Improving Modern Manufacturing Systems


Dr. Samuel C. Obi
Department of Aviation and Technology
San Jose State University
 One Washington Square
San Jose, CA 95192-0061

Phone:  (408) 924-3218
FAX:    (408) 924-3198



            Every manufacturing system normally undergoes several phases. The system must be planned, implemented and controlled, generally by trained and competent manufacturing and management personnel. During the planning phase, consideration must be given to critical factors such as potential market for the product, its design, processes to be employed, facilities, equipment and materials needed for production. In the implementation phase, these resources are acquired and put in place so that production can begin. The implementation phase goes with the controlling phase, in that the system must be controlled or managed both at the time of its implementation and during production.

            When the planning, implementation and controlling phases have been safely and successfully undertaken, it is necessary that the personnel follow up with continuous improvement, to meet the emerging demands, and also to ensure that the company will remain in business for a long time. It is at this stage that many technical managers, like Manufacturing Systems graduates, use their initiative to study and improve the different areas of their manufacturing systems for continued and improved productivity.

            This paper addresses why it is necessary to improve manufacturing systems, and the different ways the improvements can be accomplished in the different areas of the field. Focusing on the need to use manufacturing systems curricula as a tool to instill related improvement principles in students, it also addresses the nature of the improvements needed in improving the systems for the survival of the companies where students may become potential employees.

Importance of Improving Manufacturing Systems

            The works of improvement gurus like F. W. Taylor, who spearheaded research on work measurement, helped to sustain the American manufacturing industry through the twentieth century. Later, the combined forces of such manufacturing philosophies as total quality management (TQM), just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, lean manufacturing and computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) created an important improvement in U. S. manufacturing, setting the stage for the economic growth of the 1990s (Wright, 2001). These philosophies and the powerful technologies that supported them provided the impetus that sustained the U.S. as the world’s number one economic super power.

But in today’s manufacturing industry, staying in business is a life-and-death issue for many manufacturing companies. Because of stiff global and domestic competition, it has meant a survival of the fittest for many companies in recent years. It is now well known that the one thing most surviving or winning manufacturing companies have in common today is that they continually study and improve their manufacturing systems.

One way to illustrate the importance of improving manufacturing systems is to consider the all too familiar story of two local manufacturers of a typical high-demand household product. The two companies were the sole producers in the region, and have supplied this product to the public for years. But gradually, one of the companies began to supply the product at a significantly reduced price, a price the other company could not match. Within a short time the latter began a series of lay offs, and eventually went out of business.

            The sad end of the failed company can be explained by several improvement-related reasons. The successful company must have done some things better which helped to lower its production cost, and resulted in a reduction in the price of its product. What is the nature of these improvements? A careful examination of the dynamics of manufacturing systems will help to answer this question.


Potential Areas for Improving Modern Manufacturing Systems

            The premise taken in this article is that manufacturing systems could be improved when its sub-systems or components are improved. This is because a system is a collection of entities all of which function together for the benefit of the whole. When a change is made in any of the components, it affects the other entities in the system. Likewise, a typical manufacturing system consists of production methods or procedures, facilities or equipment, tooling, material handling, quality assurance, production control, and people (Seymour, 1995). In other words, it is a collection of men, machine tools, and material-moving systems, collected together to accomplish specific manufacturing or fabrication sequences resulting in components or end products (DeGarmo, Black and Kohser, 1997).

            Obi (1999) identified and described four groups of components from the above definitions. They are:

1. Equipment and facilities component: machines, tooling, equipment and facilities.

2. Production methods component: procedures, production methods, quality assurance, and production control.

3. Material handling component: material handling or material moving systems.

4. Labor component: people or men.

An examination of these major components will help to determine the type of change necessary to accomplish certain desired improvements.

Improving Equipment and Facilities component

            For a modern manufacturing entity to survive today, improving its equipment and facilities must take a comprehensive approach. Days are gone when manufacturing companies had machines and building spaces sitting idle for days or weeks on end. Today's manufacturing companies cannot afford those luxuries any longer, because they must operate in an efficient manner to make profit for their stockholders, and account for every dollar invested in that business. As a result, an idle piece of machinery or an empty or underused space cannot be tolerated.

