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Chicago Faucets Goes Back to the Fundamentals with Flexible Manufacturing Cells
Sometimes the greatest innovations come from fulfilling the most basic needs. It may not seem that way in a time period oversaturated with countless business reports and consumer research studies, but according to Thomas Schlaefer, general manager at Chicago Faucets in Milwaukee, Wis., the fundamentals for customer satisfaction have remained largely unchanged since the company’s founding in 1901.
“For a long time, manufacturers have known the solutions: small batch sizes, short runs, minimal setups and so forth, but these outcomes could not be achieved in a cost-effective manner. Today there are real, affordable solutions for companies to accomplish this.”
“At the most basic level, customers want value, durability and reliability from a commercial faucet. We got that right in 1913 with the invention of the Quaturn cartridge, and that design has been a core competency in the development of every faucet since. What has changed, though, is how our business must operate to meet customer demand. Globalization has fostered a surge in market competitiveness. As one of only two companies that still casts lead-free brass faucets here in the U.S., we realize that our manufacturing processes needed to be highly adaptive and productive to deliver cost-competitive products with the highest degree of customer satisfaction,” said Schlaefer.
Headquartered in Des Plaines, Ill., Chicago Faucets operates out of several facilities throughout the Midwest, including an assembly and distribution facility in Michigan City, Ind.; a precision turning facility in Elyria, Ohio; and the manufacturing facility in Milwaukee, where Schlaefer and his team are based. It is here that a major shift in manufacturing capability drove company-wide process changes, helping Chicago Faucets promote and enhance the fundamentals of customer satisfaction.
“Implementing this technology has changed our mentality from reactive to proactive and has enabled us to replace dozens of manual machining centers with just five high-performance horizontal CNCs.”
“For a long time, manufacturers have known the solutions: small batch sizes, short runs, minimal setups and so forth,” said Schlaefer. “But these outcomes could not be achieved in a cost-effective manner. Today there are real, affordable solutions for companies to accomplish this. Traditional, inflexible manufacturing is simply no longer viable in our type of industry [low-volume, high-product mix], which is why we’ve invested in two automated pallet-handling cells from Makino. Implementing these flexible manufacturing cells has changed our mentality from reactive to proactive and has enabled us to replace dozens of manual machining centers with just five high-performance horizontal CNCs.”
BUILDING A VISION
Like Schlaefer, Chris Schlessinger, Chicago Faucets’ engineer manager, is no stranger to the machine shop. Entering manufacturing at age 16, Schlessinger has now worked in production machining for 26 years. For a time, he thought his knowledge of machine types and styles was pretty thorough. One day, about 10 years ago, all that changed.
“The first time that I saw an automated machining system, I knew it was a game-changer. The capabilities were clearly beyond what any manual system could achieve. But turning that vision into reality has been a long, challenging process with plenty of obstacles along the way,” Schlessinger said.
Like many manufacturers, Chicago Faucets over time found itself increasing competition against products produced in low-labor-cost countries. Its internal processes were typical of that time period—setup intensive, manual equipment that required lead-times of two to three weeks. Low-volume parts could take far longer.
“The first time that I saw an automated system, the ideas started flowing, and I could see that this type of manufacturing went beyond just impressive technology—it was a game-changer.”
Unpredictable customer demand was a constant issue. A shift in product mix or volumes would drive more frequent setups, hurting output and productivity. For the sake of efficiency, the plant attempted to run similar parts back to back, which required only minor tooling changes between these comparable parts rather than a full setup. But this setup added even more restraints to part selection.
The plant-modernization process shifted into high gear with the purchase of four horizontal machining centers from Makino. These HMCs significantly improved daily output, mostly by shifting higher volume products off smaller, older machining centers. However, they did not entirely solve the issue of setups.
“Technology is driving a real-time, data-driven environment,” said Schlessinger. “In the manufacturing world, this means producing parts just in time. We tried to achieve this on our stand-alone machines, but we were never satisfied with the speed of reaction—we always got caught in the dilemma of needing multiple parts from one machine, while an adjacent machine sat idle or produced low-priority parts.
“I came to realize that the missing piece of the puzzle was flexibility. But I couldn’t figure out how to justify an investment based on something so intangible. There’s no ‘flexibility’ box in a traditional ROI spreadsheet.”
The issue was of critical importance for Chicago Faucets, which has a highly diverse catalogue of products. While all of the company’s castings are created from lead-free brass, the size of casting and machining requirements vary widely. There really was no “standard” part.
Determined to create a highly flexible machine shop, the plant leadership team set out to identify a machine tool provider with proven expertise. They worked the list down to three qualified suppliers and ultimately chose Makino, based largely on its all-inclusive approach to flexible manufacturing cells. The Makino Machining Complex (MMC2) pallet-handling system was selected for its strength in high-mix applications, precisely what Chicago Faucets needed to accomplish.
“We were new to automation, so we wanted to be sure that we had experienced and reliable support from a supplier,” said Schlessinger. “There are other good automation providers out there, and many well-known machine tool companies, but Makino was the only supplier we looked at that had a ‘wall to wall’ solution. To us, it was common sense—go with the single-source provider to avoid any potential obstacles that come from working with multiple companies.”
