The heat is on: Designing Lean manufacturing processes

Watlow is known for its controller systems from Winona, MN; its heaters from St. Louis, Columbia and Hannibal, MO; and its sensors from Richmond, IL. But a little-known fact is the Watlow facility in Batavia, IL is a foundry operation that casts the company’s heater technologies into useful industrial and commercial products.

By Jack Smith, Managing Editor October 15, 2008

Watlow is known for its controller systems from Winona, MN; its heaters from St. Louis, Columbia and Hannibal, MO; and its sensors from Richmond, IL. But a little-known fact is the Watlow facility in Batavia, IL is a foundry operation that casts the company’s heater technologies into useful industrial and commercial products.

From food warmers in the food industry, to biomedical laboratory heaters, to pedestal heaters for semiconductor wafers, Watlow’s Batavia plant casts aluminum parts in its foundry based on customers’ specifications. Chris Baichoo, former director of product management, managed the Batavia plant since 2001 and was promoted to general manager of the Asia region based in Singapore earlier this year. During Baichoo’s time at the facility, quality, on-time delivery, lead times and profitability improved.

Watlow’s Batavia plant combines heaters from the Hannibal or St. Louis plants with its own castings to make functioning parts. “Basically, what we make is heated parts,” said Baichoo. “They have a heater in them, and they have some value-added component. We cast the heater in, or we cut a hole in a cylindrical part and stick a heater in there. We’re leveraging our machine competency, our casting competency and our assembly competency to create heated parts.”

Embracing Lean

When Baichoo started in Batavia, the plant had long lead times and big batches. Scrap was high because if large batches had defects, many parts would require rework. However, soon after his arrival, Baichoo started his team on the journey toward Lean manufacturing. “We embraced Lean around 2001, and started out with what we call our model cells, making parts for the food industry,” he said.

Baichoo soon began to see the results of his team’s Lean efforts. “After we built that one model cell, we then started putting all the cells in place,” said Baichoo. “We cut our lead times from four weeks down to one week. We cut the number of people we used on that one line from six people down to three people. And now we have it down to two people.”

The Watlow plant in Batavia understands that continuous improvement is a critical and necessary part of the Lean journey. “Right now, we do a lot of kaizens — or one-week events,” Baichoo said. “We take three weeks before an event to prepare for it; one week to do the event; and three weeks of follow up. It’s a seven-week cycle.”

During the three-week preparation period, Baichoo readies his team for the kaizen event by proposing several questions:

  • Why are you doing the event?

  • What’s your initial condition?

  • What’s your final condition?

  • What’s your gap analysis?

  • Why are you where you are?

  • How are you going to approach the one week?

  • Are you going to do any rapid experiments to prove things out?

  • What are your rapid experiments?

    • Watlow uses the whole process to help drive improvement during the kaizen. “We collect a lot of data before an event,” Baichoo said. “So, we have a lot of data to make decisions with.”

      After the event, the team identifies the action items list and the information learned during the event. “To the extent you can prepare for it up front, really helps you with how effective you are in that one week,” said Baichoo.

      In that one week, Baichoo said his team will make changes on the plant floor, and maybe try different things out, or do value-stream-mapping on the process. One must understand the initial condition of a process in order to determine its future state. Mastering this relationship enables engineers to leverage the impact of potential process changes.

      An example of how Watlow’s Batavia plant approached these decisions involves a 20-year-old CNC machine. “We were ready to throw it out of the building,” said Baichoo. “We did a TPM (Total Productive Maintenance) event on it. Now, it’s operating at almost 99%. And the replacement cost of that machine would have been around $350,000. It’s still old, so we get a sensor here or a sensor there that goes bad.”

      Understanding the cause and effects of Lean requires viewing the big picture. “We value-stream-map the whole enterprise out. We value-stream it to show where the problem areas are: you may have scrap; you may have high labor costs; you may have poor lead times. We do it by cells at a high level.

      “Then based on that, we pick out where our big opportunities are. Then we put a schedule in for about three to six months saying every month here are the kaizens we will do, based on priority.

      “It’s a progression that you go through. We’ve really seen the benefit of it. We would not be able to be competitive had we been doing things the way we were doing them before.”

      Lean design

      Manufacturing isn’t the only area where Baichoo applies Lean. It works for the design process too. “We applied Lean to the front end of our business from a design and development perspective,” Baichoo said. “We did value-stream-mapping on the design process. We went from a lead time of about 12 weeks to around six weeks.”

      A critical part of streamlining manufacturing operations is determining how to remove obstacles while increasing product output. “We looked at how to do more re-use,” explained Baichoo. “How do we get flow? For example, we have semiconductor parts going through one line; and other less complex parts going through another line. The semiconductor pedestal heater line may take 40 hours. It would be worked on while a second product only taking an hour would sit behind it in queue. So the lead time on the second product would just go through the roof, because it’s sequential. So, we broke the line up into two lines: one for semiconductor, and one for all other,” he said.

      Watlow keeps cranking the non-semiconductor line. “We don’t stop; it will go at its own rate,” Baichoo said. “We created two flow lines instead of one to eliminate where parts backed up that might require only a small amount of design time.”

      Another way Watlow streamlined its design-to-manufacturing process was to add what it calls a “configurator” to its business operating system. Part numbers are based on standardized product lines. Based on customer orders, a one-page specification sheet is populated with physical and electrical parameters such as voltage, wattage, options and other variables. The order shows up on the shop floor, and Watlow can deliver them in about a day. What started out as a business that was 100% custom, is becoming a company that understands the growth that can come from offering quickly and reliably configurable families of products — based closely on what Watlow was making already.

      When it comes to using Lean in design, manufacturing and streamlining the process of getting products from one to the other, Baichoo said it’s a journey, because you start out, and you keep making better iterations. “We don’t limit ourselves to what we can do. We leverage our competencies — we understand castings.”


      When it comes to saving energy and the environment, little things mean a lot — and they add up. “Fans and blowers move the air from the foundry to the other part of the building,” Baichoo said. “We don’t have to heat that part.”

      Watlow remelts as much of its aluminum as possible without affecting quality. In addition to recycling paper and machining chips, Watlow recycles cardboard and metal scrap. “We were throwing it away, and paying for it to be disposed,” said Baichoo. “We are able to add this to all the efforts we are putting forth to help the environment, and in doing so, we help ourselves.”