Because they constitute major capital investment for the company, facilities and equipment improvement for modern manufacturing systems must have their basis on the long-term goals and objectives of the company concerned. These goals and objectives may include the company's business plans and products, together with some allowance for future expansion. This is because equipment and facility component are capital items which are

heavily dependent on the company’s finances to purchase or improve. Improvements in this component can be few or many, and vary according to each company’s needs. Sample areas that many be considered, and the nature of their improvements, are shown in Table 1.


Table 1

Improvement Areas in Equipment and Facilities Component.


Area                                                                            Potential Improvement Factors


Buildings including factories                                    Design style, ergonomics, location, energy conservation, ease of maintenance, cost of maintenance, space utilization, rent versus purchase, future expansion, legislation requirements and security issues, future expansion, space utility, location, cost of construction, business compatibility, other.


Equipment                                                                 Rent versus purchase, cost of purchasing, retrofitting versus purchase, cost of maintenance, ease of maintenance, tooling requirement, compatibility with facility, compatibility with existing infrastructure, adaptability with emerging technologies, future expansion needs, percent utilization, appropriateness of automation, cell layout format, flexibility of automation, other.



Koenig (1994) noted that “A facilities plan is a well thought out procedure for purchasing either new equipment or rebuilt equipment in order to meet the capability or capacity requirements of the company" (p. 86). Therefore, facilities and equipment improvement plan must integrate these carefully thought-out and long-term goals of the company in order to meet its future needs. Such often subtle issues as immediate and future capacity of the facility and equipment, cost of their maintenance, ideal equipment vendors or dealers, and operator training and skills requirement must be included in that plan.


Improving Production Methods Component

In the contest of this topic, production methods are procedures, methods, and quality assurance and control tasks employed in manufacturing a product. Modern technologies and philosophies have generated manufacturing tools and techniques like statistical process control (SPC), just-in-time manufacturing (JIT), total quality management (TQM), time and motion studies, manufacturing planning and control systems (MPCS) and a host of others used to facilitate manufacturing processes. Such tools are a must in today’s manufacturing industry.

Processes themselves are a set of sequential and value-added tasks that use organizational resources to produce a product or service (Fryman, 2002). According to Fryman, processes can be unique to a single department or can cross many departments. Perhaps more important is the fact that the quality of the products being manufactured is completely dependent on the quality of the processes employed in making them. There are literally hundreds of processes employed in manufacturing industry. Improvement in any of these processes will cause an improvement in the system that supports it.

            In modern automated manufacturing systems, processes are intricately attached to the tool or equipment employed to generate them. To perform the process “casting” for example, the manufacturer needs to use the associated equipment such as a furnace, muller, sand slinger and other molding tools. To perform a quality check, the inspector may need an inspection mirror, a surface plate, and a profilometer. Likewise, to mill a part, the manufacturer will need a milling machine, milling cutter and so forth. Whether the worker is working in the factory or in the office, different processes associated with different equipment and tools are employed to perform the necessary tasks needed to manufacture the product.

            Therefore, to change or improve the operation of any process, the equipment and/or tools (including software) used to generate it, together with its operating parameters, must be changed, modified or adjusted. For example, to perform an efficient milling of materials, cutting tools must be conditioned or ground to the right configuration. This given configuration is referred to as the tool’s geometry. Cutting tool manufacturers modify these angles and their corresponding radii to meet their specific needs. If the cutter is not given the proper geometry, it simply will not function well.

Likewise, parameters like optimum speeds, feeds, depth of cut, heat control and tool material must be controlled in order to improve the process. And if the associated SPC software is not upgraded, the process may not yield satisfactory results. The same holds for all the related software and techniques used to control other tools, machines and their processes. If the software, tool, machine or procedure is not improved by upgrading or changing, the system will not yield the desired result.


Improving Material handling component

            Broadly speaking, manufacturing materials include metals, ceramics, composites, synthetic polymers (plastics), and natural polymers (wood). Other materials such as coolants or cutting fluids can be added to these. Three key areas are open for improvement in materials and material handling. The first area is the type of materials the company will be employing in manufacturing its various product lines. This is important because it will influence the types of equipment that will be purchased for machining or fabricating those materials. Those materials, their available shapes, prices, ease of processing, manufacturing properties, substitutes, suppliers, proximity and environmental/disposal issues should be identified.

