mold. Today customers want it done in two weeks, or in China, even down to one week, he said. And it's not easy to find skilled people.
Bennett said a substantial growth spurt in the last several years combined with tighter delivery times to push the leaders of Mold-Masters to look at new solutions.
``Lead times in the marketplace continued to plunge, and we needed to do something different,'' Bennett said. ``We recognized as a company that we had to do something. We can't just throw more machines and more people on it, because you become not cost-effective as a manufacturer, and it's a diminishing return. There's not enough hands that can go on that car at the same time. You're not being efficient.''
Mold-Masters President Jonathan Fischer said he got interested in lean manufacturing during travels around the world in 2000, opening the company's global network of hot runner factories. Mold-Masters launched its first lean project - at its manifold line - in late 2003 and early 2004, he said.
Fischer became more energized by a visit to Toyota Motor Corp.'s factory in Cambridge, Ontario. Mold-Masters hired Kathleen Engberg as operations project leader to spearhead lean manufacturing at the hot-runner plant.
Engberg outlined the basics of lean manufacturing. First, she said, you have to study the manufacturing process to determine value-added time and non-value-added time, or Muda, the Japanese word for waste. So for a company like Mold-Masters, the key is not just cutting steel faster, but rather, correcting the non-value-added operations - mainly, the time that components sit around between operations.
Many times at Mold-Masters, workers did one operation, then moved the component way to the other side of the plant to the next machining step. Under lean, kaizen teams of employees help figure out a simpler way to manufacture.
In the manifold project, the team learned that each part traveled 2,700 feet from a piece of steel to the time the manifold went out the door. They cut it down to 800 feet.
``You look at where your work-in-process is in your plant, and how the work is flowing,'' Engberg said. ``And you really want to look at whether or not there's a clear flow of how the material should move so it doesn't get lost. You want to focus on your constraints and trying to give your attention to where the flow is interrupted.''
To introduce principals of lean, Engberg puts employees into a team and assigns them to build a part out of Legos. So far, about half of the 550 employees at the Georgetown headquarters have done the Lego exercise.
Fischer said it's a big culture shift, but hourly workers embraced lean. Management people can feel threatened at the power shift, he said.
Plant workers, ``were thrilled,'' Fischer said. ``It was the concept of having a real impact, because they now were taking control, choosing the direction, making the decisions and then living with the results of their actions. That is very much different from directives coming from the top-down.''
Lean does require a big change in thinking, Bennett said. The key principle is that availability is more important than running the machines flat-out 24/7. He said that lean makes sense for a company like Mold-Masters - when a customer may choose from different families of nozzles, then 20 different lengths and five bore sizes. ``That's a tremendous variety that you have to go through the same work area,'' he said.
During a plant tour, Mold-Masters officials pointed out how pull-systems and lean manufacturing have improved the plant.
In the production area on the MasterSeries nozzles, steel bars used to come into a centralized storage area. Then they moved to three parts of the building, to go through grinding, milling and turning. Now all the operations are in one room. The parts are stored in small lot sizes, in bins placed right by each metalworking machine.
Mold-Masters also has invested in an automated line in the nozzle area, with loading of parts via overhead robots.
The company has put in a pull system at its Dura nozzle production area. In mid-2005, crews moved lathes, grinders and milling machines to a single work cell. The pull system uses a system of bins, marked by simple identification cards. Each bin holds five parts, so employees can visually see when the part is running low.
For custom nozzles, Mold-Masters has cut the time it takes from getting the order to shipping the nozzle to three or four days under the pull system, down from about 20 days before lean.
Fischer said Mold-Masters is spreading the process to its other plants, as Mold-Masters gets leaner - and faster.