3D Printing and Manufacturing: How rapid prototyping might change the world.

3D printing, or rapid prototyping, moves out of scifi and into reality.

“Computer, give me a ham sandwich.”

We may not be too far away from that as the technology of rapid prototyping is moving into the food industry.  Today, 3D printing is being used to create custom parts that can have remarkable strength and functionality.  The fully-assembled part can actually be made with tolerances around 2-thousandths of an inch and with moving parts already assembled.

In the food industry, it is simply a matter of time until multiple combinations of ingredients and formulas are created to produce food on-demand.  However, the complexity of organic systems is still out of reach for the industry today and the complex reactions that occur during cooking would be difficult to model in a prototyping machine.

But what are some examples of ways we can leverage this technology today.

  1. Visualizing floor layouts.  Today 3D modeling is already accomplished on computer screens, enabling an individual to conduct a virtual tour of a facility before it is even constructed.  But what if you could create a scale model of the plant, with equipment already installed and scaled fork trucks, pallets, and people to visualize the workings of the plant within hours?  Literally, it is possible to build a model overnight, while you sleep.  This could alter how we go about creating a visual factory and could assist Industrial Engineers with plant layout and Operations people with new equipment installations and safety evaluations before a plant is even under construction.  It could save thousands of dollars in post-construction tweaking of a plant.
  2. Changepart construction and design.  Before new packaging can hit the market, a major time constraint is the design and construction of changeparts for the packaging equipment.  Rapid prototyping would allow the package to be made in a day, a physical sample sent to the equipment manufacturer, changeparts to be designed almost immediately, and then those changeparts printed the next day to try a dry fit to the package and the equipment.  This could shave weeks, if not months, from a new package timeline to market.
  3. Reducing equipment downtime.  Metal prototyping is a possibility with this technology as well.  A new part can be made overnight or even right in the shop.  Depending on the part complexity and where it must be shipped from, it might be a faster, cheaper alternative to have the part printed when it is needed if it can be done locally.
  4. Reducing parts inventory.  Some parts have to be purchased in quantities that can be a bit ridiculous at times.  If parts aren’t needed very often, they can be printed on-demand, reducing on-hand inventory and freeing up space in your parts room.

I’m sure I missed many of the ways this technology can help the manufacturing environment.  There are engineering and new product testing that are a given for this type of technology.  The 3D printing world is already starting to invade the food industry by printing out chocolate and sugar candy.

Now, how about that sandwich?

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From Reactive to Proactive

 

 

 

 

ID-10071284We are so often caught up in the reactive, and it is an inevitable part of life and business.  There is too much data to be able to anticipate all of it coming at us.  So how do we make a transition from reactive to preemptive?

Know the Destination

You can’t go somewhere unless you know where you are going.  Simple, I know.  But do you jump in your car to go somewhere without having a destination in mind?  Probably not.  So what does your professional destination look like?

Taking time to plan an endgame is necessary for a huge transition.  You need to be able to define success not only for you as a leader, but for the team as well so that there is a sense of momentum and, ultimately, accomplishment.

Set up Your Waypoints

Every flight plan has waypoints, intermediate destinations that help to set the overall course.  Your journey from Reactive to Proactive should have waypoints as well.  In Project Management they are called Milestones.

The purpose of the waypoint is to provide you with a series of connected destinations that help to ensure a safe path is set and that you are moving in the right direction.  You can choose your waypoints to be in units of time, percent completion, accomplishment of specific events, or even arrival of the destination for only a part of the entire vision (completing the journey for one product line before expanding to another).

Understand Your Compromises

It’s difficult to get everything you want.  By knowing where you need to compromise you allow yourself a safety that will prevent you and your team from being discouraged.  Know where you can balk and where you mustn’t in order to help ensure success.  Some areas cannot be compromised, define them.  Others can be sacrificial should circumstances require it, be ready to sacrifice.

Communicate Your Destination

Give others the vision you have.  Allow your team and your supporters to envision the destination with you.  Take every moment you have to describe your destination in detail.  Outline how it looks and give them the ability to see it with you.  This will make others hungry to help you succeed.

If I told you we were going on a road trip your first question would be, “Where to?”  If I simply said, “West,” that wouldn’t be very motivating.  If I said, “The beach,” that might be more motivating.  But if I took the time to describe the beach, how it looked at sunset, the warm breeze that blew on my face, the sound of the waves crashing on the nearby cliffs, and the long boardwalk the stretched over the water, you might be more excited about going there.

