Monday, October 21, 2013

Focus and Leverage Part 265

In this posting Bruce describes the current state of the cabinet maker's business as well as a detailed description of each of the process steps.  At the end of this posting, Bruce asks some key questions and we encourage you to post answers to them which will be revealed in a later posting.  This is a rather long posting, but for continuity sake I felt it was important not to break it up into separate postings.

The Preliminary Analysis and Information Gathering

When the improvement team arrived they met with the management team to get a clear understanding of the current issues, which was basically a repeat of what has previously been stated with some additional highlights.

For starters, the management team was deeply committed to traditional cost accounting and efficiency metrics.  They supported this thinking with the rationalization that the primary key to their past success was being able to reduce the cost per part (cabinet boxes). Most, if not all, of their decisions where focused on how to reduce the cost per cabinet.  It was a continuation of the management method they had learned years before and the management method they brought with them to the present.  However, what had seemed to work in the past was now seemingly their worst enemy.  In their mind, they were following the “rules” and yet the ship was sinking.  It was a continuing cycle of chaos and they literally had no idea how to break the cycle and get out of the current situation. They only answer they had was to keep doing the same thing and hoping it would work for them.

Management also confessed that they were paying the late fees and having it deducted from what was owed to them.  They did this in hopes of trying to generate enough cash to have enough money to pay for the raw material on the next project.  However, the raw material situation had escalated to the point that suppliers were starting to refuse orders from them until previous bills were paid in full, or at least paid down to a reasonable level.  They concluded that there was no way out except to get their cost per cabinet down to a lower rate.  The assumption (and false hope) being that any money they could generate through savings could be applied to other needs.  They were convinced (hoped) that if they could increase the efficiency of production and achieve the lower cost per part, then the current problems would “magically” correct themselves.  At this point, the primary goals the management team were to focus on were improving efficiency and reducing costs.  The situation was grime, at best, but not totally beyond hope.

Having gathered the information from the management team interviews the improvement team shifted their focus to the production system.  First, and foremost, was the visual analysis to document the product flow and get a basic understanding for the rhythm of the how work moved through the system from the start to the finish.

The Production Process and Tour

Step 1 - The Planners

When a new project was awarded and the architectural drawings were received, the planners would convert the architectural drawings into shop drawings, including all dimensions, cut sizes and material requirements.  This information was used by various work stations to produce the cabinets, drawers, doors and counter tops. The required material list for hardware for drawer pulls, drawer guides, hinges and laminate colors were also provided.  If a special cabinet was required, they used the architectural drawing without conversion.

For the most part, the raw material was standardized using 4X8 sheets of MDF, or sometimes plywood.  When the shop drawings were completed, the information was loaded into a software program that would optimize the panel layout and cutting sequence.  This software was used to determine the maximum cut from a panel to reduce the amount of scrap.  This software had been previously purchased as another “Cost Savings” idea from the management team.

Before the job was released to the production floor it was assigned an internal project number, normally a four digit number.  The project number became the formal identity for the project while it was in production.  The planning group would print the various components of information into a production package with the required information for each work center.

When the job was released it was also assigned to an internal project manager.  The project manager was responsible to make sure the job was continually moving through the production process.  This cadre of project managers was usually the more senior personnel who had some experience in all of the work stations and could be called upon for technical assistance when issues occurred.

Step 2 – The Lay-up

The laminate layup process was performed in tandem with the saw operation.  During the lay-up process the raw 4X8 panels, of either MDF or plywood, were fitted with a sheet of laminate to match the color requirement in the production instructions.  These raw 4X8 wood panels were sprayed with glue and the laminate applied and rolled into place.  The laminate raw material was also purchased in 4X8 sheets.  These matching material sizes usually allowed the lay-up process to be completed in short order.

After the panels had been fitted with the correct laminate color they were moved to the saw.  This material transfer was usually completed by hand and typically moved one panel at a time.  The panels were placed in the saw stacking area. If you think of a clip for bullets you get the idea of the stacking area. Moving panels from the stacking area to the saw was an automated feeding system that moved the panels, one at a time, onto the saw cutting deck.

Step 3 - The Saw

This wasn’t an ordinary saw, but rather a very large and complex saw.  It was computerized and controlled by a single operator.  The computer on the saw was linked to the planner’s computer.  This link allowed for the transfer of the panel optimizing software from the planners to the saw.

As each panel was removed from the stacking area, and prepared for cutting, the operator would program the saw with the downloaded cutting instructions from the optimization software.  The saw push arm would move the panel into place and lock it down.  The saw mechanism was actually the opposite of what you might think.  In a typical table saw, the saw blade remains stationary while the wood is pushed through to make the cut.  In this case, the wood was held in place on the cutting deck and the saw blade moved back and forth.  When panels were placed on the cutting deck the saw would make the cuts according to the programed instructions.  When the panel had been cut in one direction the cut pieces were moved (re-aligned) by the operator to make the cuts in the opposite direction to end up with the correctly sized and cut pieces.

