By Tim Heston
Ihave a confession: I’m a band geek. I made it hrough high school and college, zits and all, thanks to the support of my fellow band geeks.
And I am no stranger to the phrase, “One time at
band camp …” Yes—I was, and am, a proud nerd.
It was about the collaboration. We all had to get to
the same place at the same moment, in time and in
tune (or try to, at least).
In music, you have the craft: scales, chords,
breath control, bowing, phrasing. Then you have
“the making” part—that is, playing music. And if
someone is going to make music with someone
else or within a larger group, that person needs to
connect, collaborate, and get along.
Manufacturing is no different. There’s been a
skilled labor problem in metal fabrication for as
long as I can remember, and it’s a multifaceted
problem. The craft can be taught, so the “skill” part
is a straightforward fix. The collaboration and “
getting along” part isn’t so straightforward. It can’t be
taught, but a company can have structures and processes in place to bring collaboration to the fore.
Managers in custom fabrication encourage
morning huddles on the floor. They encourage idea
generation and continual collaboration, both during shifts and between shifts. So many fabricators
have told me that they solved a lot of problems
simply by getting people on one shift to talk to the
There’s good reason to do this. Custom metal fabrication has a challenging mix of needed craft and
continual communication. And it’s easy not to communicate. Not only does the very nature of a multi-shift operation throw up hurdles to communication,
but so does the nature of traditional batch manufacturing in process-based departments. Operators
stand in front of the machine and silently churn
away as they work toward their production goals.
Thing is, customers don’t care about how many
parts per hour the laser or press brake department
can make. They care about how quickly it can
make parts. That’s what restructuring into value
streams is all about, and it’s a thing of beauty when
you see it in action. Consider Total Door Systems,
a custom door manufacturer in Michigan that has
achieved single-piece flow. You can see doors
progress on the U-shaped production line, and you
can see people collaborating to move jobs forward
as efficiently and effectively as they can. The close
proximity of different manufacturing processes
does wonders for collaboration, and the entire lay-
out itself seems to focus not on strokes or cuts per
hour on this or that machine, but instead how fast
products flow down the line.
This can work for product lines, even highly customized ones, but I’ve never seen such a production line in a conventional custom metal fabricator,
which might process thousands of different parts
with different routings every month. I’ve visited
some shops that have been organized into fabrication cells, such as a laser or punch next to press
brakes next to a hardware insertion press. And
plenty have built multiprocess cells around one
product or product family.
But I’ve never seen a custom fabricator organize
everything in multiprocess cells that extend from
raw stock to the finished product (though one
may exist). A fabricator may have identified value
streams, but look at the physical routings and
you’ll see that jobs still follow a circuitous path.
“Is there a reason this couldn’t work?”
So asked the late Dick Kallage, a lean manu-
facturing consultant who was a columnist for
this magazine for years. He asked the question
at a conference in 2014 organized by the Fabrica-
tors & Manufacturers Association International.
He proposed laying the entire plant out in a grid,
with laser cutting and punching in the back row,
deburring and forming in the second row, welding
and assembly in the third row, etc.—creating what
Kallage called “virtual cells.”
Being a music nerd, when I saw this, I thought
about the symphony. Like the fab shop, the orches-
tra is separated into sections—violins, violas, trom-
bone, trumpets—but these sections don’t make
their best music in separate rooms. They all need
to be on stage, sitting in specific places to ensure
maximum blend and the best sound. With Kallage’s
virtual cell proposal for the fab shop, I saw maxi-
mum effectiveness and the greatest throughput.
This arrangement allows parts to flow straight
from one step to another, with only several cartfuls
of work-in-process in between. It requires quick
changeover and promotes single-piece, or at least
single-sheet, flow, which is not an outlandish idea,
considering the quick-changeover techniques and
technologies in the market today.
The nature of metal fabrication demands that
some processes, like welding, grinding, and powder coating, be separated by some distance, or
at least a physical barrier, mainly because of the
particulate those processes emit. And some machines tend to be monuments. These large shared
resources (powder coating line, e-coating, plating
tanks, heat-treat ovens) are difficult to move and
expensive to duplicate.
Moreover, a fabricator is limited by the building
it occupies, like old buildings chopped up into various rooms, artifacts of the days when splitting production operations into numerous process-based
departments was thought to represent the utmost
in efficiency. I’ve seen fabricators take great strides
in building workarounds, like designated fork truck
lanes and routes, to make the moving of material
But if a fabricator moves into a new, open space,
the world opens. With Kallage’s virtual cell layout
or something similar, people can work closer than
ever. This perhaps can broaden their perspective.
Seeing parts flow around them, they can appreciate how their efforts—be it on the laser cutting machine, press brake, grinding, or anywhere else—fit
into the whole. They’re not just producing notes on
their instrument. They’re making music.
Senior Editor Tim Heston can be reached at timh@the
Read more from Tim Heston at
A symphony of metal fabrication
A smart shop layout can spur collaboration and make music
A portion of a slide, shown at a 2014 lean manufacturing conference organized by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, shows cutting (A), bending (B),
and assembly (C) in a grid layout.