Dustin Hunter’s company, Hunter Trim and Cabinets (HTC), in Ft Worth, TX, manufactures custom cabinets and millwork for new homes and makeovers. HTC uses Cabinet Vision for detailed shop and finished drawings, floor plans, elevations, 3D perspectives, and cutlists. They use conventional equipment – table saws, up-cut saws, and chop saws - for all of the woodworking processes. It isn’t unusual for small shops to have a mix of technologies and automation, especially when it comes to one of the many types of computer technology for drawing creation that are available today. Computer Aided Design has become so common that detailing drawings with pencil and scale is viewed as a lost art form. By employing Cabinet Vision for the engineering process, Dustin is positioning HTC for future growth that may include CNC equipment for panel cutting since Cabinet Vision software already produces the g-code from the optimized parts. But when will Dustin be ready to transition to CNC?

No rush to upgrade

Dustin is in no rush to upgrade to automation on the shop floor. His staff is currently pursuing the definition and dynamics of Lean thinking – that being maximizing their current resources. Dustin’s use of low-tech resources is something that I recommend other manufacturers consider as well. After all, there isn’t anything wrong with using conventional equipment if that equipment is capable of meeting current demand. However, capacity and capability at Hunter is somewhat limited when compared to that of Signature (see previous column).

For instance, Dustin can’t optimize materials on the table saw in the same way Brad can on the beam saw. The inability to optimize creates more offal to manage and more trips to the offal storage area to find just the right sheet for the part being cut. There is a lot of waste inherent in that process. Another weakness is that Dustin’s software is capable of creating designs and special features that are difficult to replicate without specialized equipment or flexible automation. So automation to meet increased customer demand and material optimization is definitely on the horizon.

Preparing for the future

Implementation of Workplace Organization and Standardized Work has eliminated waste and enabled the current resources to double throughput. The staff at HTC hasn’t quite arrived at that threshold yet, but they are on their way. Besides the implementation of lean tools and techniques, Dustin has made some personnel changes that put extra emphasis on the lean transformation process. HTC had a working supervisor prior to launching Lean. Dustin recognized that the growth opportunity that was now possible through Lean would require a different, more focused organization structure.

The working supervisor’s production role was replaced by an existing staff person who was freed up through the elimination of waste, and a Lean Coordinator was selected from within the staff, as well. The Lean Coordinator has become the trainer to ensure Standard Work becomes the new norm. He also builds all truly special product so the other cabinet builders can focus on continually improving processes to further increase throughput. The supervisor can now spend more time in Gemba (the shop floor) evaluating personnel training needs and other improvement opportunities to exploit.

Strategic plan

Through the use of Standard Work and time studies to define output expectations for each of the production processes, Dustin is now able to develop a strategic plan for phasing in automation in sync with increased demand. Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), which was explained in the last article, is another tool that Dustin can use to predict when the current resources have reached maximum utilization.

Whereas Brad started his business with the intent of integrating automation and technology before customer demand warranted the need, Dustin has chosen to implement automation in response to customer demand. From a lean perspective, I recommend Dustin’s conservative, methodical, logical approach because it emphasizes maximizing resources at various milestone levels that are driven by customer demand.

Another view
Scheduling conflicts have not allowed me to return to Joe’s plant in Florida yet, but I will be back there soon. Meanwhile, I can share with you Joe’s philosophy on automation and technology, which is somewhat different from that of the CEOs of the other companies being profiled. Joe employs state-of-the-art thinking in the use of iPads in the workplace. All of the engineering drawings, customer files, quotes, email communications, purchase orders, etc. are continually updated in real-time so anyone with a company iPad can access the latest status of a customer’s order. It’s hard to miscommunicate or not be able to respond to customer inquiries when information is being continuously updated.

There are two pieces of automation on the shop floor. One is a CNC machining center and the other is a beam saw for panel cutting. Joe has a policy that no automation will be brought into the process unless the programming can be done in the engineering department so the equipment operator only has to download the current program. That policy greatly reduces the changeover time, which increases available time to do productive work. It also reduces potential mistakes in interpreting data.

Even though Joe’s company has implemented automation and technology in innovative and creative ways, he recognizes that there is still room for improvement. Implementing automation at the initial steps in the manufacturing process can improve throughput at those processes, but that doesn’t necessarily improve the velocity of throughput for the entire enterprise. If a beam saw or CNC machining center can outpace the capacity of the internal customer, work-in-process builds up and bottlenecks are created. I don’t know where Joe’s constraint process is yet, but I hope that he has balanced that constraint to customer demand (Takt Time) to create smooth, continuous flow. I will keep you informed of progress at Joe’s company in future articles. I think their lean journey may provide some good learning opportunities.

Whether you are employing automation on the shop floor now is not as important as how all of your processes are balanced to meet customer demand. Whether you are using table saws like Dustin or CNC machine centers and beam saws like Joe and Brad, make sure you are concentrating on creating smooth, continuous flow rather than simply producing as many parts as possible through the automation processes and flooding the shop with product that the balance of the internal customers can’t manage. Piles of excess work-in-process slow the entire internal customer/supplier chain down, and add chaos and confusion for your managers to deal with that prevents them from spending quality time in Gemba.

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