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Continuous Improvement

Continuous Industrial Improvement

Continuous improvement is an industry term, often heard in metalworking. But what does it entail? How can machine shops implement continuous improvements most effectively?

South African metal cutting is traditionally known for its two core strengths: removing metal as fast as possible and making sure the quality of the final product is of a world-class standard.

Continuous improvement is all about fine-tuning our processes and streamlining efforts. As the world evolves and nations become ever-more competitive on labour, raw materials and machining practices, we must all evolve. Adapt or perish. Continuous improvement entails implementing the latest in technology and metal-cutting practices to keep pace with a busy world. 

Many areas within machine shops offer opportunities for improvement. Tools such as Industry 4.0 and IOT are here, and companies are using every advantage available to boost productivity and profitability.

The hardest part, most often, is knowing where to start. To help you prioritize and plan, here are the best continuous improvement initiatives that we recommend all machine shops consider:

Cutting Tools Management

Most shops have more cutting tools than they need, usually spread out in various areas. Managing a vast number of tools can be a daunting task, especially when there is no central tracking system.

Effective cutting tool management starts with identifying the tools you truly need, then taking steps to dispose of the rest that aren’t being used regularly. To assist in managing the needed tools, your dedicated technical service engineer can assist with identifying which cutting tool solutions and grades work most effectively for your applications. This lets you streamline your cutting tool range to what you truly need, offering the best ROI for machining applications.

Vending-dispensary solutions have also become increasingly popular in recent years, offering 24/7 stock availability and reducing instances of spindles sitting idle, waiting for inserts or toolholders.

The advantages of tracking your tools and their usage, as well as digital notifications for when it’s time to reorder parts or service tools, give you back control of your cutting-tool budget. This way, you’re no longer allocating valuable labour to track tools or create purchase orders. 

Ordering a tool only when you need it, then receiving it very quickly, might be the simplest and most lean cutting-tool management solution of all. Though this is not always entirely effective—especially in machine shops with a low quantity, high-mix workflow. Invest instead in automating the ordering of your cutting tools so you always have what you need on hand. Consolidate and service the cutting tools used, and implement the best tool for each application. Maximise spindle up-time and metal removal rates. There are many wise cutting-tools management solutions to improve expenses.

Machine Tool Investment

Many shops focus on cutting tools, coolant, labour and electricity as the major focus areas for machining improvements and cost reductions. Neglecting to continuously improve machine tool solutions to keep pace with competitors—not only locally but internationally—will cost you. Often that expensive initial cost for superior machinery becomes a stumbling block, marking the biggest reason profits leave machinist shops, month after month.

That’s because the machine tools of today are evolving at their fastest rate in decades. While multi-axis machining offers the fastest metal removal rates, it’s in automation and optimisation software where the fastest and most crucial changes are taking place. The correct cutting tool without the correct machine or software package may not yield the desired results.

To keep track of machine tool industry trends and evolutions, make use of the information supplied by machine tool makers. Such informational brochures, training videos and online webinars have become more important than ever. Contact one of our technical staff or service engineers to discuss your machine tools at least once a year. This will provide you with a healthy review of your machining practices and possible updates to cutting tool technologies or CAD/CAM software. 

Current technological advancements in the machining industry mean that every 2 to 5 years, machine tools surpass what the industry is already using. This makes machine tool servicing even more imperative. Make sure preventative work is done so you can avoid reactive maintenance costs and downtime. Schedule maintenance at least once a year to make sure your machine tool is at peak performance. Why? Because continuous improvements = continuous profits. 

Those who work well, evolving and adapting, will always have ever-more work.

Lights-Out Machining

Automation. It’s no longer a term reserved for the largest high-volume production machining jobs. Today, automation has become an integral part of even the smallest of machine shops, and all those with plans to stay competitive and profitable.

Only by keeping your spindle turning are you making a profit. So how can you keep your spindle running? Can you make use of all 168 hours available in a week? The answer is yes, through unmanned machining. Also known by the term lights out machining, competitive machine shops are implementing this practice to maximise every production hour possible. Such automated production can produce high-quality components with the least amount of human intervention possible.