CHANGING THE MIND-SET
Typical of manufacturers, Chicago Faucets requires a three- to four-year payback on factory equipment investments. Despite the struggle to fully “monetize” the benefits of flexibility, the project met the company’s financial requirements through increased machine performance and improved utilization rates. Flexibility, in the end, was largely an unquantified benefit that came along with the rest of the package.
The first MMC2 system was installed in 2010 and incorporated two existing Makino horizontal CNCs. The installation was well organized and timely. The flexible manufacturing cell went into use quickly and was set up as a work cell for one operator.
“Within the first few months of operating the cell, our analysis revealed that the return on investment was much shorter than indicated by our original assumptions—less than two years.”
“We knew there was more there, but we couldn’t quantify it on paper,” said Schlessinger. “Within the first few months of operating the cell, our analysis revealed that the return on investment was much shorter than indicated by our original assumptions—less than two years. That change in derived benefit was the added value of flexibility. Due to our broad catalogue of products, improvements in flexibility were driving dynamic changes in efficiency.”
The much-debated value of added flexibility was now settled. Though hard to quantify in advance, the daily and hourly benefits of a flexible build capability were now clear to everyone in the organization. The discussion shifted from “if” there would be a benefit to how best to capitalize on the improvements.
One clear benefit was a reduction in direct labor content. Although cycle times had not changed, the efficiencies of a multi-unit work cell and greatly reduced setup times created an environment where the operator could make better use of their time and experience fewer delays.
“On-time deliveries [to the downstream process] increased significantly, enabling greater output of the exact products needed that day.”
“Breaking down the internal discomfort for change was a big challenge, but it was a critical step forward in helping others see and understand the bigger vision,” explained Schlessinger. “Once the flexibility was there, we spent a lot less time chasing individual orders and more time managing the total flow of product through the shop. With the MMC2, the machines were no longer waiting on castings, and operators better managed work queues. Machine utilization increased and priorities could now be changed with two clicks of a mouse. On-time deliveries [to the downstream process] increased significantly, enabling greater output of the exact products needed that day.”
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
The next big step in 2012 was the installation of a second MMC2, adjacent to the first unit. This machine shop “city” brought together the many production elements that previously were spread all over the plant into a compact, efficient space. Everything needed for efficient machining was now in close proximity.
This consolidation of disparate parts had many additional benefits including improved visual management, reduced walking and quicker parts retrieval. It also sparked a new mantra on the shop floor: “If a part can run in the cell, it will run in the cell.”
“The first MMC2 cell was relatively easy because we used all of the same fixtures and tooling,” said Schlessinger. “However, the next stage of implementation required us to break down barriers of conventional processing methods that some of our operators had been doing for decades.”
This effort required machine-shop leadership to alter operator expectations and practices. For example, some items had a lathe operation in their routing because essentially that’s the way it had always been done. But in fact, much of the traditional lathe work could be accomplished on the horizontal CNCs with the proper tooling. The issue was less about cycle time than about part processing—effectively combining operations could eliminate a routing step, a major saving in any manufacturing operation.
“We made it our goal to standardize processing methods by limiting the variety of tools, fixtures and setup operations necessary to produce our full range of parts,” said Pat Hoff, machine shop supervisor, Chicago Faucets. “We also wanted to show operators that there was a way to be agile and still keep up with volume without processing large batches.”
The company was already highly skilled at designing and manufacturing custom tools and fixtures. In fact, nearly 20 years earlier, the company developed, for its own use, a workholding fixture with interchangeable upper and lower fixture jaws. The limitation of the design was that each part required a different set of jaws.
“I couldn’t understand why we would have a unique setup for every part number, especially those that we only produce in low volumes,” said Schlessinger. “So we developed a universal jaw system. Eventually, we’re hoping to have only one set of jaws, requiring no setup changes between part orders at all.”
“Today there are only a small number of parts not running in the flexible manufacturing cells, and our goal is to add these by the end of this year,” said Hoff. “Our original goal was to have 75 to 80 percent of our parts in the pool. So far, we have already achieved over 90 percent. There are still some parts that require secondary machining operations, but we’re working to eliminate that need completely. It’s possible that a few might not fit, but we won’t give up until we try.”
“Tools are lasting about 25 percent longer, and better tool life has also led to average cycle-time reductions.”
Standardization of production processes extends to the company’s tool catalogue as well. Prior to its investment in flexible manufacturing cells, the company had nearly 300 tool varieties running on the Makino horizontals. By designing custom combination tooling, Chicago Faucets has since reduced that number by more than 100 and is working to be down below 150 tools by the end of the year. Once at this level, the “standard” tool set can be incorporated into each CNC.
“The performance capability of the Makino equipment has given us an opportunity be creative with our approach to tooling,” said Hoff. “Tools are lasting about 25 percent longer, and better tool life has also led to average cycle-time reductions. These capabilities are just a small sample of some of the unexpected benefits and efficiency improvements that have resulted from our move to flexible manufacturing cells.”