            The second key area that needs to be improved is material movement or handling. Schey (2000) indicated that material movement is the most auxiliary function in production process. Raw materials, partly finished parts and other tooling must be made available to every workstation at the right time. The material-handling system that should be improved in a modern manufacturing enterprise can be programmable automation, such as robots, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), conveyors, shuttle carts, pallets and/or other programmable systems that can efficiently move tools or parts to their intended destinations in a timely manner. These systems are part of, and are also sub-systems, of the CIM network system already implemented in the facility.

            The third area of materials to be improved is the inventory of materials and tooling. For the materials, this is one area where just-in-time philosophy should be seriously considered. Modern competitive manufacturing tries to avoid carrying any inventory of materials. For the material-handling systems, all required robots, AGVs, conveyors, shuttle carts, and pallets must be economically justified and documented. There are simple equations employed in determining their return on investment (ROI). This analysis should be conducted and dealer prices and service commitments compared before purchasing such expensive systems. This is one area where a modern tool inventory control (TIC) system can be used to facilitate the management of tools and integrate the database with other company or school systems. According to Hogan (2000), such a system provides full information on tool allocation, availability, usage, cost etc. Such a system also provides a tracking capability and tool quality support efforts in quality standard requirements.


Improving Labor component

            The importance of improving manufacturing personnel cannot be overemphasized. A company may have the best manufacturing system components, but if it does not employ and train the best workers it may not produce quality products, which are the only things that can save it from today's stiff competition. Of the so-called Deming’s 14 management principles, two dealt directly with the worker training issue. One is to “Institute modern methods of training”, and the other is to “Institute a constant and vigorous program of education and training” (Fryman, 2002, PP. 8-9). While the former stressed the need to train workers on the philosophy of quality, the latter emphasized the need for making all workplace training a continuous and ongoing part of the organization.    

Training can be technical, social, ethical, managerial or business. The whole idea rests on the fact that if workers are improved by the right training that is targeted to their need, their company’s productivity and quality will be improved. On the other hand, if they lack proper training on, say, how to use the company’s software, why drug use is bad, why constant lateness or absence from work is bad and such likes, then productivity may be reduced.

            Workers are the most important component of all the manufacturing systems. They are the ones who will use their initiative and other system components to produce the product to the required specifications and quality. These employees must be sought, hired, and trained. One of the biggest problems facing employers today is how to tell a bad employee from a good one. A study of 81,000 people on integrity, work attitude and drug use by Orion PE System (1999) found that 24.9% of them admitted to stealing from previous employers, 28.5% admitted to some drug use, 24.0% admitted they had problems with absences in previous jobs, while 30.0% admitted tardiness in previous jobs. Clearly, no employer who intends to be on a competitive edge would want to hire such employees.

            The more productive manufacturing companies are those that hire and train their workers in key areas that the companies know will affect their business. Competent, responsible, and knowledgeable employees with manufacturing background should be trained on a continuous basis. Kelley (1998) recommended that such employees must be flexible so as to perform multiple functions, and will need to be trained to perform other manufacturing disciplines. The multiplicity of today’s manufacturing tasks makes training a must for companies who want to be on a competitive edge.


An Integrated Approach

Although they share some similarities in their components, modern manufacturing systems are very different from traditional systems. For example, modern manufacturing systems are very computer-dependent, operate on highly and complex competitive societies, process newer and harder materials, and operate in an environmentally sensitive world. As a result, modern manufacturing systems are more and more perceived as "closed-loop" systems, which have no room for unnecessary variations in all their components. Thus, instead of the traditional systems where the components are separated and on their own, as was the case with islands of automation of the 1980s, today's manufacturing systems tend to be more integrated. Any plan intended for any one component will most likely affect the rest. For example, if a new piece of equipment is installed, it will most likely affect the material handling system and its arrangement in the factory, as well as the processes and skill of the workers who will operate the new machine. See figure 1.




                                   Figure 1. Components of Manufacturing Systems                                   


One of the main goals in operating a modern manufacturing enterprise is efficiency. The growth in modern technology has rendered the manufacturing environment such a complex place that a more comprehensive planning approach is needed to better compete in today’s manufacturing industry. Manufacturing systems also have been influenced so much by modern technology that systematic planning is a must for every manufacturing enterprise. Therefore, every improvement program should be designed as a systematic and comprehensive approach.

