Manufacturing, by design

A true team concept lets Fluke Corporation put “life” into product lifecycle management.

By Bob Vavra May 25, 2012

Mention the concept of product lifecycle management (PLCM) and you see heads nodding. Manage a product’s journey at every step from design to obsolescence? Of course! Great idea! We do that. We do do that, right?

When you throw theory or software at an idea like PLCM, solutions come quicker than implementation. In the end, what matters in PLCM is not the beginning, middle, or end of a manufacturing process, but how those phases of life connect.

“People think it’s an easy process. It’s not. It’s a challenge,” said Kristi Mosman, vice president of North American Operations for Fluke Corporation, Everett, Wash. The challenge for Mosman, and for Fluke’s design and marketing teams, is to combine those phases into a single manufacturing process from bright idea to final shipment.

To do that, Mosman said, requires a change from the usual thinking about product design. “We have a direct connection with the business units,” she said. “We see everything that’s coming down the pike. We have a (manufacturing) team looking at the lifecycle management of components.”

With Fluke’s single-piece flow manufacturing process, the goal is to put all of the pieces of a given device in front of the assembler as they flow through to completion, one unit at a time, ensuring quality and efficiency.

Fluke’s manufacturing floor changes constantly, as cross-functional teams hold continuous Kaizens, adding new production cells and updating old ones to improve efficiency, decrease footprint, and increase output. “It’s all pretty nimble,” said Mosman, to the point where the production cell components themselves are on wheels.

A change of process

The key to Fluke’s product lifecycle management is the incorporation of all disciplines throughout the manufacturing process. “We have design engineers, manufacturing engineers, and new product manufacturing engineers. They all work together all the time,” Mosman said.

Product design “is never thrown over the wall,” she added. “We do Kaizens before we start. We create a standard process that also goes upstream. We design productivity into the process upfront. Our engineers are very keen on that.”

The angled hallways and aisles at Fluke’s Everett plant can be a challenge to navigate, but that doesn’t keep communication from happening. “The design team is on the manufacturing floor all the time. The business unit manager is on the floor,” Mosman said.

Mosman credits this move toward face-to-face, cross-functional manufacturing to “DBS,” the Danaher Business System initiated by Fluke’s corporate parent more than a decade ago. “When we started to do Kaizens, a lot of the lines (between business units) became blurry,” Mosman said. “It brought a lot of cohesiveness. Quality and productivity were driven upstream.”

And what drives quality and productivity? “The most important person on the floor is the person doing the manufacturing,” said Mosman. “People on the floor really have a voice. Engineering doesn’t think about not including manufacturing. It’s just not in the cards.”

Part of that is rooted in the way Fluke approaches DBS. “It isn’t just a management system,” says Mosman, “it’s part of our culture.” At the highest level, DBS provides a set of tools and processes to drive continuous improvement at all levels of the company. Kaizen and 5S are some of the most common tools used by DBS teams, as are everyday ingrained practices such as “the Five Whys” that help associates get to the root cause of an issue.

Pilot readiness

Even when design and manufacturing have been cooperating throughout the early stages of a new product, there still comes a point at which someone actually has to manufacture it. Fluke has instituted a program called Pilot Readiness, a sort of spring training for manufacturing where every member of the team tests the new manufacturing process before it goes into formal production.

“We run a cell with a test unit. The production team gets the last say on how the cell is put together,” said Mosman. “The thing about Kaizens is that once you do one, you want to do another one. We used to wait for the Big Bang. What we found is that we get a little better every time along the way. It keeps us on the path of continual improvement.”

Facilities and manufacturing

Another unique aspect of the Fluke manufacturing process is the degree to which the facilities maintenance team is both involved and relied on, to keep the process running smoothly. For that, Mosman turns to Grace Giorgio, Fluke’s corporate EHS/facilities/maintenance manager.

“Every member of the facilities team treats everyone else in the plant like a customer,” Giorgio said. “We are here to meet their needs, in a way that is really unique compared to other places I’ve been. Our staff is committed to customer service.”

“The facilities team is always on the floor, redesigning work benches, improving lighting systems, maintaining equipment, and driving safety,” Mosman added. “The operators know these guys well.”

The Fluke facilities team also accounts for occupational health and safety. Prior to joining Fluke, Giorgio spent the majority of her career with the Washington State OSHA department. “Safety is a core principle. It’s part of the culture here,” she said. “Not like at some facilities I saw during my time with OSHA, where safety was an overlooked cost right up until the point where someone got hurt.”

Connecting the phases of PLCM

By looking at product development and facilities management as an interconnected system instead of discrete steps, Fluke achieves broad engagement across functional disciplines. From design to manufacture, the person using the product and the person manufacturing it are taken into consideration.

But problems can still arise—and solving them is the real test of the system. No matter how well design, manufacturing, and facilities work together on new product integration, “when the team works so hard on the front end and then we can’t ship the product because there’s a problem somewhere else in the process, we lose all that momentum,” said Mosman. “The maintenance team understands the importance of on-time delivery.”

“If we have a gen-set go down, that costs us thousands of dollars,” said Giorgio. “I can’t go in and tell Kristi that we had to shut down production because my team didn’t watch that gen-set more closely.” So Giorgio’s staff keeps busy with both proactive maintenance and manufacturing customer service.

“Facilities and manufacturing operations really are a cohesive unit here,” she added. “My team knows what they have to do when a production cell moves. We know the timetable and we do what we need to do to move the electrical or set up the ergonomics.”

That point was brought home when Mosman and Giorgio conducted a tour of the Fluke facility. In pointing to one cell, Mosman talked about the operator efficiencies built in, allowing three operators to easily maneuver within the space. “It’s all about creating flow, creating dynamic movement within the cell,” she said.

And Giorgio added, “And it’s ergonomically better for the employee.”

Author Bio: Bob is the Content Manager for Plant Engineering.