Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Die Factory System

My last post was a walk-through of the Ideal Tool Company, an imaginary tool and die making facility of the future. Ask anyone in the die and stamping business which is the best die shop in the world and they'll all say Ideal Tool. It stands head and shoulder above the competition in every way.

It was started with a clean sheet of paper, or more correctly, a blank computer screen. That is why everything is in the best possible location, from departments to equipment to personnel. Work flows smoothly through the shop with each step of the process pulling what's needed from the upstream process and delivering to the next, so every step is both a customer of the previous step and a supplier to the succeeding one. This pull method includes external customers and suppliers as well. The scheduling is done with a kanban, or just-in-time (JIT), system of visual documents and cards, very similar to how a supermarket restocks its shelves. Some restocking is done by in-house stocking staff while others are done directly by suppliers such as bakery products, beverages, and so on, which are placed on shelve by the distributors. As a matter of fact, that's where Toyota Motors's Taiichi Ohno, Manufacturing VP, who co-authored the Toyota Production System (TPS) originally saw the system in the 1950s in San Francisco.

From the blank computer screen came a scientifically developed Die Factory System or DFS. This system was responsible for all the innovative solutions to typical die shop woes such as coordinating and prioritizing everything to minimize the lead time and reduce costs while increasing quality and ease of manufacture. The entire die design and build process focused on converting from the traditional craft-based methods which followed long-standing rules of thumb, to a science-based total system approach utilizing technology to its fullest.

Lean manufacturing principles (the Americanized term for TPS), along with Goldratt's Theory of Constraints (TOC) and many other concepts were carefully combined to created a new way of thinking for the devekopers--eliminate the waste and enable more throughput to achieve high profits. Ideal Tool is a cash cow, thowing off 25% profit on sales, in spite of the foreign competition's prices for dies.

Ideas found in the DFS come from many sources. Employees at every level turn in suggestions for improvements and also problems that they see but have been unable to solve themselves. The average is one good suggestion from each person each month. Suppliers are expected to do the same--and they do--as do customers. Just think about how law enforcement uses this concept. We often see them on television asking for leads from anyone who saw or knows anything about a crime or hit and run accident, for example, and how often that process works for them. Another huge source of ideas is other industries' methods adapted to the die making operation. Trade magazines, newsletters, seminars and webinars, training programs, and industry consultants can all provide many excellent ideas. Of course, all the suggestions, ideas and leads absolutely must be explored, evaluated and implemented in a timely fashion--say within two weeks. Feedback to the originators also needs to be handled quickly and reasons given for not being accepted or people will soon slow and stop generating them.

As a journeyman die maker and die designer, and mechanical engineer in the 1950s and 1960s I had the opportunity to design a die shop from a clean sheet of paper (no CAD was available at that time) for the family tool and die business. We had a 10,000 square fool building and had exhausted the available property with the building and parking. In those days, unlike today, shops could earn a nice profit on sales and the company decided to acquire some acreage and erect a next-generation tool and die facility a few miles away. At that time it was generally though that mechanical engineering was the proper discipline to follow if you wanted to maximize your contribution in the die field. However, I now know that MEs are fine and helpful, but we are best at making things, electrical engineers are best at powering and controlling them, but industrial engineers are best at how to make systems that are profitable. I have studied much industrial engineering since learning that, some 20 years ago.

A great opportunity presented itself back in 1966 to this 25-year old, and I relished the prospect of creating an ideal shop. We had ten acres to work with, so space was plentiful. The company decided that we should build 25,000 square feet of plant floor space, plus 3,200 feet of offices and engineering departments. When complete, a mere six months had passed, from the first shovelful dug to the first day employees reported to work. Although we had a general contractor who erected the shell, I was charged with planning and directing the remainder--plumbing, electrical, heating and cooling (yes, central air conditioning throughout), air lines and compressor, wood block floor, three cranes to 15-ton and the office layout. Foundations for six tryout presses to 450 tons, and for the heavy boring mills were also part of the project.

You are probably wondering what this "ideal shop" looked like inside, right? Well, my plan was to lay things out differently than the old shop, but I struggled with what that should be. And, since the time available was only six months, the decision was made to make everything exactly like the existing shop, only about triple the size. The thinking was that the layout got us to where we were at that point, so why not continue in similar fashion? So that's what we did. In the end we wound up with an expanded version of the old shop, not necessarily anything radically new. Looking back, I feel pride in having done it, and it worked well enough for us for many years until the turn of events now called off-shoring of dies by our customers occurred. But today I would never consider a layout like the one we had--everything in villages--presses, large machines, small machines and assembly each in their own defined area.

That's all for now. My next post will address what was learned during 1966, what new technologies have appeared and most of all what many years of working with die shops around the world and especially my study of Lean manufacturing and TOC and adapting their concepts and others to the tool and die industry. Please come back again for more and don't hesitate to contact me directly if you think we could help you with a Lean Journey.