Collaborative robots (Cobots), bar feeders, gantry loading, multi-axis machines, sister cutting tools and palletising your work can all contribute to keeping your spindle running for as long as possible.   Always look for every means of producing the greatest number of components in a single setup, or making use of automation to free up your staff. 

Before, operators and machinists often had to tend to multiple machines, unable to start work on a second, third or even a fourth job at the same time. Today, with far fewer employees, your spindle can run even longer, making you more money.

Tracking Employee Skills

Often, we don’t realize all the skills that our employees possess because we don’t always have easy ways to obtain this information. An Employee Skills Matrix can assist with this. The matrix consists of the names of each employee by department, the key skills needed in each department, and some form of evaluation done for all employees on each key skill. To paraphrase a well-known film, a skills matrix will show you a clear picture of your company’s particular sets of skills

Once completed, it’s easy to see the range of key skills of each employee, and the number of employees that can be relied upon to perform needed work. Schedule training for your machine operators or machinists so they can adjust to the latest information relating to CNC controls, cutting tools or machine tools. This will keep their skills at an optimal level, making sure your employees remain highly skilled and able to effectively carry out their responsibilities.

This continuous improvement initiative is relatively simple to begin and can be expanded over time.

Tracking Turnaround Times

Reducing machining time is a primary goal of most machine shops. Logically so. The faster a job can be completed in any work area, the faster it can be shipped to the client. By simply measuring the in-out duration times of jobs, you can determine current average turnaround times. 

Put simply: How long are your jobs taking to complete before invoicing? Once that’s done, you can begin to focus on specific areas such as: 

  • How long did it take to estimate and quote? 
  • What about the CAM onboard programming? 
  • The machining setup and cycle time? 
  • The cleaning, prepping and packaging time? 
  • Was there machine downtime due to waiting for tooling or another operation? 

All of these markers, when measured, can be improved upon over time to maximise each job’s profitability. Focus on reducing production times, eliminating wasted or redundant processes and improving upon repetitive processes.

Organizing Your Quotations

The process of quoting is tough. It often involves investing a great deal of time and effort, a large portion of which will still not result in customer orders. Quotes must be done and done quickly. A company that responds slowly to requests risks losing opportunities for work, as well as lifelong clients. For most companies, investing in efficient quote efforts is the best way to get orders.

To respond to quotes quickly, requests need to be organized. Whether this means logging every quote requested into a computer system or creating some type of visual ‘stack’ of registered requests, these must be accounted for and acted upon. Likewise, when completed, they should be equally well organized and electronically registered for fast retrieval.

Wasted efforts are painful. Such as the lost time spent searching for a quote, unable to respond to customer questions or take warranted action. There are some advanced commercial quoting software packages that can aid you in quote management. Companies may also use simple spreadsheet software to develop their quote management system. 

When it comes to effective quoting, the message is clear: stay organized.

Scheduling the Work

It sounds simple, yet many companies lack an effective means for scheduling the work done in their shops. In the worst cases we’ve seen, everyone had their own idea of what the schedule should be. This can swiftly lead to frustration, conflicts, missed targets and unhappy customers.

There is likely no one best system of scheduling. If there were, everyone would use it. Any thoughtful, intuitive system must strike a balance between customer needs and the shop’s real capacities. At an optimal minimum, scheduling should require:

  • An opportunity for input from all participants.
  • Agreements on what to achieve on the scheduled dates.
  • Feedback on the status of any pending order.
  • Corrective action when things do not go as planned.

We recommend that meetings be brief, focused and frequent—daily, when possible. This is the best way to assure that requirements are being met in all scheduling. Rather than viewing such meetings as a problem or inconvenience, they should be seen as a means of preventing far bigger problems.

Stay Smart 

Acting on any of these continuous improvement initiatives should generate positive results for your shops in the shortest time possible.

For more information, or to schedule a visit from Skok Machine Tools experts, contact us HERE. Start your own continuous improvement, today.

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