REALIGNING WORKFLOW EFFICIENCY
Another unanticipated benefit of the Makino MMC2 equipment has been improved workflow efficiency. In a recent example, operators noticed a load imbalance with long runtime and short runtime components between the two cells. This disparity impacted the machine utilization, especially where one or more of the machines is starved for parts, idly waiting. The solution came from a thorough review of part cycle times and a reallocation of parts between the two cells to achieve a more uniform average cycle time. The rebalance has resulted in tangible productivity gains.
“Since purchasing the MMC2 systems, we’ve learned that automation is a project with no completion date,” said Hoff. “Operator experiences and automated reporting features are helping us identify areas where we can further improve efficiency. We’re amazed at the long list of small improvements that add up to big gains in productivity.
“Without Makino automation, we would have never identified many of these product flow issues. Everyone here can now see these improvements hit the bottom line.”
DRIVING COMPANY-WIDE IMPROVEMENTS
Within the last year, Chicago Faucets has deployed a barcode-based order-tracking system generated with its ERP system to monitor and react to customer purchases. This software supports the closed-loop system for product manufacture and assembly from casting to final order delivery.
“Within minutes, we now see customer demand [consumption] and can react quickly to large increases or decreases,” said Schlessinger. “The MMC2 cells are at their best in this environment because they can provide both flexibility and horsepower we need to mirror output with demand. When we need to be aggressive about producing high volumes of a few parts, we can. When we need to produce a wide variety of low-volume parts, we can. These capabilities work seamlessly with our order-tracking system.
“The warehouse doesn’t focus primarily on inventory levels because the shop can generally react quickly enough to satisfy demand, typically delivering [shippable] products within 24 hours. Stock levels are thereby kept small. When a shortage does occur, the event triggers a review of stocking levels to determine if the outage could reasonably have been prevented. Even the most flexible systems eventually reach an outer limit.”
An integral part of these improvements is the company’s tool and die department, which supports the flexible manufacturing cells. Rick Straszewski, tool and die maker at Chicago Faucets, discussed the department’s recent acquisition of a Makino PS95 vertical machining center that has helped the company increase capacity for casting development.
“We saw the evolution of the production machining area and felt the resulting increase in demand, so we had to develop a means for greater throughput in the tool room,” said Straszewski. “Our new PS95 has given us the rigidity to handle more aggressive cuts in hard materials as well as the work-zone capacity to produce both halves of a tool in one setup. The combination of these features, as well as enhanced speed and power, has made processes significantly faster at the same or better quality.”
Of the new features available through the PS95, the tool and die department expressed particular appreciation for the machine’s through-spindle coolant technology. Straszewski and others have used this feature to improve the production of straight through-hole features, eliminating previous pecking operations for faster production. In one corebox component, cycle times were reduced more than 50 percent.
“The standard features of the PS95 are exceptional, and the more we become accustomed to them, the more we find ways to improve processes,” said Straszewski. “Makino’s engineers have also been supportive in walking us through new features and answering questions immediately. So while the technology has required a slight adjustment, the support we’ve received has made the process much easier to manage.”
MADE IN AMERICA
Despite Chicago Faucets’ innovative approach to company-wide integration of automation, the staff maintains that it’s not reinventing lean, but simply fulfilling the long-standing ambitions of many companies in the manufacturing industry. Reflecting on how difficult it once was to align production with customer demands, Schlessinger offers other manufacturers some experiential advice: “Think about how different your machine shop would run if you could make any part on any day with minimal setup.”
“Be open to change, look for secondary benefits and optimize the system rather than the machine. Everything else will come with effort and perseverance.”
He explained, “Flexible automation requires an upfront investment—this cannot be denied. But instead of spending months or years trying to analyze every nuance of the system to a 100 percent confidence level, we’ve learned to accept that there are many unknowns and also accept that a 100 percent confidence is truly unrealistic. Be open to change, look for secondary benefits and optimize the system rather than the machine. Everything else will come with effort and perseverance.”
The efficiencies gained through automation have helped Chicago Faucets compete effectively with offshore producers. The company has adapted to globalization by improving speed of response, flexibility and labor-to-equipment ratios. “We can’t compete on hourly wages, nor do we want to,” said Schlaefer. “We’re proud of the dedicated, long-tenured employees at this plant. They make a good living, and the company benefits from their focused contributions every hour of every day.
“Our ‘killer app’ is a rapid response to customer demand. This is something that no overseas competitor can match. Makino automation is one of the building blocks of a manufacturing system that is designed to have as few part restrictions as possible, to clear away obstacles to on-time delivery and to create high-quality products at the exact moment required.”
“Our ‘killer app’ is a rapid response to customer demand. This is something that no overseas competitor can match.”
Schlaefer and his team attest that the Makino MMC2 is a platform that creates the opportunity for success. He explained, “Automation alone solves nothing. Real, lasting improvement demands a complete system of machines, operators, technical support, control systems and plant leadership. But the absence of high-quality equipment is a showstopper. We can’t take credit for the brilliance of the machines themselves, but we put a whole lot of work into everything else that makes them effective.”