            Due to the increasing and complex manufacturing challenges of modern industry, knowledge and presence of several key factors and resources are also necessary to properly do a compressive planning for improving manufacturing systems. One such resource is the role of the computer in integrating the increasing activities of a modern facility. Therefore, the concept of CIM must be established in any facility that is planning to improve its activities. CIM, by means of its powerful sub-systems or modules, makes the sharing of common computer data between manufacturing disciplines and other systems required to produce a product possible. See Figure 2.  But since many manufacturing companies have different products and processes, it will be helpful if each company develops its own CIM philosophy, strategy, and plan for implementation (Kelly, 1998).




Figure 2. Some CIM Sub-Systems


            With the CIM environment established, the system improvement planners must also consider the use of concurrent engineering philosophy. In today’s highly competitive manufacturing industry, the concept of concurrent engineering helps companies to rapidly and efficiently design and manufacture a product in a shorter time cycle. Concurrent engineering also helps in using forces of change as tools or resources in organizations and communication, for efficient, fast and economical product development (Wakil, 1998). Concurrent engineering philosophy also helps to involve the customer in all phases of the product's development. A major objective in virtually all manufacturing system development phases today is the involvement of the customer who will eventually decide whether to use the end product or not. The customer's input must be sought early in developing any improvement plan that will affect the product, in order to avoid any potential problem that may come up later. CIM implementation helps facilitate this effort.

            Moreover, a modern comprehensive plan for a competitive manufacturing must include the concept of group technology technology, to fully equip the organization for the tasks ahead. In the same token, all modern manufacturing techniques, including computer-aided process planning (CAPP), JIT manufacturing, flexible manufacturing systems (FMS), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) and the rest must be included. With the implemented CIM environment, the company will reap the reward of an efficient flow and control of information in its efforts to improve the system.

            Schey (2000) also emphasized that formal methods of quality assurance must be established, together with a plan for preventive maintenance of equipment. To these can be added the company's formal process planning procedures, and production control tasks such as routing and scheduling practices.


Implications for Manufacturing Systems Programs

            It is no coincidence that the material presented here is part of what manufacturing systems majors are learning in manufacturing systems programs all over the United States. These system components, their activities and businesses surrounding them are the environment in which these graduates will operate when they graduate. In fact, they have to live that life when they enter the workforce to pursue their careers as technical managers, production engineers, quality supervisors, factory managers and so forth.

            One of the best things professors in these programs can give to these students is the concept of continuous improvement. Although this concept has been around for sometime now, it is something the students will take with them for the rest of their career, if tailored more specifically to manufacturing systems. Because of the nature of today’s competitive manufacturing industry, they should be informed that everything in the system is there to be improved on a continual basis. They should be taught that their company begins to die the moment they seize to improve their systems. In the process, they will learn that such improvement means survival for them and for their employers.

            One way to teach students the concept of improving manufacturing systems is to challenge them with similar projects while they are still in school. This can be built into the curriculum so that every student will have the opportunity to experience it. The project may require students or groups of students to visit a local company, study a particular process, and then determine how to improve it. Students like such an outside challenge and many companies will be willing to allow students to visit and conduct such an assignment.

The above practice essentially makes manufacturing systems programs more functional in the communities that they serve. Students in such programs will more easily relate to the realities of the manufacturing industry relative to the jobs advertised in their locality when they see them. It also enhances their preparation. Program educators and job providers will tend to be working together toward a common goal, since they can now see their commonality more easily. The result is that the manufacturing programs in the region will be more robust, and the graduates more educated.



            This paper has endeavored to present the necessity of improving manufacturing systems from a system’s perspective. In this, due to the nature of the competition facing manufacturers, nothing is regarded is the “sacred cow” any longer; every thing in the system is subject to improvement when there is a need for it. The discussions, therefore, touched all the components or sub-systems of the manufacturing system, namely, equipment and facilities, production methods, material handling, and labor components.

            The issue of an integrated approach was included, since CIM and its related philosophies and technologies are all ways of facilitating the system; hence, it is recommended that all improvements be designed to suit the system in a way that will bring maximum benefit to the company. It was also recommended that manufacturing systems’ curricula be designed to include an improvement component so that every student will learn that principle before entering the industry where it will be needed for their survival.



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