Invest in the Change

Change is a movement of inertia.  The organization has momentum in its current direction.  If you want to change that direction, you have to be willing to invest in the force required to overcome that inertia.  This investment may come in the form of additional people, a new technology, external support, rebranding and marketing, or a number of other things that will give you the force needed to change your momentum.

Celebrate the Change

I am a big fan of celebrations.  They can come in small forms of encouragement or lavish company parties.  The purpose is to keep people motivated.  Once you have gained a little momentum in the new direction you have to keep pushing.  Celebrations as simple as a pat on the back can help to accelerate your change.

The Challenge

If you are in the midst of a change, look at your flight plan.  Do you know the destination?  Do you have your waypoints?  Do you know where you may have to make compromises?  Have you visualized your destination and shared that with others?  Have you made the proper investments?

If not, take the time to figure it out.

Do you see a need for moving from reactive to proactive in your business, in your life?  Start today with planning on how to get to your destination.

How to Get a Skilled Workforce

Image Courtesy of Gualberto107/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image Courtesy of Gualberto107/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Right now we have a shortage of skilled labor in the manufacturing environment.  It is my observation that this shortage comes from three main areas: retirement of experience, educational demands, and an emphasis on college degrees.  But regardless of the reasons (and we will delve into that) I think I have come up with a solution.

So stop whining, roll up your sleeves, and let’s get to work.

The Reasons…

Loss of Experience

The Baby-Boomers are retiring.  This restless, workaholic generation is getting to the age where they can enjoy the golden years.  The baby-boomers were born from 1946 to 1964, putting the oldest of this group at age 68 and the youngest at age 50.  Many of those from this generation started working right out of high school with a company and, in the age of benefits and pensions, stayed with that company for the required 25 years before they could start drawing on their retirement funds.  That means that the earliest of the baby-boomers started retiring in the early 1970’s!  We have seen a decline in capabilities ever since.

Educational Demands

Not only have vocational training options been in a decline over the last several decades, but the technological requirements have been climbing exponentially.  Now, for a mechanic, not only does he need to understand how to turn a wrench, but also how to lock out equipment, interface with pneumatics, hydraulics, and even PLCs and light ladder-logic programming.

Electricians have seen their trade go from simple dry contacts and relay-logic to smart instruments, networking (Ethernet, ModBus, Profibus, DeviceNet), and a dominating world of micro controllers and systems such that even the simplest of machines have to communicate to another controller.

Machine operators are expected to understand how to work with HMIs (Human-Machine Interfaces) that are increasingly complex.  They have to troubleshoot on a daily basis with equipment that is both mechanically and electrically more complex than ever before.  Additionally, companies are trying to run leaner and have reduced technical support functions to a minimum, requiring that operators know more about how their equipment works and how to fix it for simple repairs.

Everyone has to go to College

Only 62% of college graduates are actually working at their education level.  Only 27% of grads are working in a field of their degrees.  So why is there such an emphasis on college?

We have been conditioned in my generation that we must go to college if we want to have a successful life.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a big proponent of education.  But I feel that our educational system is broken as well as overstated.  We are being educated in the wrong things.  Some people are just going to college to get the degree.  I know of several people (and maybe you are one of them) that went to college before they knew what they wanted to do for a living.  Most people don’t even figure it out until they graduate.

However, college tuition is getting to a point that the average student will pay over $120,000 after 4-years (this is from the University of Illinois for Resident).  If that is taken out in a student loan and paid back over 10 years it will require a monthly payment of over $1,300 (from FinAid.org).  The recommended annual salary to pay back this loan is over $100,000.  As a matter of fact, you have to extend the term to 30 years to get below a $100,000 annual salary.  Really?  Is this realistic?

The Solution?

Get your company to do some research on how you can tap into government funds.  There should be some options with your local government or state that can help you offset some of these costs.

Look into apprenticeship programs.  The oldie is a goodie.  You can pay a smaller wage to the inexperienced and incentivize them to take classes and perform onsite qualifier tests to move to the next wage bracket.  Get back to building your own trained workforce.

Develop your own training programs.  Stop trying to hire them in with the technical skills.  Teach them yourself.  Create a training program that is supplemented with community college programs.  You can even bring back that retired expert part-time as a trainer so that he can teach your young folks how to work on your specific equipment.

Talk to your community colleges about adding vocational studies.  Partnering with these schools can help to get your costs down and provides you access to additional resources.

In short, stop expecting to find the right person off of the street.  It is probably not going to happen.  Instead, stop complaining and make something happen.  Create your own talented workforce.