After cutting, the pieces were stacked on a pallet. Theses pallets were loaded and moved according to a semi-specific batch size which was about 30 pieces.  It was normally the saw operator, using a floor truck, who moved the pallets to the next work station - Edge Banding.

Step 4 -  Edge Banding

As the name implies, Edge Banding was the machine that applied the edging material to the panels.  The edging material was usually made from plastic but, could sometimes be made from wood.  The panels were processed through the edge banding machine and the edge material was glued (banded) in place.  As the edging material was applied, it went through a short series of pressure rollers to set the glue.  The edging also passed over a router to smooth both edges and square the corners. The doors and drawer fronts required four (4) passes through the machine to edge all four sides.

At this point, the piece was considered ready for the next process step and the panels could move in two different directions.  The drawer fronts were moved to the drawer assembly area and were attached to the drawer boxes and moved to final assembly. The doors and box pieces were re-loaded on separate pallets and moved with the same transfer batch in mind to the next work station – the Morbidelli.

Step 5 - The Morbidelli

The Morbidelli, as it was called, was actually a machine brand name rather than a machine function.  This was a unique and specialized piece of equipment with a very specific job.  The Morbidelli was a drilling machine, with the primary function of drilling the necessary holes into the panels.  These holes included the dowel’s hole on the end and sides of the panels, and the series of holes drilled on the flat surface that allowed for the shelf pins to be inserted.  These drilled holes allowed for the shelves to move up and down to various heights.

The drilling function allowed for multiple holes to be drilled at the same time.  This Morbidelli was also computer controlled with panel dimensions programed in for accurate placement of the holes.  These programmed commands were not linked to the optimization software, but rather manually input based on project requirements.  When the holes were complete, the panels were moved back to the transfer pallet for movement to the next work station - the Box Press.

Step 6 - The Box Press

The box press was a low pressure hydraulic press that would apply pressure from three sides (top, left and right sides).  The bottom was stationary on the press deck.  The pressure allowed the glue to move and then set within the dowel holes

The box pieces, when they arrived, were laid out on the box press deck for assembly.  The assembly included all of the pieces to make a box (both sides, top, bottom, back and any internal supports for drawers). The process was to use small amounts of glue in the dowel holes and insert the wooden dowels and assemble the box.

The back was free floating to allow for expansion and contraction of the wood.  The backs were cut in a different location (not the main saw) and were considered a “feeding” part for box assembly.  Each piece marked with the job number and the specific box number it was assigned to.  When the box was rough assembled, a rubber mallet was used to position the dowel pins and bring the box together in a rough snug fit.  The box was then placed in the box press where pressure was applied to seal (press) everything together.  The box press duration was about 3 minutes per box.  This was amount of time considered necessary for the glue to dry and allow the box to stay together.  When the boxes left the press they moved one box at a time to the next work station - Final Assembly.

Step 7 - Final Assembly

During final assembly the boxes were fitted with the correct doors which had already been cut and edge banded and waiting (hopefully) in final assembly.  The correct hardware for the hinges and drawer pulls were identified from the production package and added.

The final assembly process was helped by the fact that the holes for door hinges and drawer guides had already been drilled by the Morbidelli.  It was simply a matter of attaching the correct hardware and hanging the doors and inserting the drawers onto the drawer guides.

The doors and drawers were marked with job numbers and cabinet numbers to make sure the right doors were put on the correct right cabinets which didn’t always work out.  Final assembly had numerous repairs and rework because sometimes the wrong doors had been installed on the wrong cabinet.  The drawers were assembled in another location and delivered to final assembly.  The drawers were marked with the job number and cabinet number to aid the assembly process.  This process presented its own form of issues.

When the assembled boxes were complete with doors, drawers and hardware, they moved from final assembly as single units to the next work station - Shipping.

Step 8 - Shipping

At the shipping location each box was wrapped with plastic wrap to protect the outside laminate from scratches and cushion the stacking process when the boxes were loaded in the truck for transportation.  The boxes were checked by project number to make sure they were heading to the right job site.  Additional materials, such as base boards, flashing panels, and counter tops were also added to the truck, as required.

There were several instances when the shipping inventory was stacked in several holding areas waiting for a truck.  With one truck available the shipping folks had to wait for the truck to return before loading it again.  Often times they had to wait a considerable time for the truck to return, especially when they were delivering to several states!

The Visual Cabinet Process Flow

This flow DOES NOT contain time durations at the process, but rather just the flow of product through the system.  The only real time that had been established was the three (3) minute press time at the box press.  When the improvement team arrived, the estimated time to complete this cycle would take anywhere from four (4) to six (6) weeks, sometimes longer, to complete the production cycle.

So, based on your experience and given this much information, you have probably compiled a mental list of ALL the things that need to be fixed or changed.  At this point, would you venture a guess as to where the problem area(s) might reside?  How come this system takes four (4) to six (6) weeks to produce any results?  What, in your estimation, is slowing system down?  How come?

Bob Sproull



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