As the company brought in more fabrication operations, including LVD lasers and press brakes with
laser-based angle measurement and automatic
correction, Barbas-Bellfires ramped up its brand
of continuous improvement. Managers began by
using elements from quick-response manufacturing (QRM), an improvement method designed for
high-product-mix operations ( www.qrmcenter.org).
Barbas-Bellfires certainly fits this description, with
hundreds of different types of stoves departing the
factory every week. Per the QRM philosophy, the
company grouped these stoves into product families, 15 of them, then built workcells around them.
The final assembly cells show QRM in full force
(see Figure 2). Workers designed them from start
to finish, from the tool placement to the lift carts
that hold the stove frames at a convenient height.
Instead of being U-shaped, each cell is straight; they
could be called assembly “lanes,” with each lane
designed around specific product families. No one
performs one operation over and over again. Instead, each person moves down the lane with the
product, performing all tasks needed to complete
Because workers move from one station to the
next, supervisors can see where the assembly operation stands. If one worker remains in a station
for too long, everyone can see the problem as it’s
happening and, if necessary, take corrective actions
to help. Workers also decide the best sequence of
stoves for maximum throughput.
Final assembly is the crux of the operation’s pull-system methodology, a key element of lean manufacturing. Downstream processes trigger, or pull,
upstream operations into action. This includes the
burner assembly lanes, which in turn pull from upstream processes, including lacquering, which (
until tests are finalized on the aluminized steel) will
likely remain the constraint operation.
Manual lacquering isn’t a pleasant job, which is
why no one performs it more than two hours a day.
It’s why cross training is so important. From a production perspective, cross training allows people
to move to aid flow and boost job throughput. Performing different jobs throughout the day also helps
employee morale. People are happier at work.
Barbas-Bellfires does not have separate cutting
and bending departments (see Figure 3). Instead,
parts flow directly from laser cutting to bending.
Specifically, parts are removed from nests and go
directly to one of several LVD Easy-Form® press
brakes with laser-based, automatic angle measurement and correction. Workers scan bar codes on the
cut blanks, and the control brings them through the
bend sequence—with not a blueprint to be found
The company does employ one highly experi-
enced press brake operator who reads blueprints
extensively and works on new product develop-
ment. It’s not unusual to see that operator work di-
rectly with the company’s engineers, whose desks
are right on the shop floor. As Pasnagel put it, “That
is where the value is created, so that is where we
need to be.”
He added, though, that he wouldn’t call the other
people who bend parts on the press brakes “opera-
tors” in the traditional sense. They don’t read blue-
prints regularly, nor do they know the intricacies of
bend allowances, deductions, sequences, and ra-
dius development. They can certainly climb the lad-
der and, if they wish, learn more about bending. And
like everyone else in the plant, they monitor flow.
If a process doesn’t “pull” work from an upstream
process within a certain amount of time, people
know immediately based on where work is on the
floor and real-time metrics shown on flatscreens
throughout the plant. This helps people correct
problems before they snowball into larger ones.
For most of Barbas-Bellfires’ work, the entire
build cycle takes only four days: one day in order
processing, one day in cutting and bending, one day
in welding, and one day (yes, just one day) from lacquering through final assembly and shipping.
All this creates an environment that’s evidently
attracting talent—a true feat, considering the area’s
incredibly low unemployment of less than 3 percent.
A few weeks before the press visit, Barbas-Bellfires
hosted an open house for interested applicants.
“I would have been happy if we had 20 or 30 people. But we got more than 100 visitors and more than
60 people who are very interested in working here,”
Pasnagel said. “It helps to have a good factory.”
Improvement Never Stops
Johan Miermans is not one to think things are good
enough as they are (see Figure 4). Last year he became CEO of Vanderscheuren outside Diksmuide,
in the Flemish province of West Flanders. In May
2016 KeBek, an investor group, purchased a majority share of a family business that had been run
by two brothers, Rik and Luc Vanderscheuren, for
decades—and run rather well, as evident by strong
financials. Miermans did not reveal specifics on
the record, but he did say that the balance sheet’s
health was well above the industry average.
It’s a contract operation where repeat work dominates. The company has made a name for itself for
its reliability. Miermans described one major customer that makes textile machines. The customer
produces about 50 machines a day, and Vanderscheuren produces subassemblies for them—with
no finished-goods inventory buffer. “If we stop producing today, they will not make any machines tomorrow,” he said.
The 12.1-million-euro company invests 1 million
euro annually in capital equipment. And it shows
on the shop floor. In fact, Vanderscheuren is really
two shops under one company. One facility houses
automated laser systems, press brakes, and welding, while another factory across the street focuses
Stoves move down an assembly cell, or lane, that’s
dedicated to a product family. One person moves down
the line with the stove, completing the final assembly
from start to finish.
Cut steel destined for a gas stove is staged for the next process (on left). The automated laser cutting system feeds
the adjacent press brakes (on the right).
Rik Vanderscheuren (on left) took over Vanderscheuren nv with his brother Luc in 1989. In 2016 the investor group KeBek became majority shareholders and
brought on Johan Miermans (on right) as CEO.