Lean Principles, Impressive Results
Lean manufacturing is the systematic approach of identifying and eliminating waste through continuous improvement and effort. It allows more efficient manufacturing, shipping and delivery of products to meet the demands of customers which is the goal of any successful organization. Proponents of lean manufacturing point to productivity improvement, increased responsiveness to customers, sustained sales, earnings growth and competitive advantages as a result. FLEXcon counts itself among the many who advocate its considerable benefits.
FLEXcon  is an ISO 9001: 2008-certified global manufacturer of pressure-sensitive film and adhesive products to a wide range of companies from printers and fabricators, to engineers and designers developing products for existing and emerging markets. The company began its lean manufacturing program in 2003 and has since achieved a 90 percent improvement in on-time deliveries, 20 percent reduction in waste and a 35 percent increase in total productivity. Dollar savings are more than 10 times what was invested to roll the practice out and educate and train 1,000 employees.
Through training and constant emphasis on efficiency and improvement, we have integrated lean manufacturing principles and concepts into our corporate culture, quality process and approach to problem-solving.
A powered conveyer to transport rolls from the slitting machines directly to the packaging area where they are automatically wrapped and packaged, saved time and effort, and reduced manual labor costs.In a kaizen, a multi-department team of production management employees are assigned to a specific problem and carefully map out and analyze processes, then recommend solutions. FLEXcon applied kaizens to many aspects of internal operations. FLEXcon’s Packaging Kaizen, for example, looked closely at how pressure sensitive film products were prepared for shipment to customers after rolls had been slit. A frequent issue employees ran up against was backlogs in packaging which were causing machine downtime, lost productivity and delayed order delivery.
In addition, labor intensive work was required to hoist and transport the finished product from the slitting equipment area to the packaging area several hundred feet away. As a part of FLEXcon’s solution, new equipment was installed, including a powered conveyer to transport rolls from the slitting machines, directly to the packaging area where they are automatically wrapped and packaged. This not only saved time and effort, but also reduced manual labor efforts.
Cellular manufacturing concepts were also applied within our overall plan by moving related manufacturing activities and equipment closer to each other in order to enhance workflow. The concept, which seeks to take advantage of the similarity between parts through standardization and common processing, allowed FLEXcon to reorganize plant layout so finishing machines were aligned directly next to the automated packaging line conveyer, and the conveyor was directly aligned to the packaging area, creating a seamless process in which products exiting the slitter could be ready for shipping in a mere four minutes.
5S Visual Workplace
The 5S visual approach, which focuses on providing clear visual cues to help identify and expedite processes, used color-coded cards and labels for quick identification of certain activities or materials and created neat and clutter-free work areas. In line with each of the five S’s, we sort (remove unnecessary items from each work area); set in order(such as installing shadow boards to indicate where co-workers could place tools after use); shine (set preventive cleaning schedules); standardize (put certain key procedures in our ISO documentation); and sustain (assign specific areas for regular cleaning by certain personnel).
The tool shadow board was particularly interesting as a solution, because for years, production workers had their own set of company-purchased hand tools and housed them in individual toolboxes within their work area. Through a special program to collect these personal tools, we substantially reduced the quantity in our production facilities and standardized the ones we made available to each team for use. We created a board with an outline of each tool showing where they were to be hung after each use, which created a cleaner work space and saves approximately $1,000 annually in replacement costs.
Within lean manufacturing, visual records or signals are known as “kanbans.” They add precision to the work process. FLEXcon adopted this by introducing a system of color-coded labels to identify each operation within our plants. Adhesive coating, top-coating and laminating, for example, each have their own distinctive color. The colored labels on a product roll allow operators to see from a distance if all processes on that roll are complete or what remains to be done. Among other benefits, this eliminates the possibility of a roll being transferred to finishing prematurely.
This color coding and other visual cues are now used in our scheduling system as well. A status board allows workers to see from a glance the status of each product run. It indicates whether there is a backlog of work on a machine or if a crew member has just finished a task and is available for a new assignment.
Another example of the concept at work was our introduction of kanban cards, such as markers in storage bins or stacks to indicate the level where replenishment is necessary. The markers function almost like a “time to reorder” notice, are viewable from a distance and are used for items ranging from pallets, to cardboard, to corner boards and bungs. The system replaced the previous method of storing similar materials through the plant, which often required a parts count by materials handlers. The new system ensures materials do not run out during a shift.
“Waste,” as defined by lean principles, means more than just leftover materials on the shop floor. It includes overproduction and excess inventory, unneeded motions by workers and bottlenecks that cause excessive waiting. This expanded definition inspired the organization to find time and cost-saving opportunities which otherwise may have been missed.
For example, “waste” now includes unnecessary transportation within our plants. By way of our transportation kaizen, we were able to determine the exact uses of our material handling vehicles such as fork trucks. This resulted in a 29 percent reduction in mileage and a 10 percent reduction in travel time. Additional new procedures included the design of transportation hubs and “milk run” routes for certain trucks that allow them to drop-off and pick-up materials at specified locations. By way of this new process, the need for materials handling vehicles driving empty during return trips was eliminated and a precise drop-off and pick-up schedule was developed so operators would be aware when and where materials would be available.
Value Stream Mapping
When a kaizen team creates a map showing the step-by-step process by which a product is manufactured, finished and shipped, bottlenecks often become clear. A careful and thorough mapping process helps us identify, reduce or eliminate tasks that do not add value. By applying this process to our coating machine set-up process, for example, we identified ways to reduce waste and time required for set-up between product runs. Measures included shorter clean up times and a reduction in total footage of product in the start-up mode prior to the first “good” foot on a roll. Additional inspections helped us find and correct issues during the run rather than after it was completed, which reduced the need to re-run jobs and contributed to our ability to deliver orders more quickly.
Lean Principles: The Key to Success
FLEXcon’s ongoing lean manufacturing program has helped improve customer satisfaction and achieve efficiency and success with an estimated cost-savings ranging in the millions of dollars. Today, FLEXcon continues to use lean concepts in a range of activities, from manufacturing and shipping products to streamlining office procedures. Our organization also shares these principles with customers and suppliers with the hope they will adopt them and experience similar results. With the potential benefits, the writing is on the wall — there is no time like the present to get lean.