It’s not all that unusual for someone expanding their business into manufacturing and production to suddenly find that demands get a lot more serious. When running any other kind of business efficiency and productivity might seem like abstractions that you improve as you go along. When you’re on the production line, however, you can’t afford to let inefficient practices liner. Right from the get-go, you have to strive towards getting the greatest returns on investment as soon as possible. If you’re familiar with lean principles in manufacturing or business in general, don’t be surprised to see a few of them here. They’re still an excellent guide to improving productivity and efficiency.

Set yourself a long-term goal

The steps we’ll be mentioning here aren’t something to be slowly implemented over time. They need real work done on them, now. They need a strategy, which means you need to find the goal you’re working towards. In manufacturing, one of the best goals to work toward is overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). It looks at all the time your manufacturing equipment is working. Then it identifies how time is lost through unavoidable causes like schedule loss, as well as the very avoidable kinds of lost time like availability of resources, performance issues and time lost producing poor quality goods. This is how you measure OEE and your goal is to remove all those sources of loss so you get to a state of total effective equipment performance.

Follow the metrics

With a goal focused so much on the equipment, you also need to understand the larger concept of successful manufacturing that it plays into. You know equipment effectiveness isn’t everything, so what data should you use to communicate and understand its overarching effects? Set up a metrics table that you use to measure the impact of improving your processes. Include quality metrics, like yield and rejected products, and efficiency metrics, like throughput and capacity utilization (out of 100%, how much of your output capacity is being used at any one time?). These can help you identify more specific sources of lost ROI (return on investment).

Map out your workflow

Flow is a very important concept to any business. In manufacturing, it’s actually easier to spot most of the time. It’s as simple as creating a map of the production line in its entirety. From there, you graph out the progress of your materials as they are worked into the final product. Doing that allows you to see whether they’re taking the most efficient path or not. For instance, large distances between one process to another create lost time while you’re waiting for the goods to be transported from one area to another. You can also spot when secondary equipment that isn’t part of the main production line is obstructing that process. It can be a good idea to clear the whole floor and start planning the workflow from the start. Order the primary tools first in a way that eliminates waiting for transportation, then place the secondary equipment out-of-the-way after.

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Identify and fix bottlenecks

As well as a physical map, create a process map that shows all the work being done. It will likely consist of a lot of processes leading off into different processes. Rarely is it purely linear. Those moments when it becomes linear can be the problem. Many processes leading into one means that one process could be holding up the rest of the workflow. Those are your bottlenecks and they need to be accounted for. For instance, if there’s one piece of equipment in particular that needs to be used more often before work can continue, consider increasing your inventory of that equipment. Bottlenecks don’t only happen on the factory floor, either. Your bottleneck might be that you can’t keep producing more goods because your inventory is full and you’re waiting for shipping to commence. Scaling up your shipping is the right call in that situation.

Prevent downtime

Most downtime in manufacturing is down to equipment failure. As well as frequent maintenance, you should schedule troubleshoot in any planned downtime you have. You should also be aware of any inventory needs you have in terms of replacement. If you have the right replacement parts waiting in the wings, it means less time is spent waiting for them. Most manuals for pieces of industrial equipment will tell you exactly what replacements you’re most likely to need.

Master your inventory

Just as you should know when you need to stock a few extra components in the event of equipment downtime, you should also know when not to stock extra resources. You might think bulk buying saves you effort down the line, but it could be drastically impacting your return on investment through the carrying costs of inventory. It’s best to develop a system that alerts you to inventory needs in advance but ensures you’re not bringing in too much inventory. Get to know the demand on resources involved in your processes.

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Get smarter tools

You might think that using simpler tools means you’re saving money, but the truth is that any gains you make by saving on the purchase could be eclipsed by the amount of ROI lost through less efficient means. Smarter tools might cost more and require more training, but that’s because they’re sophisticated tools that can drastically improve the efficiency of the production line. If your finishing processes are proving slow, perhaps even bottlenecked production, then considering learning the news about coating equipment. If metalworking takes up most of the time on your floor, then look at CNC milling tools.

Get automated

A lot of those smarter tools you can get will also be automated. We know that there’s a lot of dragging feet when it comes to moving into automation. The reduction of your dependence on human effort could indeed mean that some jobs are no longer going to be needed. But if it’s a choice between efficiency and losing employees, then know that poor efficiency will likely end up in losing a lot more people when the business is unable to meet its clients’ goals and lose a lot of custom. Look at the positives of getting automated, including mitigating the effect of labor shortages and improving the safety of workers by getting them less involved in dangerous tasks.

Invest in employees, not just equipment

As for your existing labor, one of the ways you can help them plan to avoid obsolescence is by providing the training they need to move into other roles in the business. Automated equipment will need operators and maintenance and the freeing of labor could mean you have the human capital ready to expand your operation. Don’t treat employees like they’re only good for one task. Instead, consider all the skills that could make them much more useful in their role. Better understanding the product, materials, and equipment could lead to a broad diversity of skills that gets them more engaged with the process and makes them a lot more useful to you.

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Standardize absolutely everything

If you want an efficient production line, then you’re going to have to standardize all the equipment usage, inventory transportation, and maintenance. Create systems and guidelines that address every step of the workflow and the correct way to do things. This makes it a lot easier to train new employees when you have those standardized methods at your disposal. But standardization doesn’t only belong in the production line itself. It can be applied to the knowledge workers in administration and planning as well. Even more important, it should be implemented regularly in your safety practices. Getting people compliant means ensuring there’s no uneven training. Improvising your training makes it a lot easier for certain employees to miss information that others have received.

Incentivize creativity

Finding the best ways to implement these strategies isn’t something you’re going to be able to do by yourself. One person can only be so creative. You need to use the mental capital as well as the labor capital that your team provides. This is one reason why more intricate, ongoing training for workers on the floor is important. They will have the hands-on experience of using equipment and resources that could spot ways of improving productivity that you haven’t considered. So, think about implementing an incentivization scheme. Offer rewards to anyone who makes recommendations that have an impact on decreasing downtime, loss through faulty goods, or improve your progress towards total effective equipment performance. Compensation is an effective reward, but so are more creative choices like flexible work choices.

Without addressing the problems of productivity in your manufacturing processes, you’re going to have a hard time keeping the costs down. You’ll be dealing with more downtime and more late orders for the clients you’re supplying. The points above aren’t a ‘done in one’ checklist. They’re the tools you use to keep the improvement continuous. Your equipment, your demands, and your clients will change. You have to keep looking over your processes and risk of loss as they change, too.

Successful Manufacturing Means Putting ROI First