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April 1, 2002

8 Min Read
Q&A: Can lean principles work in moldmaking?

Editor's note: Ron E. Pleasant is the president of Pleasant Precision Inc., a moldmaker in Kenton, OH that also makes and sells the RoundMate unit-frame tooling systems. Pleasant also is the change agent at PPI, galvanizing the cost-reducing, profit-boosting transformation of his company into a lean moldmaker. Recently, IMM's Carl Kirkland got Pleasant's take on implementing lean principles in a moldmaking shop.

IMM: When did you hear about lean manufacturing?

Pleasant: At an IMM management conference last January [IMM's Molder's Management Conference, "Creating A Value-Centric Organization," Jan. 10-12, 2001, Garden Grove, CA]. There were two speakers in one session on lean manufacturing. That's the first time I'd ever heard the words. I started reminiscing about a book I'd read some time ago called The Machine that Changed the World.

The authors of that book [James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones] also wrote Lean Thinking, which the speakers at the conference mentioned. After the conference, I picked up a copy of Lean Thinking. I couldn't put it down.

At first I thought, How does this apply? The authors don't know a thing about moldmaking. But as I read through all the diverse case histories in the book I began to realize that moldmaking is not all that unusual. I started to draw parallels. Eventually I said, This is talking to me! I knew that I had to get my guys up to speed on this.

IMM: How did you start?

Pleasant: I rounded up as many copies of Lean Thinking as I could, got together a core team, mostly first-tier management folks, and told them we were going to do something unusual. We were going to study Lean Thinking—not just read it. There were reading assignments, review discussions, and open-book tests on how it relates to us. After a relatively short while we reached a point where we decided it was time to bring the rest of our people in.

We were about two-thirds of the way through the book when we decided it was time we made a plan based on the five basic lean principles [specify value, identify the value stream, flow, pull, and perfection]. The next step was to determine a single project we could work on to demonstrate that it could work for us.

IMM: What was that?

Pleasant: Unlike many other moldmakers, we have a commercial product line, and that's an advantage. So we focused on something that would be easy and that we were fairly certain would be a winner—our RoundMate Systems. We build about 500 of them a year. RoundMate inserts were the low-hanging fruits we went after first.

IMM: What is the major impediment to flow in moldmaking?

Pleasant: Fifty percent of mold build time is setup. You can go easily to any CNC machine and look just at spindle run time. Even though the machine seems busy, the actual spindle run time is around 20 to 30 percent. In a mold shop it's the availability of that machine that's the magic. It's all about setups.

IMM: How did you plan to measure your success?

Pleasant: Through inventory. We had about 600 RoundMate inserts in inventory—$500,000 in raw materials and finished goods in boxes that we just kept replenishing. We always tended to make 40 to 50 inserts in a batch to keep them on hand for whenever we needed them. We never did four or five of them just when we needed them because it took hours to set up and run them. We were adding $15/insert more in interest cost on that inventory—a tangible number—not to mention the invested labor. That's a huge amount of cash just sitting on a shelf.

IMM: How long did it used to take to make the inserts?

Pleasant: Normally it took us four weeks to get them done. We did a value stream analysis. It had probably 200 line items with highlighted sections that were actually value-added procedures—that is, procedures that actually got the inserts made. The rest was just wasted time and paper pushing.

We immediately saw where we could spin things up in a much shorter amount of time simply by not having our machines spread out all over the shop.

Imagine—12 years of manufacturing done the wrong way. We just didn't know. We thought that if we could reduce insert production from four weeks to five days we could call it a success. We could reduce inventory by $100,000 and interest by $10,000 in one year alone.

IMM: You actually considered moving your machines around?

Pleasant: Yes. We shot ourselves in the foot. Our old, smaller plant was a lot better for lean manufacturing. Our new facility is huge. We started talking about moving the machines to make inserts in a single-piece flow cell. 

IMM: How did people on the shop floor react to that idea?

Pleasant: There was some resistance. Some of our people definitely did not want to move a grinder next to a mill. That's why upfront communication is so important. If you don't have a clear vision of where you're headed, people say, "This is going to fail."

The next week we had an order for inserts, and some of these guys rallied. They crammed the order through in five days without moving the equipment. "Look," they said. "We don't need lean."

I said, "OK, but now I want it all the time."

They realized they couldn't sustain it if they had to keep running from one end of the shop to the other. Then I said, "What about all the other round products we make? I'm going to expect them all in five days." They realized that moving the equipment absolutely had to happen.

IMM: How did you go about it? Wasn't it costly?

Pleasant: We painstakingly went through the drawings with everybody. I supported every one of their complaints and I made a promise: If we can't make them [the inserts] in five days, we'll move the equipment back. Also, if the cells don't work the way we want, we'd move the equipment back. We calculated that the cost of moving the machines was practically nothing when compared to the savings. The cost of the move would pay for itself in less than a year. 

IMM: Have you benefited from implementing lean principles yet?

Pleasant: We've already reduced insert inventory by $150,000.

IMM: You accomplished your first project without hiring a lean consultant?

Pleasant: Yes. We did send one of our designers to an LEI [Lean Enterprise Institute, Brookline, MA, www.lei.org] conference recently. He learned a better method of laying out a value stream map. It's not an easy thing to do. That's why they say in Lean Thinking to pick one thing to work on first, something that's easy to do.

We chose the RoundMate insert. But the insert is only one of 2000 parts in the RoundMate system. We've got to continue to work on it, but we don't have to go through the education process on the basic principles.

IMM: Do you intend to implement these lean principles in your moldmaking activities?

Pleasant: Absolutely, but it will be tough to do. People who read Lean Thinking may think it's only about doing mass production. Moldmaking is different. Every job is different.

In moldmaking we're looking at the standard work we can put in a cell. Take mold bases. We don't buy ours. Mold bases come in different sizes, but they are somewhat similar enough that you could wrap a cell around one.

Then there are the cavity blocks that fit into mold bases. They tend to look very much alike—they just involve different placement, depending on what the cavity looks like. Cavities themselves are all different, but they are made by similar processes that I can visualize being put into a cell.

IMM: What will the impact be on your human resources?

Pleasant: The key thing in lean moldmaking is that the people in a cell have to be cross trained. When you're doing one-piece flow, if someone doesn't show up for work who works in a cell, the cell can still function if everyone is cross trained.

IMM: It sounds like you've got a lot to do to continue implementing lean. Pleasant: We're going into tough discussions trying to design full-blown cells for moldmaking. It's the next step. But we still have the success of our star project driving us. We're following the principles religiously.

This is difficult to do when you're busy, and we've seen business start to come back. But these sorts of things are impossible to do when there's no work in the system. Delivery is the big issue we're all grappling with—the burden is the cost. Our customers are being relentless with the cost pressures.

When you start looking at muda [waste] in moldmaking, it is huge. These lean principles are true principles for identifying and eliminating muda. We're just getting started, but we'll be working them over and over again to continuously improve our value.

For another view of working with lean principles in the tool shop, see "Moldmaker Goes Lean," March 2002 IMM, pp. 51-52.

Contact information
Pleasant Precision Inc.,
Kenton, OH
Ron E. Pleasant
(419) 675-0556



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