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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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.

Leading Operational Change

 

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I read an interesting post on maintenancephoenix.com about change management and reactive vs proactive maintenance.  The article, by Ricky Smith, was thought-provoking.  He talks about culture change in the organization and how to determine if you are in a reactive or proactive organization.

As leaders, regardless of department or function, it is our duty to create and build the right culture.  Below are 5 tips on how to do this in an operational setting.

  1. Set the expectation.  It seems easy, but it isn’t.  Expectations must be realistic.  That is not so simple.  It takes a bit of educated guessing and self-temperment.  Often, as leaders, we expect others to be as capable or more so than ourselves.  That is not always the case.  Don’t underestimate the ability of people, but don’t set the bar so high as to create discouragement.  Remember that there is a limiting factor to the progress that can be made, find that and then set the pace.
  2. Create the game plan.  Here is strategy.  Don’t confuse strategy with goals.  Strategy is the route that you plan to get to the destination.  Jim Collins has had some great books and one of the lines that has stuck with me is the “20-Mile March” from his book Great by Choice.  Pick your march.
  3. Don’t be a flavor of the month.  You can’t be a fad (read more here).  Once this happens you lose all credibility.  Trying to recover from a lackluster start is just as bad as never starting.  Don’t let up and keep your strategy in view.  Even when times get rough, continue your march to make sure that you can gain what is needed.  If you said you would shut down the line once a week for maintenance, do it…even if the schedule is tight.  It will be worth it in the long run.
  4. Get the team on board.  Make sure your teams are supporting the change.  There can’t be any undercutting of the program behind closed doors.  Encourage your team to vent to you if they are frustrated with where the change is going, but make sure they don’t vent to anyone else.  The team must have a united front everywhere in the organization.  If not, this is poison to the change process.  It is painful to do it, but you may have to cut loose those that aren’t supporting your culture change.  One rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch.
  5. Celebrate success.  Celebrate your accomplishments.  As milestones are achieved, make sure that people know you are proud of them.  Don’t celebrate if you don’t succeed something, that makes it superficial when you do celebrate for just cause.  Culture change is a long road and these celebrations keep people motivated along the way.

Change is never easy.  In any organization where deadlines and customer demands are put before everything else, you can never accomplish your own goals.  We tell people that they need time for themselves, so do companies.  Treat your company right and your customers will notice.