18 Aug University center offers speed boost to manufacturers
MADISON, Wis. — What’s more important to a manufacturing company: time or money?
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Quick Response Manufacturing, ruthlessly cutting down the time it takes to get products developed and produced is seen as the best way to reduce costs and end up with more — you guessed it — money.
“It’s not usually about buying new equipment,” Frank Rath, associate director of the center, said at a seminar Wednesday morning in University Research Park. “It’s not usually about upgrading your technology.”
Instead, it’s about reorganizing the company from the ground up. A shift of that magnitude will evoke skepticism in any chief executive officer, but Rath and his associates claim their methods can reduce lead time by half or more.
The center, an interdisciplinary arm of the UW-Madison College of Engineering, is supported primarily by corporate memberships. Faculty and students work with member companies, examine their processes and suggest ways of reorganizing processes. They put special focus on “non-value-added time,” in which employees are waiting for something or redoing work.
“What the center does is a great example of how the university can harness the productivity of faculty to help companies,” said Allen Dines, assistant director of the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations.
Dines, who has run a small biotech business, agreed with Rath that too much time is spent on waiting and other incidental tasks. “Maybe 10 percent of what we did had to do with actual science,” he said.
But intense examination of a company’s existing processes is not one of the center’s focal points.
“You could spend a lot of time trying to figure out what everybody does, but it would be pointless,” said Rajan Suri, author of the book Quick Response Manufacturing: A Companywide Approach to Reducing Lead Times.
That’s because the center usually ends up redesigning company processes to the point that only a general view of their current operations is required.
“It requires some organizational change in the way they’re structured, number one, and the way jobs flow through the company, number two,” Rath said.
Rath said companies can benefit from cross-training their employees in different tasks and grouping them into teams or “cells,” each with responsibility and authority over a particular product or project. He pointed out inefficiencies in the standard escalation model of customer service, in which low-paid temp workers try to sort out customers’ problems and then pass along more difficult requests to experts.
Having people in R&D answer inquiries, Rath said, could lead to benefits on both sides. Customers would get better responses faster, and scientists and developers would get an idea of how their products are faring in customers’ hands.
In most companies, he said, “they all understand their own little piece of the pie, but they don’t understand the whole process.”