Improving plant floor productivity: How businesses can be more competitive

Mike Gugger
Tags: lean manufacturing

No one needs to tell you, Mr. Plant Manager (VP of Ops, CEO, COO), that things are extremely competitive in the manufacturing industry today. You see it every day. You respond to it every day. Your people are working hard, every day. So, what else is there that you can do to be more productive, lower your costs and remain competitive in the global manufacturing industry?


First, let's review why the world of manufacturing is as competitive as it is. NAFTA may first come to your mind, but that is just a symptom. China? Mexico? India? The Pacific Rim? Sure all contribute to the competitive atmosphere, but none are the reason for it. So, what is it then? The reason they are all competing against us in manufacturing is because the only way to build wealth in a society is to add value. Our leaders see us as moving to a service economy. But there is no value-added to the economy through the service industry. Whether you cut a customer's hair or represent them in court, there is one transaction and nothing is created.


The only way to add value in an economy is to produce something. If you pull ore out of the ground, value is added and the number of transitions needed to get it to market are many: tools, land, equipment, labor and more. Each taxable, and ending with a product that can be sold for profit. That ore is refined and a similar scenario takes place. It is machined into a product or a part and the cycle repeats itself with taxable transactions every step of the way. It is then assembled; more transactions, each taxable as the value is further developed. Finally, it is sold to consumers, but that is not the end. It might be resold and finally even recycled to some extent. Each step adds value; each transaction creates both individual wealth for the workers and the producers and for the nation through taxation. We have been doing this for 200-plus years and have built the wealthiest nation in history as a result. It is only logical that others want the same opportunities we have and follow our lead to get them.


This leads to two issues. First, our government needs to better understand this. Second, we as a nation, in particularly an industrial nation, cannot roll over and play dead. We can and must be willing to compete. This brings me back to the start of this article. How?


Right now, the news is filled with stories of many traditional manufacturing giants struggling to compete, while others in the same industry – say, automotive – are doing quite well. There is a reason. Ask yourself: Have you started your lean journey? Is it becoming a way of life yet? You cannot consider your journey as headed in the right direction unless you live this in the work place. From loafers instead of tied shoes (no wasted motion) to striving for one-piece flow in production, it has to be that much of a commitment both personally and in the workplace to be successful.


Is your equipment allowing you to be competitive? You can't win at Indy today with the 1911-winning Marmon Wasp. You can't even compete with the Tom Sneva's 1983-winning Texaco Star. Just like today's Indy cars, you have to constantly invest in upgrading your equipment to remain competitive. And, you say, "What? I can't afford a new machine tool every year!" No, you may not be able to by a new VMC or Mill-Turn Center, but is there a better coating out there? Do you know if it will work on your jobs? What about high-speed machining? Have you investigated those techniques yet? How about through the tool coolant in your drilling operations? These are simple lower cost things that if you aren't considering and applying, you are leaving money on the table and losing ground to the competition.


You don't have the time or the talent to test the validity of the claims of the tool sales guy, you say? Don't want to risk production on a new, untried product, perhaps? Both valid, but should not and cannot be an obstacle to your moving forward with new technology.


Your people haven't upgraded their skills and you're not sure they can support these new technologies? There is another investment that you cannot let slide. Your people are your company; they are the reason you are competitive. If their skills don't keep up, you don't keep up. You must pay them fairly, but cannot bankrupt your company in the process.


Are the answers to any of this easy? No, but there is help out there. For example, TechSolve tests new products every day. We have a machine shop with machine tools not so different from what you have. The key is that we use them not to produce parts but rather to produce information. We know that the coating you might be considering works best under certain circumstances because we have tested and compared it to current best-in-class technologies. Guess what we found? In some instances, it pays back and in others it doesn't. So, that sales guy that tells you your competition down the street, in the next town, state or across the world is making a killing with this new (fill in the blank), we can determine if it is the right thing for you to invest in and, more importantly, if it will return on that investment – objectively.


Don’t want to risk production proving out a new approach? We can verify it before you put it on your shop floor so that you don’t risk scraping that important customers parts in an effort to improve. In addition, TechSolve helps further train your people, upgrading their understanding of these new approaches and techniques and help them understand how to evaluate them for value and profit into your organization. You need your people to have their eyes and ears open looking for new opportunities and then be able to understand both how to evaluate it and how to apply it correctly.


About the author:

Mike Gugger is the manager of special projects for TechSolve Inc. For more information, visit

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