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LEAN Manufacturing Gives Bestweld New Ways of Doing Business

Bestweld, Inc. is a manufacturer of high-performance pipe fittings. Its products are used in piping applications involving highly corrosive fluids, high temperatures, mechanical stress, or any combination of these factors. The company specializes in "belled-end" fittings in which a flared opening in the pipe fitting fits around the end of the adjoining pipe, to which it is made fast by a fillet weld. Another way pipes can be joined is to place them, along with fittings of exactly the same diameter, aligned end-to-end with one another and then butt welding them.

According to Don Oakes, a retired marine systems principal engineer, butt welding is significantly slower and more labor intensive than fillet welding, and the weld can't be visually verified for quality like belled-end welds. Depending upon skill and weld conditions, a worker can prepare and weld as many as four belled-end fittings in the time required for one traditional butt-welded joint.

Two of the largest markets for Bestweld fittings are shipbuilding and repair, and offshore oil platform construction. The 20-year-old firm, which currently has 52 employees (40 of whom are production workers), operates out of a modern 45,000-sq.-ft facility in Pottstown, PA, northwest of Philadelphia.

While there are many variants in size and material, the company manufactures three parts families: tees, which allow one pipe to intersect with another pipe; elbows, which allow a pipeline to turn; and reducers, which allow a pipe of one size to connect to a pipe of another size. Bestweld operates four production lines: one for tees, one for reducers, and two for elbows. Elbows are by far the largest component in any bill of materials; pipes need to turn more often than they need to do anything else.

Beginning the Lean Process

About five years ago, Bestweld management became interested in lean manufacturing and approached the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center (DVIRC) for some help in getting started. The project began with a value stream map of one of the elbow lines. The principal opportunities for improvement identified were tooling changeover times and 5S. "Which are all part of the same thing," comments Chris Dempsey, Bestweld's plant manager. He continues, "The less organized a workstation is, the longer it's going to take you to find the dies you need to make the tooling changeover."

On average, the first round of lean initiatives resulted in a 50% to 75% reduction in machine setup and tooling changeover time. The production workers, once they began to see the way the operation was improving, became totally supportive of the continuous improvement process, and it has become standard at Bestweld. According to Jeff Kopenitz, the DVIRC lean manufacturing consultant who works closely with the Bestweld plant, the crews are steadily working to further improve the dramatic setup time reduction they have achieved.

Cummulative Effect

The attention to lean manufacturing has had a cumulative effect on Bestweld as a whole, one that is by no means limited to the production floor. "Lean manufacturing," says Bestweld President Rod Bayard, "has changed the entire paradigm of the company. We're now capable of producing work in significantly less time than it took us just a few years ago; we can run jobs through in a week that not too long ago would have filled up the shop for a month. We're still in the throes of understanding what these new efficiencies mean for us."

To give some idea of the scope of the transformation that has taken place at Bestweld, here are a few statistics. Five years ago, the company was in a 46,000-sq.-ft facility, operating two shifts with a total of about 45 employees on the payroll and 20 leased employees. Today it is in a modern, clean, 45,000-sq.-ft plant with a total of 52 employees.

The plant runs five days a week with staggered shifts so that each production worker puts in four 10-hour shifts and has three days a week off. "We have lowered turnover of production tradespeople," says Plant Manager Chris Dempsey. "We also," he said on a day in mid-December, "have 12 workers with perfect attendance records for the year."

The production workers are completely integrated into the lean initiative, and morale is extremely high. The crews have become especially fervent about 5S, to the point that Bestweld has invested in its own sign-making capability, thereby reinforcing workplace organization and visual workplace concepts.

The company is now in the strengthened position of being able to take on a significantly higher volume of work without making a concomitant capital investment -- or even, given the shift situation and the productivity of the workers -- of taking on much in the way of additional staff.

The production capability of this leaner company is much, much greater than what it was five years ago. "It's a multiple," Bayard says. "We probably have the ability to produce double what we did before lean manufacturing with no increase in our workforce."

A State of Permanent Change

Bestweld doesn't have a dedicated inspection area anymore. The lean initiative is ongoing, and production performance just keeps improving. "We control quality -- believe me -- but we've moved that function into our manufacturing cells," Bayard says. "Product defects are caught immediately and all work stops until the cause is corrected. Finished work doesn't go somewhere to be inspected or reworked; it goes directly into a shipping carton and gets shipped."

One outcome from the lean initiative, according to Vice-President/Sales Ray Stubbs, is an increase in pressure on the sales operation. "It used to be," he says, "that you could sell a big order and then relax a little, because it would fill the shop for weeks. There was no point in coming right back in with another big order, because we couldn't produce it. Normal lead times were 8-12 weeks. Now we get a big order and in just three or four weeks, it's gone. So our production team is coming back to me looking for the next order, and I have to have a new order for them."

"Lean manufacturing," Stubbs says, laughing, "has done fantastic things for this company, but it's been just terrible for my golf game."

"This is a new world for us," Bayard says. "We're different from who we were a year ago, drastically different from two years ago, and unrecognizable from five years ago, in every department. Lean is about involving your employees, getting them to examine your systems and processes, and working to improve them by eliminating waste. Then when you have examined everything and made positive changes, you start over and begin to do it again, because continuous improvement never ends."

A copy of the original article and more information can be found at The Society of Manufacturing Engineers' website.

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