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How could you grow your business by roughly 20% per year over the last four years without adding machines or people? Increase efficiency at the same time.Pelican Products (Torrance, CA), a manufacturer of protective cases and lighting equipment, has done just that—increase the number of parts it injection molds at its California headquarters without enlarging its machinery or personnel footprint—with the productivity gains most evident in its bottom line.
October 13, 2009
7 Min Read
How could you grow your business by roughly 20% per year over the â€¨last four years without adding machines or people? Increase efficiency â€¨at the same time.
Pelican Products (Torrance, CA), a manufacturer of protective cases and lighting equipment, has done just that—increase the number of parts it injection molds at its California headquarters without enlarging its machinery or personnel footprint—with the productivity gains most evident in its bottom line.
“I think the overall strategy has been grow and keep your overhead,” explains Shailesh Bambardekar, director of operations at Pelican. “Don’t allow your overhead to grow at the same ratio your revenue is growing. Then your profit continues to grow. We’re just getting more out of what we have every year, and that’s the key.”
At this point, what the company has in Torrance is a total of 200,000 ft2, with 120,000 ft2 of that dedicated to manufacturing, housing 22 injection molding machines, which range in size from 50-1800 tons, with all but one from Milacron. To ensure it maximizes its output, the company adopted its own version of Toyota Production System (TPS), including kanban inventory control and regular kaizen events. The kaizen events typically take one week, including a presentation of findings.
Spearheading improvement of the various cells are the workers that staff them. “The ideas for the continuous improvement come from the people who work in the particular area,” Bambardekar says. “So obviously, whatever they’re doing, they want to do it better, and they think they can do it better and then they work on it.”
To increase the likelihood of improvement, Pelican provides the workers necessary resources, including time, freeing them from their work for the event. After presenting findings to the executive team, a continuous improvement protocol kicks in, including one-week, 30-day, and 90-day follow-ups. Since all the ideas likely can’t be implemented in the same week, a to-do list is created and posted in the work area, mapping out the changes. After 30 days, Bambardekar has his own review, seeing if the list is being implemented or if resources are needed.
Better, faster mold changes
Pelican’s business is split roughly 70:30 between protective cases, which are used by the defense industry (among others), and flashlights, including specially designed lights for law enforcement. Both product lines have a variety of models, and within those a range of colors, so that Pelican estimates it has more than 1000 SKUs with around 120 product families. In spite of the complexity of its workload, Pelican has streamlined production and staging through a variety of measures.
The chief reason it has grown its business without having to add machines has been the development of a novel mold-changing technique. Four years ago, Bambardekar estimates tool changes took 8 hours—when MPW visited recently that number had been cut to 15-20 minutes. It’s quite a feat, especially considering the size of the tools. “They used to keep a day’s worth of inventory here,” Bambardekar says. “When you can change a mold in 15 minutes, you don’t need to keep inventory.”
Pelican’s systems center on heavy-duty carts with rollers. The carts, when attached to a press, automatically center on the machine, with the tool rolling off the cart into the machine thanks to rollers that have been added between the platens. Instead of a central area, most molds are stored on a rack next to the machine they run on. Bambardekar estimates that the company has close to 200 active molds, 20% of which are run every day. To maximize production, the company stages lights and cases that are the same color so there isn’t machine downtime during purging. “If a machine has eight different SKUs, and two of them are yellow in color, and the rest are black,” Bambardekar says, “I want to make sure all the black are done in sequence.”
Feeling the flow
As part of the modified TPS system, Pelican has arranged production for workflow. Raw material is brought into the back of the plant, molding is in the center, and secondary operations, including decoration, assembly, and packaging, are in the front. This last area includes a 15,000-ft2 assembly section dedicated to the flashlight products.
The front flashlight area is where the light and all its components—including the body, shroud, and lens, which are molded onsite—come together. When MPW visited, Pelican was assembling a new light developed in conjunction with the Los Angeles Police Dept. Its specifications included rechargeability, high impact strength, and fire resistance. The end result is a Xenoy PBT body with nylon lens for a finished product that weighs 10 oz with its lithium-ion battery. Nearby a bright green light was being hot stamped with “NYC Transit.”
As lights are completed (which happens often—a flashlight is finished every 13-20 seconds) and part stock diminished, a pickup order goes out to replenish a cell, utilizing a barcode-based inventory system.
In between molding and assembly, the company maintains a buffer storage area, stocking parts for the three flagship flashlights and the LAPD product. The lights have four primary colors, with custom hues available, while the cases have five primary colors and some custom colors as well.
Where the company can automate it has, bearing in mind one principle. “Our automation philosophy is a little different,” Bambardekar says. “We automate for repeatability and consistency, not to reduce headcount.” As an example, he cites the o-ring that all the lights have. Pelican attempted to automate that, but found that “human beings can make adjustments that robots can’t” and opted to stay with more-consistent human o-ring insertion.
The final cogs in Pelican’s efficiency machine involve production planning, with two key investments: one human and one software. In July 2008, Pelican invested $7.5 million on an SAP ERP system. This program has allowed all of Pelican’s companies to go “live” (the company has a presence in Australia, Canada, Spain, New Zealand, Japan, and China). It has also contracted the capacity of a German firm, which it now figures into its global output.
“Our planning horizon is 32 hours,” Bambardekar says. "So today we freeze the plan for the next 32 hours, and every morning the requirements are generated by the ERP system, the planners look at them, and then they sequence them to make sure they’re done in the most efficient manner without a lot of waste. You can’t plan for one week because you’re taking orders in every day and requirements change every day.”
As part of the human-planning element, Pelican added a sales and operation planner to “take the element of surprise out of planning,” according to Bambardekar. The hire was actually an internal one, with Bambardekar “stealing” the person from Pelican’s IT department.
Given the company’s success, some might think they’re in the market for some equipment, but if you’re looking to sell Pelican some machinery, wait until they call you. “We basically want to run every machine 24/7 before we’d actually purchase more capacity,” Bambardekar says. “We want to utilize our available capacity to 100%.” It’s on its way, transitioning from 24/5 work three years ago to 24/7 production over the last year-and-a-half on cases.
It’s no secret that the cost of manufacturing in the U.S. is higher than in many parts of the world, and that fact is particularly true in the Golden State. If manufacturing is to remain viable in places like Torrance, processors might be wise to follow Pelican’s example. “People often wonder how we can prosper in Southern California,” Bambardekar says. Motioning toward the well-oiled flow of the assembly area, he answers the question himself. “This is one way we can compete with China.” —Tony Deligio
Only using automation where it can free workers for more value-added work, Pelican added this six-axis Fanuc robot to remove runners from a case.
Pelican Products’ global headquarters in Torrance, CA covers 200,000 ft2, including 120,000 ft2 of manufacturing.
Pelican’s watertight cases, which are used by the defense industry among others, feature a lifetime warranty.
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