Ockham’s Razor doesn’t Always Work

Image courtesy of adamr/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of adamr/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The simplest solution is usually the correct one.

But this isn’t always true when it comes to people.  We are exceedingly complex; emotionally, socially, psychologically.  Humans are influenced by internal, unseen drivers just as much (if not more) than obvious external stimuli.

The problem is not that the method of Ockham’s razor is flawed.  The issue is that there is typically insufficient data to arrive at reasonable assumptions in the first place.

In Life

I love my wife dearly, but I just don’t understand her sometimes.  I’m sure she would say the same of me as well.  Most of the time we try to be honest and open with one another, but it isn’t always easy.

I have recently had to deal with the death of my dog, Sandy.  She was very important to me and it has been a difficult recovery.  I don’t always show things the same way that my wife expects me to, and she interprets that as a different emotion.  Likewise, she tries coping with the loss in ways that I can’t understand.

As a result, based on the data we have observed, we have made assumptions about one another.  Those assumptions led us to believe that our assessments of one another were accurate because they were the simplest of the solutions.  However, our assumptions were wrong, based on a misinterpretation of the data, and we have had to engage in more open dialogue to better understand one another through our grieving processes.

This is true in many personal situations when interacting with friends, family, and acquaintances.  We make assumptions that lead to judgment.  It is natural.  It’s human.  It’s complicated.

At Work

We often forget that people are people.  We try to separate work from home, but that doesn’t really happen.  We have a hard time relating to people that we simply don’t know well.  We may be having a rough day and then someone asks something of us that is troublesome and we immediately jump to conclusions about motive and method.

Solving problems at work is easier when it is about a machine, a program or a system.  Those things don’t muddy the waters with emotion and intellect.  They simply work.  People, on the other hand, react, anticipate, judge, emote, and in general, complicate the work environment.  This level of complexity can be a bit much and the data is too intricate to fully understand.  As a result we make assumptions about people, but our assumptions can lead us astray.

A Good Assumption

I have found my own razor when working with others.

This person’s intentions were right and good unless otherwise proven.

By using this razor I have simplified my life.  It has prompted me to ask questions, get to know people, and expect decency from others.  It has changed my perspective of people.  And I firmly believe it is true.

I challenge you to take one week and apply this razor to your life.  See if it changes you.

Are You Working on the Right Things? Getting the bang for your buck.

 

Dog-catches-own-tail_1We all chase our tails at some point in our careers.  Some of us more than others.  We are looking for a result that is not even possible to achieve but we are so consumed with the chase that we aren’t even looking beyond the circle in which we are spinning.

I had such a situation when I was managing a production department.  I was tasked by my managers to reduce changeover times on my high-speed bottling lines.  Changeovers accounted for over 8 hours of downtime each week.  When you cyphered how much production that amounted to it became quiet the priority to reduce that number.  It was also the number one cause of downtime on my production lines when Pareto’d with all of the other documented downtime reasons in my department.

As a result of the data, we were putting a lot of time and energy into reducing changeover times.  We were trying alternative crewing, modification of equipment parts, timing of lunches and breaks and alternative scheduling whenever possible.  We did see some modest improvements, but nothing that removed changeovers from the top spot of the downtime list.

During a meeting I was asked by the V.P. what the improvement on the line would be if we were to reduce changeovers.  Through all of the efforts we had made, we had never stopped to ask the simple question of the potential of the improvements.  So, I answered with a political, “I’ll get back to you on that,” and I went to my office to crunch the numbers.

It turned out that we were only capturing 20% of our actual non-productive time (some of that was in reduced performance and minor stops as well as untracked downtime events).  But changeovers were tracked 100% of the time.  Using these numbers along with our scheduled run time over the previous year I learned that changeovers only accounted for 7% of our inefficiencies.  Even if we were able to cut changeovers in half we would only realize a 3.5% gain in efficiency on the line.  My lines were running at an average of 85% efficiency (against an accounting standard, that is a whole other topic) when my budget was 98% efficiency (again, a whole other topic).

All of that effort wasn’t going to get me even close to my goal.  My efforts had to be in other areas and it would take a combination of improvements to get to where I wanted to go.  I immediately changed by tactic and went back to the meeting with a whole new approach on how to improve my production.

Excited about the new opportunity, I began informing the V.P. of my intentions and how they would better our systems.  His reply, “That’s great, but when are you going to get changeovers down?”

