By Mike Wilson

James Eaton, president of Little Harbor Window Co., discusses some of the strategies his company used to implement lean production processes.

Pictured above is one of Little Harbor Window Co.'s projects in production. The company used the lean manufacturing process to reduce its typical job cycle time by more than half.

In 2006 Little Harbor Window Co.’s gross income hadn’t seen significant increases in three years. Although sales could be increased, production would not be able to keep pace, so the Berwick, ME-based window and door manufacturer decided to get lean to add capacity, says James Eaton, president of the company.

Since it began making changes to the machinery and production flow, job cycles have dropped drastically and the company has seen a variety of other benefits.

“We have reduced our typical cycle time from six weeks to a little over one week,” Eaton says. “And we are nowhere near optimum [production] yet.”

Below are four ways your company can use some of Little Harbor's strategies to get lean and reduce job cycle times at your shop.

#1. Great ways to limit lean consulting costs

One way to get the consulting help you need from lean experts is through government offices and educators. For Little Harbor, the immersion in the lean process began with a call to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a government office dedicated to increasing the competitiveness of the United States industrial base. After calling, the company discovered it was eligible for a $40,000 federal grant to cover MEP’s lean consulting work.

“MEP applied for the grant for me,” Eaton says. “[Grants] are not available all the time, and the funds do dry up, but we were able to qualify for it.”

Eaton advises that another good resource for reasonably priced lean consulting is the university system, where graduate students and professors are often eager to help to gain real world learning opportunities.

Little Harbor’s lean process began with two MEP consultants putting on an exercise at the shop involving every employee, including management, designers, production personnel and administrators.

“They had us build these tiny clocks using a traditional manufacturing method, with a warehouse full of parts that we would have to order from,” Eaton says. “There was no way you could ship a clock on time. Everyone revised the process a total of three times until it was totally lean and in came it way ahead of schedule.”

#2. Create Value Stream Map to Optimize Processes

Following the demonstration, the entire company trained with MEP to understand basic lean concepts, and a lean team was created with members of each department. One of the first, and most important steps the team took was creating a Value Stream Map, Eaton says.

“This is a process that involves mapping out all of the steps of your different processes,” he adds. “For our company, we chose double hung and casement windows, and typical doors. As a custom shop we do a tremendous amount of one-off projects, but you want to pick the majority of your product to focus on. Once you have evaluated the steps that you currently use (current state), you can start to kick new ideas around for improvements (future state).”

The map clearly pointed out changes the company needed to make to improve efficiency, including moving entire departments to enable an easier sharing of resources and improve production flow. The resulting layout also saved the company a lot of space, Eaton says.

#3. Implement 5S Exercises to Standardize Workstations

Another step the company has taken in its continually improving process is using a 5S exercise to reorganize and standardize workstations. Part of the standardization was placing shadow boards behind benches with outlines of where each tool should be placed. This prevents tools from being misplaced or hoarded, because the tool outlines remind production personnel to replace them after use.

“The 5S exercise allows you to clean out and sort out areas that can then be reorganized and standardized,” Eaton says. “It allows the workers to move from one area to another and not ask how each area is set-up. We can now shift more people from department to department, doesn’t matter where you put them, and with lean manufacturing you tend to shift people around a lot more.”

#4. Changeover to Quick Changeover Machinery

As part of the lean process, Little Harbor embraced quick changeover machinery, which has allowed them to work more efficiently with smaller batch sizes, and easily rework damaged products.

“We had a very nice set-up with a double end tenoner, a moulder and a number of very nice shapers. We added a 3-axis router back in 2006 that helped a bit with combining functions, but it wasn’t the complete solution,” he says. “After the 2007 (AWFS) Las Vegas show we added a 5-axis Busellato router, a CNC moulder with HSK spindles, a T160 Vanguard shaper with HSK spindles and a Stegherr miter/half lap machine that has touch screen capabilities. The combination of all of these has allowed us to quickly change from one project to another as well as replace defective material immediately, even if we have moved to the next project.”

He adds that the software that came with and runs the Busellato router, which is called Genesis Evolution, has also made setting up jobs more efficient because it is parametrically driven. This allows him to program cuts, then easily adjust them according to the size of the board being cut, Eaton says.

“We do a lot of radius work, and have programs for ovals and half-rounds. We tell it what size the oval is and how wide the part is, and all my programs move with it. All I have to do is change the size.”

Although the company’s production process has improved since embarking on its quest for lean, more projects are in the works. Eaton says Little Harbor has hired MEP to embark on production documentation work, as well as redeveloping scheduling, and dropping tracking throughout the shop.

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