Capacity enhancing strategies in a tight labour market

With the current headwinds buffeting the manufacturing industry and economy in general, it’s imperative that shops evaluate and optimise their manufacturing processes to improve productivity and profitability. Even with supply-chain challenges and a shortage of skilled labour, there are steps shops should take to maximise performance.

Most importantly, determine whether your existing equipment is operating at its full potential. Spindle utilisation is the true metric of productivity, and there is no reason to make additional capital investments until your shop is operating at maximum capacity. A shop is only making money when its spindles are turning and cutting material. Everything else is simply parasitic downtime and waste that drag down efficiency and profitability.

In reality, most shops only get between 40 and 50 per cent spindle utilisation from their existing machines, with inadequate tool management being the biggest source of idle times. Other contributors to parasitic time include lack of material availability and disruptive flow. To be fully productive, shops must eliminate waste as completely as possible to ensure their spindles are constantly cutting.

A clear understanding of spindle utilisation on any given asset and how to improve it, however, is impossible without data. Specific operational information – feed rate, downtime, tool changes, cutting speeds – all need to be evaluated to understand and inform your approach to optimisation. Machine monitoring provides the data necessary for improved production capacity.

In our Mazak iSMART Factory in Florence, Kentucky, we use MTConnect to network and monitor the utilisation of individual machines and entire cells across the plant. With that information, we can identify processes for waste elimination and cycle-time reductions. Continuously monitoring each asset will tell you why a machine is running at less than full utilisation and identify areas of waste.

To increase spindle utilisation, shops must also engage in process optimisation for improved capacity. One significant way to optimise processes is to invest in multitasking machines. By combining turning, milling, drilling, tapping, and deep-hole boring on one machine with a single setup, manufacturers increase cutting time without increasing labour costs, while substantially reducing production lead times and part costs. Similarly, migrating from a manufacturing cell containing several 2-axis or 3-axis machines to a 5-axis vertical machining center with a rotary/tilt table streamlines processes and eliminates multiple setups.

Shops also might consider adding automation to their existing assets. Jobs that entail low variability with medium to high-volume runs are well suited to robot-tending applications. A palletising system, on the other hand, is appropriate for low-volume production of differing parts, with a separate pallet established for each family of parts.

Cobots that allow unattended production are also becoming increasingly popular. Cobots are cost effective, easy to teach, and can be redeployed from one asset to another.

While there are multiple channels for technology to improve capacity, current labour market challenges demand investing in your workforce recruitment and retention. Because the labour force is so much more transient than in the past, virtually every manufacturer today is spending more on repetitive training. As a result, it is imperative that companies increase their investment in continuous and ongoing training to create additional opportunities and promote advancement for their employees. Plus, they must offer flexible, creative policies that foster lasting service.

While manufacturing presents unique challenges, opportunities abound for shops with a trained, nimble workforce that is armed with the data and technology to optimise performance.

This is the viewpoint of Dan Janka, President of Mazak Corporation in USA and it first appeared in Manufacturing Engineering