Strengthening relationships between suppliers and OEMs

Robbins Manufacturing has a long tradition of continuous improvement. ISO certification, quality management systems, Value Stream Mapping, 5S and other Lean programs are just a few of the many initiatives the company has invested in to streamline costs and processes and better serve customers. But for owner Greg Robbins and general manager Jim Heathman, the job is never done.


Robbins Manufacturing has a long tradition of continuous improvement. ISO certification, quality management systems, Value Stream Mapping, 5S and other Lean programs are just a few of the many initiatives the company has invested in to streamline costs and processes and better serve customers.

But for owner Greg Robbins and general manager Jim Heathman, the job is never done. The metal fabricator and powder coater is located in Fall River, WI, and employs 200 employees. It focuses its job-shop services on value engineering and short lead times. “To stay competitive, it's imperative in today's market to always be looking at ways to improve and maintain our niche,” said Robbins. So when one of their biggest OEM customers approached them with an opportunity to participate in a supplier improvement program, the decision was easy.

The program, called Accelerate, is a national service offering of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, operated in Wisconsin by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP). Robbins had worked with WMEP on many previous process improvement projects. “We were familiar with WMEP, and trusted them to deliver a quality service that would measurably improve our process,” said Heathman. “And in the process, we saw an opportunity to train more of our staff on Lean-related principles.”

Established in 2005, Accelerate works with both OEMs and their suppliers to increase supplier performance and drive down supply risk. “Today OEMs and suppliers are both asking the same questions,” said Mike Hablewitz, director of supply chain activity for WMEP. “How can we develop better strategic relationships, increase flexibility and increase performance throughout the value chain?”

The program focuses on putting speed into operation by examining Manufacturing Critical-path Time (MCT). Defined as the typical amount of calendar time that elapses from a customer order through to the delivery of that order, MCT reduces all performance indicators to a single quantifiable time-based metric. While Value Stream Mapping focuses on raw material and production time and is used in the process, MCT also considers other variables including office time, contingency inventory and logistics. “In the end,” Hablewitz explained, “when MCT is reduced, cost, quality and delivery all improve.”

Robbins selected a specific product %%MDASSML%% engine transmissions covers for the government %%MDASSML%% to focus on for the program. With help from WMEP, the project team created a current state Value Stream Map, carefully documenting and measuring every step and detail, including order entry, inventory and WIP. From there, many ideas for improvement were identified and goals established to increase MCT in each step of the work process.

To close the gap between the current and targeted state of MCT, Robbins set up work teams on 14 different projects, ranging from simple to complex. Each project had a dedicated project team assigned, with milestones, goals and deadlines. Every step in the planning and production process was scrutinized.

In the front office, they eliminated unnecessary steps in the order entry process. “Even just limiting interruptions in the order entry process cut time dramatically,” said Heathman. By applying Lean techniques in the office, they ensured accurate information was supplied to the shop floor, improved the flow of information and identified two days of time savings.

On the shop floor, they used Inventory Reduction %%MDASSML%% another Lean tool %%MDASSML%% to help gain control of their finished goods inventory and WIP. By controlling how much work is released to the shop floor and improving capacity planning, “we can better schedule what is actually needed based on customer requirements,” said Heathman.

WIP was another issue addressed, because the part might take different components to create the entire assembly. “Before, we didn't do a good job of controlling that, but now it just flows through.”

Other areas that the project teams took on included capacity planning to establish criteria for dating and scheduling jobs; labor reporting to track employee efficiencies and keep costs in line; combining operations to eliminate cue time between phases; defining areas for staging; and even creating criteria for the contents of the job packets to ensure accuracy.

Six months after the initial MCT assessment, the company is already realizing results and enjoying the benefits of the program. They saved 29% in costs, reduced MCT by 36%, improved order processing time by 35% and decreased finished goods inventory by 20%. And the softer savings may be even more significant.

“It allowed many of our people the time to learn about Value Stream Mapping and Lean as they worked through the process,” said Robbins. “It also helped people working in one department to understand how people in other departments work, and how their actions affect them.”

The team also found that the work tied back into continuous improvement opportunities in other areas of the company. “I can't put a value on the training and exposure that our employees received from this program,” said Heathman, who now fosters a continuous monitoring and improvement environment based on the results of the company's Accelerate experience. “Now the staff is thinking about cost-savings and what they can do overall to improve.”

Since Accelerate began, 322 suppliers with 23 OEMs in 23 states have participated in the program. For Robbins, the program did more than just reinforce a relationship with one key customer. “It's a good sales tool for us, and helped with new customers.” Heathman concurs. “It's helped us to be a quality player in our current markets and to solidify our current markets and maintain market share,” he said.

Author Information

Mike Klonsinski is the executive director of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP), a private nonprofit organization committed to the growth and success of Wisconsin manufacturers. WMEP is a leader in Lean manufacturing, growth services, strategic business planning, quality systems and supplier development. For more information, visit

Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership is an affiliate of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), located in Gaithersburg, MD. Information can be found at its Website: Inquiries can be sent via e-mail to .

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