The 4 Most Underestimated Blockers to Short Lead Times in Manufacturing

03 March 2023

‘Delayed’. This is one of the most fatal words to utter, or conclusions to come to, within the walls of a manufacturing business. 

Regardless of industry, company size or technological offerings, ensuring that lead-times are consistently met is one of the most pivotal and non-negotiable conditions for success. Hitting production time targets holds even greater resonance in our contemporary context, with digitisation providing customers with perpetually easier and faster ways to spend their money.

The decision to stick with pre-existing processes, despite changing commercial contexts, can lead to manufacturing businesses straining around the clock to keep their heads above the water. 

And yet, it is undoubtedly difficult to make the leap away from tried and tested techniques, especially when business prosperity may have depended on these approaches in previous years. From carefully curated excel spreadsheets, to familiar stockholding rhythms, many of the exercises infiltrating every working day can begin to gradually introduce inefficiencies. Furthermore, within the paradigm of these everyday processes, it can be hard to recognise the point at which they become detrimental. 

This article endeavours to illuminate unexpected areas in which your business may be unduly losing on valuable time. We hope that it provides a lens through which you can return to your operations with a fresh perspective. 

1 – Reluctance to Digitise

 

Image Credit: This is Engineering RAEng via. Unsplash

According to The Manufacturing Digital Productivity Report delivered by iBASEt and the Manufacturing Technology Centre, most manufacturing companies still rely on manually updated spreadsheets for close to half of their processes, and physical paper for over a third.

Despite buzzwords like ‘Industry 4.0’ and ‘smart factories’ circling industrial spheres, the reality of day-to-day manufacturing work holds an entirely different face. Indeed, ironically, the pressure to meet rising demand earns businesses limited time to invest in time-consuming onboarding processes and complete redefinition of their operative structure.

One important point is often lost in translation between those advocating for digitisation and those who are more sceptical. Namely, investment in digital solutions can be conducted on a company’s own terms. 

Exploring smart solutions does not mean discarding all priorly established processes and starting from square one. Neither does it entail uncalled for process replacements, or demand the abandonment of profitable procedures. 

As an end-to-end software, AMFG’s workflow and automation MES offers digital solutions at all stages of production. Consider the example of a machine shop finding it difficult to manually quote for customers, and losing out on valuable opportunities as a result. AMFG specialises in offering a new angle from which to approach such problems.

AMFG’s instant quotation and instant ordering features can be configured to precisely match each business’ unique pricing models, offering customers a response in seconds rather than hours or days. Handling the bulk of more simple quote jobs, this machine shop can now recover more time to conduct nuanced analysis for more complex build jobs.

‘Digitisation’ is frequently referred to as an all-encompassing process. It certainly can be one. However, many businesses overlook valuable opportunities for improvements due to the assumption that it must be one.

Establishing a strategic balance between manual and digital systems can powerfully optimise lead-time on an individual level. 

2 – Changing Demand

 

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The variability of demand, both on an individual and a societal level, plays an unsurprisingly large role in determining commercial success. However, navigating this changeability is not as clear cut as labelling increasing demand as ‘positive’ and decreasing demand ‘negative’. 

For many smaller manufacturing businesses, there comes a point when supplies and technological offerings may not align with the demand being received. Learning how to manage available resources and take on work strategically can allow businesses to regain stability. Nonetheless, breaking new ground and attempting to grasp new commercial records is also an essential aspect of achieving growth.

Enterprise level businesses are no freer from the complications catalysed by increasing demand. High-volume processes can spiral out of control when an efficient tracking system is not in place. Take injection moulding, one of the fastest modes of production, with the ability to manufacture finished parts in under two seconds. Operating so quickly and on such a large scale, it can be difficult to maintain control over lead times, especially in the context of climbing demand.

Opting to voluntarily decrease demand presents one route to resolution. In an article for Production Machining, Micro-Matics president Rick Paulson notes that the company “generally avoid[s] super high-quantity RFQs”; “we are not going to tie up most of our machines on one part number to try to compete on a price that we can’t compete on”.

For those who are less eager to reduce sales, however, achieving end-to-end traceability like AMFG’s can provide a powerful route to success.

