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Moldmaker goes lean

March 1, 2002

5 Min Read
Moldmaker goes lean

Global competition from lower-cost toolmakers, abundant competition from a highly fractured industry in the U.S., and pricing pressures from OEM customers have all put mold shops in a precarious position over the past year. However, one moldmaker has decided that there is a better way to rise to these challenges: lean manufacturing. 

Roger Klouda, president of MSI Mold Builders, a moldmaking company that Klouda's father founded 30 years ago, says that the "business of moldmaking is rapidly changing, and successful companies use a true manufacturing process." To enhance MSI's manufacturing methods, Klouda and his operations manager, Steve Kimm, began implementing lean manufacturing techniques at the company's Cedar Rapids, IA headquarters. This plant specializes in building large molds up to 50,000 lb for the material handling, medical, transportation, sporting goods, computer and business machines, and appliance end markets. 

Typically, lean manufacturing is something that most people think of as effective only in a mass production environment such as molding. However, Kimm, whose background is in manufacturing, says lean principles work even in a customized, build-it-one-at-a-time setting. "I don't know machining, but I do know manufacturing," Kimm says emphatically, "and lean can work in the moldmaking shop." 

Employee Buy-in 
Lean manufacturing means something different to every company, Kimm comments, adding that it's "like an eternal journey" because it is an ongoing process that must be worked at continually, rather than a means to an end. The first step on this journey was convincing MSI's 80 employees at the Iowa plant that "lean" not only was good for the company, but also would benefit them directly. 

To get buy-in from the employees, Kimm chose a journeyman moldmaker as the champion for lean at MSI. Together, they visited a manufacturing plant in North Carolina that machines custom pumps on a one-at-a-time basis. They looked at how this company implemented lean principles and how those could be translated to MSI's operations. Since moldmaking isn't a high-production environment, Kimm says it was critical to know what aspects of lean could be implemented and what wasn't practical. 

The process was kicked off at MSI in August 2001 after about a year of exploring the principle of lean manufacturing. To initiate the process, the company hired an outside consultant. However, Kimm notes that consultants come with a hefty price tag, and most small companies can't afford them long-term. 

Ridding the production floor of waste has reduced lead times for molds.

Implementing Lean Principles 
The first event, notes Kimm, involved a couple of hours of employee education followed by many hours of hands-on work, such as rearranging the floor of the 35,000-sq-ft facility to begin accommodating lean principles. MSI also got rid of some older equipment that wasn't being used to free up floor space. This meant equipment could be placed in a manner conducive to continuous flow production. 

MSI also relocated a central tool crib that had been positioned away from the moldmakers' work area. "We found that the toolmakers were making a 20-minute trip to the tool crib several times a day, so we decentralized the tool crib and put things closer to the moldmakers," explains Kimm. "The parts the guys use on an everyday basis went to the moldmakers, rather than them going to the parts." 

Every machine's placement was examined and the question was asked, "Why is this here?" Since implementing its lean principles, MSI is getting more "departmentalized," notes Kimm. "Everything has a purpose and place. We opened up at least 10 percent of our plant space right away. Before, we thought we had to put an addition on the building. Lean principles helped us discover space we didn't know we had. That was the immediate result we saw." 

Currently, Kimm is working on implementing a kanban system for tool cutters, which will allow inventories of cutters to be easily replenished based on demand. In addition, the company has focused on eliminating waste using Toyota's recognized Seven Forms of Waste: 

1. Overproducing.
2. Waiting.
3. Transporting.
4. Processing itself.
5. Stock in hand.
6. Unnecessary motion.
7. Producing defective goods. 

MSI is also looking at the five Ss as outlined in lean philosophy: Simplify the work area by keeping only what's needed in that area; straighten and organize so that all workpieces are identified and put away in specific areas that workers can easily find; scrub the area clean; stabilize and maintain the area; and sustain the discipline needed to maintain established procedures. 

Seeing Results 
Concentrating on ridding the production floor of waste has helped MSI reduce its lead times for molds even more. Recently, one customer needed two molds that required 450 hours each to build, and it needed them in 16 working days. "We took on the project because we were confident that we could meet that schedule," Kimm says. He notes that as soon as MSI gets the lean process defined at its Iowa facility, it plans to implement lean at its other plants in Arkansas and South Carolina, where another 45 are employed. 

Kimm comments that it doesn't take long to realize the benefits of lean manufacturing, but the effort to maintain it is continuous. "Once you get people [to accept lean], you can't let them let down," says Kimm. "The guys are seeing results, and are now saying their jobs are easier. But this is just our initial start on the journey." 

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