Time for some fundamentally good ideas

Juggler and comedian Michael Davis used to start his act by taking a single red rubber ball and tossing it straight up and down in his hand. It wasn't much of a trick, but that was the idea. “I do one thing,” Davis would tell the audience, “and I do it very well.” From there, his act involved juggling chainsaws, axes and bowling balls – simultaneously – but t...


Juggler and comedian Michael Davis used to start his act by taking a single red rubber ball and tossing it straight up and down in his hand. It wasn't much of a trick, but that was the idea. “I do one thing,” Davis would tell the audience, “and I do it very well.” From there, his act involved juggling chainsaws, axes and bowling balls %%MDASSML%% simultaneously %%MDASSML%% but the simple idea that began the act stuck with me. Before you can move on to juggling chainsaws, you have to begin with the fundamentals.

In these times, some manufacturers have seen the need to cut back and retrench. Others are seizing the opportunity to retool and to rethink their operation. Getting back to fundamentals seems to be a fundamentally good idea.

Let's start with maintenance. What is your scheduled equipment maintenance practice? If we assume for a minute that break-fix doesn't count as a maintenance strategy (and it doesn't) then what plan do you have in place to keep your equipment up and operating. If you can't think of it as maintenance, think of it as worker's compensation for your machinery. You wouldn't allow your employees to do a job injured or tired. Why would you allow your machine to operate that way?

If one of those equipment categories that needs attention is motors, then is this a good time to do an analysis of the energy savings that would come with replacing motors. An important stat that I've often heard repeated is that about 2% of the total cost of ownership of a motor is its purchase price; 97% is the energy it uses. If you can reduce the cost of that 97% by 20% or more, does it make sense to take a look at your motors?

That brings you to a fresh look at your overall electrical system. Some people I've talked with say replacing fluorescents with T5 or T8 bulbs can make a huge difference in energy consumption in any facility. Another place to look is more energy-efficient ballasts.

Energy continues to be the single greatest variable in costs in a facility. We've seen energy prices stabilize in the last six months; certainly the summer of 2009 looks to be far less volatile than in 2008. But the lessons of last year should still be fresh in our minds. Is there greater urgency to cut 20% of your energy costs when gas is $4.50 a gallon than it is at $2.25? This is our continuing issue on energy: we conserve only when the prices get past a certain point. If you think energy providers haven't taken note of that, you're wrong.

In my economics class in college, I learned that consumers don't just affect demand; they can also affect supply. With products, it explains why we're all not still driving Edsels. With commodities, it means we can choose to use fewer or the resource without affecting production output.

All of this requires measurement of your systems and your output. While automation itself has made many tasks easier and has streamlined your operation, the areas I'm really excited about are the improved diagnostics and system analysis available on the market today. Managing what you measure is a cliche, but we can all use a good cliche now and then. System analysis gives plant managers the knowledge they need to identify problems and to solve them quickly. Which brings us to another cliche: time is money.

Right now, we have time. These are the times when that time can be turned into better operating plans, into better production systems, into better training for our employees. When we were running our plants flat out three years ago, we didn't have the time to deal with these issues. That time is now. We want to be ready when manufacturing improves. We need to be ready.

In all of the areas we talk about each month, from proper lubrication techniques to the best way to manage your maintenance crib to the newest automation equipment, the goal is to take costs out of your plant floor without affecting output. If there are other factors that have lowered your output, then this is a good time to re-examine your operation to find where the process can be improved.

In the end, it may look like you're juggling chainsaws, but for you, it will be as easy as tossing a single ball up and down. You'll have mastered the fundamentals.

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