Productivity Boosters: Companies use a variety of methods – from machine to humans – to increase the efficiency of their operations
Autometrix was featured in this original article, published by the Specialty Fabrics Review Magazine September 2017 Issue.
Improving productivity depends on a combination of efficient employees, equipment and processes. Driving improvement in all these areas involves examining the current practices in place and making adjustments to systems, employee training, technology, equipment and tools. From small tweaks in communication processes to large technology improvements, companies are using many techniques to boost productivity.
From small tweaks in communication processes to large technology improvements, companies are using many techniques to boost productivity.
Tecsew Ltd. in Gosport, Hampshire, U.K., includes a video on its website that explains one of the primary ways it manages production efficiently—with materials requirements planning (MRP) software. Before 2006, “production was managed using a series of Excel spreadsheets,” the video’s narrator says. “The company realized that, if it were to expand and move away from the inherent problems that a fragmented approach to production management causes, they would need to upgrade to a more integrated solution.”
John Bland, managing director of Tecsew, which designs and manufactures marine covers and upholstery, lauds the MRP software of U.K.-based 123 Insight Ltd. “Quotes, invoices, orders, etc., can be emailed automatically, as well as dialing out from the database to a client or supplier,” he says. “Our quotes include a photo of the person who has prepared the quote, which gives it a human touch.”
He adds that 123 generates reports and that, although it is “not cheap and is laborious to set up,” the benefits are well worth the investment of money and time.
In addition to automation equipment and software, Tecsew follows a range of productivity principles, including lean and just–in–time manufacturing, key performance indicators, workforce incentives and employee empowerment. “I’m always looking to improve, to get an edge, so always keep an eye out for anything that can add value,” Bland says. “Profitability and market share will suffer as a consequence of not moving forward.
“Look at what others do,” he suggests. “If you have an idea and it’s not being done, research, explore and implement. Have an open mind, and always be prepared to try out an idea. Embrace new technology and reap the rewards.”
The right investment
A frame fabricator at Tecsew assembles a frame bent with a CNC ring roller (not shown). The programs for bending the frames are taken from models prepared in Rhinoceros 3–D CAD software. Photo: Tecsew Limited.
Tecsew uses a Tauring CNC ring roller to bend frames, a Prodim Proliner for measuring and making templates, a Logitech digitizing board for inputting templates and a Blackman & White Genesis conveyor cutter with a laser–guided fabric feeder.
“[The latter] replaced a flatbed model requiring a larger floor space and was restricted to the size of the table in terms of the length of fabric that could be cut,” Bland says. “With the conveyor, we can cut a whole roll of fabric.”
The company also has computer–aided manufacturing software that works hand–in–hand with the roller and cutter and three computer–aided design (CAD) programs. Bland cites 3–D CAD as having the biggest impact on Tecsew’s productivity.
Ohio Awning & Manufacturing Co. also uses 3–D CAD software. “The 3–D helps create very nice drawings for customer approvals and shop drawings for construction, and being able to convey what we are planning to do in a much more clean and professional way than we have in the past,” says William Morse, vice president. “It helped us from the outset from a customer perspective and in doing things the right way.”
You can store the file for easy recall when it is necessary to make the same product years later, without the need to rummage through stacks of paper patterns.
~ Truy Pham, Autometrix
However, the Cleveland–based company has not found the right software for overall manufacturing management, so it has developed its own “stopgap of using an integrated database that ties together different elements of the company,” Morse says.He offers two actions that have made a major impact on productivity: (1) acquisition of a digital cutting machine within the last couple of years and (2) relocation from the four–story building it occupied for 85 years to a one–story building, which provided an opportunity to design with workflow in mind.
“We also have done a lot of little things, a tweak here or there, such as adding attachments to sewing machines to automate some processes, like easily creating a fold,” Morse says. “It’s a simple thing that has made a big impact on the amount of time people spend doing things.”
Autometrix Precision Cutting Solutions has developed a series of automated cutting machines to fit any size company. Its newest product, CADShot Mobile, won an IFAI Expo 2016 Show Stopper Award. The software turns existing patterns into digital pattern files.
“It saves an immense amount of time over re–creating the pattern in CAD,” says Truy Pham, Autometrix national sales manager. “You can store the file for easy recall when it is necessary to make the same product years later, without the need to rummage through stacks of paper patterns.
“Accessibility to the technology is how our company and the industry will grow,” he continues. “Currently, our best–selling products are static tables. Besides us being able to customize the table to any length and width to accommodate fabric–roll specifications, our Radium and Argon models have options and features to make them suitable for many types of industrial fabrics manufacturers.”
Headquartered in Grass Valley, Calif., Autometrix has clients in Europe, Asia and the Americas. “Our job is to observe the movement of people, fabric and paperwork in a shop. We then present a solution on how implementing the right software, cutting system and material–handling devices will promote a more productive and eficient organization. A lot of times, we find that the right investment is not always the highest cost,” Pham says. “Our goal is to give clients a system where CAD experience is not necessary. We want to make it simple for them to generate patterns and keep the machine cutting.”
