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Quick Guide to Making Your Machine Shop a Lean Shop

Lean manufacturing is a concept that became popular after World War II, based on the Toyota “Just-in-Time” production system. After the war ended, Japanese factory managers started studying American production techniques — specifically, those pioneered by Henry Ford and W. Edwards Deming — to reduce waste and make manufacturing processes more efficient.

While it works well in manufacturing circles, many business owners incorrectly assume machine shops either can’t or shouldn’t benefit from lean practices. Here is a quick guide to turning your machine shop into a lean shop.

1. Minimize Waste Wherever Possible

One of the primary tenets of lean manufacturing is reducing waste. Machine shops can be tricky when it comes to lean principles because many of them don’t work in these situations. However, you can always take steps to reduce waste — and we’re not just talking about materials, though inventory excess, overproduction and defects are all areas to be addressed. Idle time, wasted motion and underutilizing your employees can all be lessened.

Start by taking a close look at your processes and figuring out where the problems are. Once you understand where the issues are arising, it becomes simpler to train employees on how to reduce waste, implementing new policies and protocols where applicable.

2. Choose the Right Tools

The thing about working in a machine shop is that if something breaks, the chances are high that someone can rig something to make it work again. While this might help to prevent downtime while you’re waiting for maintenance crews, it can also slow down production or cause machinists to produce inferior quality work.

Choosing the right tools for the job, regardless of the details of the project, can result in a successful contract. Machining a metal knife blade, for example, with subpar equipment will result in metal that can’t hold an edge and might as well be made from plastic.

3. Consolidate Your Vendors

One of the easiest steps you can take to turn your shop into a lean, mean fabricating machine is to consolidate your vendors. You, like many business owners, likely have a series of suppliers that help bring in whatever you need to keep your business running smoothly. This has been a common practice for decades, but it isn’t the most cost-effective or efficient option.

Consolidating your vendors can help you improve quality and performance, and can also make you more agile and better able to respond to the needs of your business — all principles of a lean shop. Consolidating all your vendors can also help you control costs, saving you money by ensuring you always secure the best prices.

4. Avoid Techniques That Won’t Work in a Machine Shop

Not all principles of lean manufacturing will work in a machine shop. In a truly lean system, you’d take the time to learn the heartbeat of your workshop — figuring out exactly how much time you need to spend on each task. In a machine shop, where the jobs might change from week to week, trying to figure out your shop’s exact schedule every week is the opposite of efficiency.

In situations like this, you will never set up a completely lean shop — and this isn’t a bad thing. Feel free to pick and choose the things that will work for your business, and leave behind everything that doesn’t serve you.

5. Lean Doesn’t Just Mean Production

Lean manufacturing protocols can apply to more than just your production floor. They can also be used to make your workplace safer. Lean processes give you the tools to integrate safety into every level of standard operating procedures, instead of keeping it separate from the rest of your workday. It’s something that should be incorporated into everything, from punching the time clock in the morning to every project that crosses the production floor to clocking out for the night.

By making safety part of everything, you bring it to the forefront of everyone’s mind. By keeping it there, you’ll reduce the chance that there will be accidents on the production floor, maintaining lean efficiency by preventing downtime.

Looking Toward the Future

Lean manufacturing processes can work for nearly every industry in the world, but not all the principles will be right for every operation. Can you apply lean methods in your machine shop? The answer is yes, but not everything will work for you. Feel free to pick and choose what parts will benefit your company, whether that means consolidating your vendors, incorporating lean safety or selecting the right tools for the job.

Lean manufacturing can make your business more efficient and help you reduce waste, even if you’re running a machine shop. Incorporating these principles can improve operations, reduce waste and bring your shop to the next level of productivity.

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