2 The FABRICATOR Industry Research Project NOVEMBER 2017
Improvement in metal fabrication evolves
For decades metal fabrication technology has
freed manufacturers from the “one tool, one
part” limits of traditional sheet metal manufacturing. One tooling set on the punch or press
brake can cut and form various geometries.
And the laser of course takes hard tooling out
of the equation entirely. Overall, metal fabrication equipment fits high-product-mix manufacturing like a glove.
Until recently many in this business have
thought that lean and other improvement
methods just didn’t apply to them. Their shops
didn’t produce product lines of their own, and if
they did, they produced a high variety of them.
How could the Toyota Production System possibly apply in such a highly variable situation?
Much has changed in recent years, as this survey shows, but it has been more evolution than
revolution. Almost half of survey respondents
currently have formal continuous improvement
programs. Still, they
need to tweak and
cherry pick tools within different improvement philosophies to
match their situation.
5S remains the
most popular and
beneficial improvement tool, followed
by problem solving.
Interestingly, a majority of respondents
programs said they
have some type of
multiprocess manufacturing cell on the shop floor.
Many have used tools from lean manufacturing, but they also have combined them
with other improvement techniques, including
quick-response manufacturing (a method tailored for high-product-mix manufacturing), Six
Sigma, and the theory of constraints.
The greatest challenge seems to be sustaining the improvement program. More than a
third of respondents who have an improvement
program said it hasn’t been sustained consistently since inception.
Improvement sometimes wasn’t sustained
because fabricators lacked resources. Only
12 percent of those with improvement programs have a full-time manager dedicated to
continuous improvement. People also resisted
change—and this includes both front-line personnel and management.
If a fabricator was encouraged to start an
improvement program by customers, those
customers were probably from industries like
automotive, aerospace, medical, and agricultural equipment. Still, most who do have an
improvement program didn’t launch it because
a customer encouraged them to do so. They
launched it simply to improve and make operations more predictable.
The evolution of improvement continues.
Launching an improvement program is a somewhat new phenomenon in metal fabrication.
Only a third said they launched a lean program
more than 10 years ago; almost 40 percent said
they launched a program within the past 10
years; and 30 percent said they started within
the past three years. In another 10 years that
statistic will likely change.
A few things are clear, as made evident by
the narratives in the following pages and by
some of the “split down the middle” responses
in this study. First, there is no one “right” way
to approach continuous improvement in metal
fabrication. Some strategies may work, others
may not, and still others may need to change
as the fabricator’s product and customer mix
Second, continuous improvement is, well,
continuous. It never ends, and it is never perfect.
There is no one “right”
way to approach
in metal fabrication.
Some strategies may
work, others may not,
and still others may
need to change as the
fabricator’s product and
customer mix changes.