Our goal is to give clients a system where CAD experience is not necessary. We want to make it simple for them to generate patterns and keep the machine cutting.
~ Truy Pham, Autometrix
The Dize Co., an awnings fabricator in Winston Salem, N.C., also uses CAD software. But president/CEO Fred Burke has no plans to purchase automation equipment in the next 24 months, in part because his focus is on investing in employees.
“Also, we have had to invest in new vehicles for new installation crews,” he says. “Back orders were a choking point. New technology won’t help me until I can get awnings installed on buildings.”
Patrick Hickey, president of Minnesota Knitting Mills in St. Paul, says his company has continued to update equipment and touched on a wide range of productivity–boosting practices—taking tenets from multiple concepts and “applying them to a given situation or process flow,” he says. “While not fully adopting nor acquiring specific programs such as Six Sigma, we have reviewed them all and ‘nested’ them in a fashion that makes sense for what we are trying to accomplish.”
“Finding quality people with good leadership skills and placing them in key positions can have the greatest impact on productivity,” Hickey asserts.
Dize takes a similar approach. “I went out to get the right people and was willing to pay for that,” Burke says, noting that he “upgraded job profiles to attract the right people.”
This past spring, the company paid employees a piece rate in addition to a flat hourly rate as a productivity incentive. “It’s been very well accepted and makes us more eficient,” Burke says.
Ohio Awning also uses monetary rewards to encourage employees to increase productivity, offering bonuses tied to a point system. “Where we have been very successful with it is with installers,” Morse says. “We have incentivized them to get so much work done per day.”
Most important, communication is essential to maintaining a productive workforce.
“Autometrix equipment is owned by two–employee shops and Fortune 50 companies,” Pham says. “The commonality I’ve noticed is that employees of our clients have an avenue to have their voice heard to improve everything from working conditions to manufacturing workflow.”
Ohio Awning seeks input from employees by simply asking them how they would change the way things are done to make processes more eficient. “People speak up and let you know, because it impacts them as well,” Morse says. “There are quite a few things we have adopted based on input from people in the sewing room and welding shop. In sewing is where a lot of things have had the biggest impact in the overall product.”
“I actively encourage [suggestions from personnel]. I tell staff that they should always look for better ways to do things and look to improve our trade,” Bland says.
“MBWA (management by walking around) is highly effective for Minnesota Knitting Mills,” Hickey says. “We believe the best answers to productivity are most often first seen by the employee that is being impacted.” As an example, he points to a change suggested by employees: converting a 40–hour workweek from five eight–hour shifts to four 10–hour shifts.
Dize continually solicits suggestions from employees on how operations might be improved. An example of input that was implemented is having people cross–train on multiple positions.
“My door has never been shut,” Burke says. “People on the floor feel comfortable walking in and saying, ‘I think we need to do this’ or ‘I need help.’ I walk the floor and converse with employees at every level three or four times a day. I go out in the field and meet with project managers and owners of construction companies. I will take suggestions from anybody. You may get two and one is good, but it’s one more than you had the day before.”
“Integration of new technology, if done right and with the right partners, will certainly speed up pattern creation, cutting time and maintenance of the entire system,” Pham says. “More often now, fabric suppliers and equipment manufacturers are working together to create a custom solution for fabricators. This tailored approach eliminates as much downtime as possible, while adding many more benefits that harbor productivity, such as error elimination, organization, material savings and employee satisfaction.”
Integration of new technology, if done right and with the right partners, will certainly speed up pattern creation, cutting time and maintenance of the entire system
~ Truy Pham, Autometrix
Indeed, Bland is looking to collaborate with other fabricators.
“I’m never satisfied,” he says. “I want to work on edge–detection software and hopefully find a way of digitizing patterns directly from a photo. The main avenue I’d like to explore with others is the development of a better system/equipment to take 3–D CAD surveys of boats. I’ve researched extensively and what’s available on the market is cumbersome, heavy, restrictive and time–consuming. I have ideas and would love to be actively involved with others who want a better answer.
“A lot of what we have done has come about from research and looking for answers when none seem available,” he notes. “It takes a big leap of faith sometimes, and perseverance to get to where you want to go, especially if no one else has done it before.”
“Every business should have a responsibility to continuously improve productivity. The status quo is not acceptable, and we will always be looking for process improvement to impact productivity,” Hickey says. “At the same time, here’s where you have to weigh the advancements in technology against the cost of implementation and, ultimately, the return on investment.”
That said, Hickey acknowledges immobility is never the answer.
“Achieving quality is an ongoing, day–to–day process that should not have a foreseeable end.”
Janice Kleinschmidt is a writer and magazine editor based in San Diego, Calif. This article was originally published in the Specialty Fabrics Review Magazine September 2017 Issue.