With lean manufacturing, MMEC helps improve businesses of all types
Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service
Summary: The Montana Manufacturing Extension Center at Montana State University hosts workshops and classes that help businesses apply the principles of lean manufacturing to streamline their operations.
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BOZEMAN — At Billings manufacturer H-E Parts, where technicians rebuild worn-out suspensions and other components for mining trucks that carry up to 400 tons of ore, simply moving a part across the warehouse can take a lot of effort.
“This is about 18,000 pounds,” said Shane Pence, the Atlanta-based company’s North American strategic projects manager, as he stood next to a 7-foot-tall wheel unit in June.
That’s one reason why Pence and other H-E Parts leaders sought help from the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center in 2015 to improve productivity and create a safer workplace. MMEC adviser Alistair Stewart, after listening to the company’s needs, hosted an eight-hour class about lean manufacturing, a conceptual framework for improving productivity. Lean manufacturing principles seek to eliminate wasted time and materials, such as unnecessary handling of materials or overstocking inventory.
Afterward, Pence and eight other H-E Parts employees decided to attend 10-week courses taught by Stewart as part of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ Lean Bronze Program, in which participants apply the principles of lean manufacturing to their own businesses. The results have been obvious, Pence said.
“It helped us inventory our processes, find the ones that add value and cut the rest out,” Pence said. Changes include production facility layout changes that streamline how parts are handled, changes to machining and welding practices in order to eliminate unnecessary work and a few equipment upgrades.
“We’ve made those (investments) back tenfold in a month,” said Mike Hall, who supervises the machinists who restore old parts as well as produce new ones. The workers like the new system, too, because their work flows more naturally, he said.
Overall, the 75-employee business can now move more product with the same number of people, which has boosted morale, Pence said. “The business is healthier.”
“It’s an inspirational story,” Stewart said. “Lean is all about engaging people, and once engaged, they are unstoppable.”
Lean manufacturing isn’t just for heavy industry, either, Stewart noted. As an example he pointed to Livingston’s Printing For Less, another client of MMEC, which is housed in Montana State University’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.
PFL efficiency lab manager Emma Fuller took the lean manufacturing class from Stewart last fall. She was facing workplace challenges similar to Pence’s in PFL’s piecework and kitting area, a large division of the 300-employee business. Two of her colleagues had previously attended the MMEC lean workshops.
“It tapped into something that made sense to me,” Fuller said of lean manufacturing. “I’m very passionate about this.”
As part of the course, she volunteered to have her classmates visit PFL for an audit of her work area, where they applied lean manufacturing principles together. “They were very honest about what we could improve,” she said.
The changes included adding signs and other visual cues to make the workspace more intuitive for her employees to navigate. She also created a new inventory system in which visual markers indicate exactly when more materials need to be stocked, and how much.
“I don’t think I would have found all of (those improvements) on my own,” Fuller said.
Now, she sometimes checks in with Stewart to make tweaks to her systems or to ask questions. “It gives you a support group,” she says of the MMEC class.
“I think anyone could benefit from it,” she says of lean manufacturing. “I do it every day.”