From darting between different orders and varying lead times, especially hectic when some orders are more important to others, to realising that a particular production requirement has been forgotten, the ability to quickly and easily search for specific job categories on a digital platform can introduce greater simplicity.

3 – Lack of Transparency

 

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Though communication inefficiencies can hamper any business process, such is particularly the case with manufacturing based businesses, operating on multiple verticals and across many stages.

Miscommunication between departments, such as the shop floor team and those responsible for sales, can result in inaccurate order processing, snags in production and, subsequently, delivery delays.

This issue does not pervade producer and consumer relationships alone. Just as impactfully, miscommunication with suppliers can lead to holdups in the arrival of critical production components and materials, further drawing out the production process. 

Adopting a singular digital platform on which to unify various business branches can introduce the transparency necessary to quell misalignment. AMFG allows different employees to understand their exact day-by-day responsibilities and align these with other production teams.

This can span not only the distinct departments of an individual office, but also distributed production centres, unlocking unity on a regional and even a global scale. 

Inefficient communication can spiral into more than just day-to-day inconvenience. The aphorism ‘every penny makes a pound’ resonates here: small instances of misunderstanding can easily build until it’s too late for efficiency to be recovered. 

 

4 – Low Employee Engagement

 

Image Credit: Carlos Aranda via. Unsplash

As with instances of miscommunication, a lack of employee engagement is often overlooked as a blocker to slashing lead times and manufacturing with greater efficiency. Yet, as a study conducted by Gallup reveals, the genuine interest of employees saw a notable 23% rise in productivity, and a 43% increase in turnover for some organisations. 

An unengaged employee is not just occasionally irksome to deal with, but can actively pull back operative effectiveness, no matter how ‘streamlined’ a company’s business processes are. Alternatively, engaged employees are able to draw on a sense of connection with their company and genuine interest in their work, translating into upticks in motivation, productivity, and a willingness to put in the extra work to ensure that operations run smoothly.

One of the central perpetrators of indifferent working habits is the abundance of repetitive processes. Having to complete the same task time and time again offers little mental stimulation, and can even leave operators exhausted before they even come to more engaging matters.

Time-consuming and monotonous tasks take on a parabolic nature – employees are likely to struggle with them when first learning how to do them, yet will become increasingly disconnected with the task as it becomes second nature. Perhaps it is no surprise that low engagement teams suffer from turnover rates up to 43% higher than their engaged counterparts. 

Lack of engagement brings about inefficiencies both directly and indirectly. Operators may find themselves purposefully rushing tasks and moving on to more interesting engagements, an inclination which is unsurprisingly prone to error. On the other hand, repeating the same motions over and over can similarly lead to mistakes, especially when slight deviations in the regular routine must be attended to. 

Aside from the nature of the physical act itself, taking on roles of this kind can detach workers from the wider success of the company. There’s a reason that describing one’s role as a ‘cog in a machine’ often has negative connotations, even, ironically, in machining contexts.  

Humans may not work on auto-pilot effectively. But digital workers can. 

Making use of automation software can help redirect workers to less repetitive and more varied tasks, encouraging curiosity and a greater hunger to improve. To achieve this, it remains important that automation is shaped around pre-existing workforces; AMFG’s soon-to-release autonomous module, for instance, allows users to choose from a broad e-market of digital workers, or even to construct their own bespoke automation formulas. 

With labour shortages continuing to permeate the manufacturing sphere, digital workers can both connect operative gaps whilst also improving workforce retention. With AMFG, automation can not only work for your business, but with your business, too.

 

It’s The Little Things that Count

 

In seeking to slim down lead times and cater to a broader customer base, many companies choose to zone in on the most fundamental building blocks of their operations.

How fast machines are, how regularly warehouses are restocked, and how large an employee base is are all, of course, undeniably important components where process efficiency is concerned.

Yet, it is critical that the less obviously impactful aspects of running a manufacturing business are not overlooked.

From time spent clearing up misconceptions, unexpectedly high order volumes, reluctance of employees and well worn scepticism towards digitisation, the array of factors which are considered when attempting to improve lead times should not be limited if true change is to be sought. 

Enjoyed this? Check out our previous article, ‘What Advantages Do Digital Inventories Offer Over Traditional Warehousing in Manufacturing’.

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