The moral of the story is that you need to look at the potential gains before you invest all of the effort.  This can be a hard science application like my example, or building a team, or investing in the development of an individual (you can’t send a duck to eagle school, see here, and here).  Understanding what you can gain will not only give you proper motivation when the gain is significant, it will help you set a plan to put the efforts of you and, more importantly, your team in the right proportions to maximize success and reduce frustration.  In short, as Mr. Stephen Covey stated, “Begin with the End in Mind.”

 

The End of Winter…Perhaps? A Lesson in Extremes

Image courtesy of dan/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of dan/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I live in the Chicago area, which means that along with corrupt politicians I am plagued with cold winters, hot summers, and not much time in between.  For those of you that have been keeping up with the national weather this winter you have noticed that the entire United States has been through quite a bit of a cold snap.  Chicago had to deal with actual temperatures of -20 degrees Fahrenheit (I didn’t make a mistake, that is a negative sign).  It the summer we will undoubtedly have a week of highs that will reach, if not breach, triple digits.  That is a 120 degree swing!

We can cope with these changes because they are gradual.  Yesterday was 50 degrees and it felt like a wonderful summer day to me.  Everything is relative.  If you peppered 100-degree days in with -20-degree days it would be miserable (not that they aren’t by themselves).  However, the gradual changes makes for a more tolerable extreme.

The caution I am giving here is the analogy of the frog in the pot of boiling water: put a frog in boiling water and he will jump out, but put him in warm water and slowly boil it and he will stay in and not notice the difference.

If you are in a working environment where the pot has slowly started to boil, how can you tell?  Have you ever worked with the people that say “we have always done it like that”?  Those are the folks that started in cool water and have reached a boil and don’t know it.  Extremes can sneak up on us if the change is slow.   And these extremes aren’t limited to processes or equipment, they can be related to culture and working relationships as well.

So how can you make sure you are not in hot water?

  1. Benchmarking.  If you can, benchmark your industry and see where you sit.  Don’t give yourself excuses either, if you are at the bottom, so be it.  Get better.
  2. Long-term trending.  See if you can get trends from the last decade.  Don’t look at the last few years as they may be too small of a sample size (Have you seen the stock market daily chart versus the 3-year?  One is not necessarily and indicator of the other.)
  3. New-hire assessments.  Use your new people as thermometers to gauge your water temperature.  Have them write honest one-month, three-month and six-month essays about your organization.  Make them anonymous so that they can be completely truthful.  They are the frogs that just entered the pot.  They can tell you if the water is too hot.
  4. The Right KPIs.  Make sure they are the right KPIs (read here).  It is not always easy to tell if you have the right one, but looking at these trends versus your standard can help.  You should always evaluate your standard, too.

Those 50-degree days seem great in the winter, but they seem downright cold in the summer.  Make sure you are using the right thermometer when you gauge the temperature.  A point-of-reference is necessary to understand your true situation.

Running by the Numbers

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

We are all measured on what we do and how well we do it.  After all, if you don’t measure it, you can’t improve it.  But what happens when we measure the wrong things?

The answer is simple, we get the wrong (or suboptimal) results.  Having KPIs is a good thing.  But the wrong KPI or the wrong target can spell disaster.  It is important to find the right measurements before you implement a tracking system.

Step 1 – What do you want to accomplish?  Define a goal.  It doesn’t have to be quantifiable at this point.  It can be something as simple as “reduce operating costs” or “improve customer satisfaction”.

Step 2 – Is your goal one that will not contradict others?  For example, if instead of “reduce operating costs” we used, “reduce labor costs” that could cause a reduction in throughput and then a net increase in operating costs if we are not careful.  Don’t improve in one area simply to worsen in another.

Step 3 – Determine not what will get you there, but what will hold you back.  Understanding the constraints to your goal will help you to find the areas where your KPIs will assist one another rather than conflict with each other.  If you want to decrease operating costs know that you still will have to conduct changeovers and shutdown for cleaning, etc.  Quantifying these impacts will help you understand the real room for improvement that you have.

Step 4 – Create your baseline.  If you don’t have one, you need one.  If you have one, confirm it.

Step 5 – Set a realistic, time-based goal.  Don’t shoot for the moon on your first try.  Set something modest and make sure you have enough time to accomplish it.

Step 6 – Celebrate your wins.  Learn from your losses.  Too often we are focused on the bad.  Take some time to recognize when you and the team have done well.  Don’t punish failure, rather learn from it and publish the results or talk about them in a team meeting.  Don’t hide from failure either.  People should know if they didn’t hit the mark and how to do better next time.

Step 7 – Repeat.  This is a process.  Don’t rest, but don’t change things up so much that you don’t have time to make significant strides.  Try to have fun and make sure you are winning more than you are losing.