Think Again: Improve processes, then automate

Advice: Don’t upgrade automation on old processes. Get lean, fix the processes, then apply leading-edge controls and automation to optimize results.


Is it too obvious to say processes need to be examined and improved before applying the latest automation technologies? Think again. Harland Clarke, in applying lean principles, actually removed some long-standing automation, slashed manufacturing cycle time by 64%, and improved plant capacity by 108%. Imagine additional improvements on the way as automation is reapplied to continually improved processes, where most appropriate.

Less WIP helped show areas to improve

How were savings achieved? Interdependencies and inefficiencies were uncovered as work in process (WIP) was reduced, explained David Cline, vice president operations, central region, Harland Clarke, at the 2011 Manufacturing/Automation Summit, on March 21.

Cline said the lean journey also involved removing much of a revered quarter-mile conveyor to help reorganize work cells. That move also boosted teamwork by bringing people on the team closer together within better organized work cells to communicate and achieve agreed-upon goals.

Implementing lean in three phases, Cline offered lessons learned and some possible next steps for the Harland Clarke check printing plant.

Lean phase 1 included a 5S Project (sort, simplify, shine, standardize, and sustain), 53 kaizen events, and an audit process challenging leaders and employees to sustain it, resulting in a 4.5% productivity gain.

Lean phase 2 educated leaders and used visual controls to expand the lean culture, helping those involved better understand and implement what needed to be done for a lean workforce and continuous flow.

Lean phase 3 reorganized workflow into manufacturing cells, balancing machines and people so the start and end of every process could easily be seen. Such cells improved team dynamics and moved the process from individual to team orientation.

Results included: 64% reduction in cycle time; 61% less WIP; 44% reduction of production footprint by getting materials off the floor and back into the main warehouse, and near elimination of a ¼-mile conveyor, freeing space for future growth; and 108% increase in plant capacity. Other results included 93% reduction in conveyor length, 80% reduction in travel distance, 117% increase in units per square foot, 31% gain in combined machine OEE, and 23% increase in plant efficiency (normalized).

Applying a “hindsightometer,” lessons learned include the following:

-Improve communication between shifts to improve team dynamics, so shifts help each other resolve challenges rather than blame or compete

-Equipment reliability drives cell success

-Team dynamics drive future improvement

-Work together to change systems and processes; don’t just ask people for more hours

-Get, consider, and try ideas to improve. Even ideas that long-timers “know” will not work might work eventually, adapted to resolve the challenge. People want to feel that they can give input and make things better.

-Don’t underestimate the time required to navigate corporate projects (such as mergers)

-New employees need help to catch up with the lean culture

-Some parts of the value stream may initially be off limits to lean, requiring “catch up” later

-Build trust about anticipated payback with those who have the money; spend money to make even more money

-Often, leaders are leaders because they are good firefighters; new leadership habits need to be cultivated

-Lack of lean habits most often stems from lack of leadership

-Keep a positive attitude: Never, ever give up

-Practice love and forgiveness; people are fallible and we all will make mistakes, especially as we try to change

-Have fun.


More progress, automation


What’s next? Cline says possibilities may include expansion of continuous improvement culture to get to at least 85% operational equipment effectiveness (OEE), more standard work practices, continuing advancement of visual management, and wider use of idea boards.  More engaged employees can lead to more kaizen events, and additional use of a follow-up accountability board show continuing progress.


After the presentation, Cline told Control Engineering options to consider include continued automation investments as processes continue to improve, such as machine vision for quality control, robotic cells, automated status display, and analysis software to more quickly spot trends and respond to needs, closer to real time.

Mary Bunzel, IBM worldwide industry leader for manufacturing, overhearing the automation conversation, confirmed: “Without process improvement, the application of technology is just a Band-Aid solution.”

- Mark T. Hoske, Content Manager, Control Engineering,

Originally posted March 23, 2011.

Also read, from Control Engineering:

Get lean, eliminate waste - Throw technology at old manufacturing processes and procedures, and you still can get a train wreck; it just happens faster. Infuse lean manufacturing techniques into the hearts and minds of those involved with plant processes, and your technological dollars will go a lot farther.

How to manufacture a 5S program for your facility - Changing processes in a lean, consistent way can improve workflow, quality, attitudes, and safety, according to S&C Electric Co. experiences.

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