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Eliminating Waste in Precision Machining Processes; The Time is Right for Lean Manufacturing

October 7, 2022by Gerry Dillon

No one has to tell machine shop owners and CNC machinists that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to differentiate their operation in the midst of a precision manufacturing environment that’s experiencing a revolution thanks to evolving technology, new software, and increased connectivity. Add in changing consumer preferences and government policy, and it seems everyone in our industry is feeling the pressure almost daily! Most recently, the economic slowdown we are facing and potential recession mean the months ahead for our nation’s economy and business will remain quite volatile and dynamic. That means staying competitive in the local, national and global marketplace will require even more of a centralized focus on maximizing productivity and increasing efficiency!

This rings especially true for small and medium-sized operations, especially if you add in the lingering effects of the recent COVID-19 pandemic combined with inflation, labor shortages, and recent supply chain issues. To illustrate this point, small business surveys reveal that many business owners are uncertain about the future of their operations. No doubt, today’s economic challenges are unparalleled, but one has to remain optimistic about what the future may hold. At Advanced Precision Machining, we have faced down past operational slowdowns and reduced demand for precision manufactured parts, and we are now experiencing unprecedented growth. We continue to stake our reputation on meeting our clients’ needs for high-precision parts delivered accurately and on-time, all while providing the best customer service experience in the machine shop business!

With all of this in mind, APM’s CNC machine shop is still unable to match the production capabilities of larger rivals in low-mix, high-volume milling and machining work. In order to better maximize profits and achieve our desired growth goals moving forward in these uncertain times means we are consistently in search of ways to gain a competitive advantage. First and foremost, we can’t get ahead without the right technology in hand. Equipped with the latest in cutting-edge machine shop tools from suppliers such as Mitutoyo, Doall, Hurco, ProtoTRAK, Southwestern Industries, and Yama-Seki, we ensure our clients are completely satisfied with our work. But, this extends well beyond the right equipment and resources. There are always better ways of getting the job done! 

This brings us back to what every machine shops’ focus should always center around; maximizing productivity and increasing efficiency. Enter the concept of lean manufacturing; The systematic practice for eliminating waste in the manufacturing process. As facilities around our country strive to resume normal business operations, “lean” will become ever more so important. But for smaller and mid-sized CNC machine shops, the methods central to lean production models don’t always lend themselves well to low-volume, high-mix, and oftentimes one-off precision machining environments. While true, many job shops have successfully adopted this methodology by focusing on the goals and strategies that are feasible to their particular operation. No matter what size, there is commonality in the desire and ability to incorporate some frequently described goals of lean manufacturing. These elements include: improving quality, eliminating waste, reducing time and effort, and reducing total costs. The core objective is to maximize value to the client while reducing waste in its various forms. 

In a manufacturing environment, the 5S workplace organization method is central to the lean manufacturing philosophy. It is a system first utilized by the Japanese to reduce waste and optimize productivity by maintaining an orderly workplace, and it definitely has its place in smaller machine shops. In fact, a typical 5S implementation can reduce the square footage of space needed for existing operations. The 5S pillars of: Sort (organization), Set in Order (orderliness), Shine (cleanliness), Standardize (standardized cleanup), and Sustain (discipline) are indeed scalable to any size facility and provide a template for organizing, cleaning, developing, and sustaining a productive work environment. In short, transition to lean production should not focus solely on equipment, but instead, with the procedures associated with how existing equipment is used.

This begins with a focus on streamlining various processes, and there are many to choose from on the typical precision CNC machining floor. The key is being flexible and adaptable both to the working environment and to the demands of customers. Here is just a small sampling of some possible improvements:

  • Reduce excessive inventories, scrap and other waste.
  • Incorporate continuous improvement initiatives and investment in quality systems such as shop management software.
  • Use quick changeover carts and visual aides such as shadow boards and foam cut outs for organizing tools.
  • Eliminate wasted motion and time spent waiting.
  • Consider the ergonomics of employees.
  • Reduce downtime through better predictive and preventative maintenance.
  • Eliminate mistakes, reworks and overproduction of parts.
  • Reduce setup times and batch sizes.

Just a sampling to be sure, and what we’ve highlighted is not an end itself, but a means to more streamlined operations by maximizing productivity and increasing efficiency. These are key concepts now, and will become more and more important as economic conditions hopefully improve. Lean is more than simply some best practices, it’s about doing more with less and removing impediments to productivity. By not implementing at least a few lean practices, a machine shop loses its competitive advantage, and future growth, if so desired, will be stymied.

Want to learn more about lean manufacturing, have questions about any of our milling and machining services, or need help with an upcoming project? We’re happy to discuss any need you have, so please contact our Colorado machine shop.

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About the Author

Gerry Dillon is a co-founder, current owner and certified CNC machinist at Advanced Precision Machining (APM), a full-service machine shop located in Longmont, Colorado. Before making his home in the United States in 2000, Gerry was born and raised in Ireland and took an interest in milling and machining from an early age, ranking #1 in the Irish National Apprenticeship Program. In 2005, he began what’s grown into a leading Colorado machine shop. Gerry brings over 30 years of machining experience to the shop floor, and is certified in all aspects of geometric dimensioning and tolerancing.

by Gerry Dillon

Gerry Dillon is a co-founder, current owner and certified CNC machinist at Advanced Precision Machining (APM), a full-service machine shop located in Longmont, Colorado. Gerry has over 30 years of precision milling and machining experience under his belt.