Productive by design: How better flow can lead to better results

By Chester Nagy. 

Roughly two decades ago, I had the dream of building a new manufacturing facility. Our existing plant was a glorified, 90-year-old dungeon, located in an industrial park near the Calgary Stampede Grounds — dark and dingy, cold in the winter, and sweltering in the summer.

Like a lot of buildings similar in vintage, the layout was not designed for the scope of work happening inside it. Once components came through the overhead door, they could usually move in only one direction, even if there was another project or problem holding up the line. After completion, the finished product had to exit back through the same door. To the most layman of observers, we had flow issues, which translated into performance issues — efficiency, quality, profitability, on-time delivery, you name it.

Our first eureka moment came when the Government of Alberta began funding a program through Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters that allowed manufacturers to bring in outside expertise to conduct an in-house lean assessment. At the time, lean principles were still foreign to us, but it was free and we knew — taking an honest, hard look at where we stood — it simply couldn’t hurt.

That two-day visit fundamentally changed the way we viewed our own processes. Truth be told, it saved our business altogether. It also taught us that we had no idea what we needed to improve.

Plains Fabrication & Supply was founded in 1988 primarily to service Alberta’s booming oil sector. Pressure vessels and piping packages were our speciality from day one. As the company grew, however, so too did the size and scope of our products, driving new demand for bigger, more advanced equipment, more flexibility in scheduling, and more staff. ‘Bursting at the seams’ would be an accurate description of the state we were in, despite the fact roughly 50 per cent of the space we already had was essentially ‘wasted.’ There was no argument change needed to be made.

But exposure to lean systems and methodology quickly taught us that we didn’t know precisely what changes we needed to make. Investing millions of dollars into a new building to end up with many of the same problems was a stark reality if we didn’t get it right.

The best decision we made was to turn to our frontline employees for input. They did all the work, they experienced the frustrations, they were the most plugged-in ‘consultants’ money could buy — who better to tell us where we needed to go? The second-best decision was to then take their ideas and test them out in real-time, where possible, to gauge whether they had the intended effect.

The concept of ‘kitting’ — packaging, storing, and moving certain parts that fit together in a particular process — was one of the instant winners. It significantly cut down on the time spent manually fetching pieces or waiting for larger skids to get shuffled around the narrow production floor.

There were some problems, though, we knew we weren’t going to be able to solve given the existing constraints. Shipping large equipment in and out of the plant, for instance, was incredibly cumbersome given the proximity to downtown, and often carried a price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars.

To realize the full potential of the opportunity our staff had presented to us, ownership knew we had to rescale. And because there was no room to scale, the determination was made to build a new plant, using lean design methodology as our guidepost.

In 2010, our 90,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility opened its doors in the southeast corner of the city — nearly 30 per cent smaller in fabrication space than the building we had left behind.

As a custom steel manufacturer, no two jobs we work on are exactly the same, which is why we initially grappled with the notion that lean was just for the Toyotas of the world that repetitively produced widget after widget, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Instead, we had to configure our layout for maximum flexibility.

Kitting, and storing supplies nearby their point of use, was part of that strategy. Equally important was the ability to move production equipment. In fact, only two pieces are equipment are permanently fixed, enabling us to change out virtually any bay or cell in less than 24 hours.

Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of lean is ergonomics, worker comfort, and how to maximize the efficiency of your human capital. That doesn’t mean tougher supervisors or higher wages. It means creating a physical environment your people actually want to come work in. This is probably the starkest contrast now from our old shop.

When it comes to the basics of plant design, two things immediately jump to mind: Light and heat. We constructed our new facility to be the polar opposite of our former ‘dungeon’ — high ceilings, bright workspaces, and superior airflow. At -30°C with all our doors wide open, air rotation units can raise the shop temperature back up to normal in a mere 17 minutes — a welcomed feature when working in one of North America’s coldest climates. Best of all: Our energy costs are now 25 per cent of what they once were.

This is not complex automation or the result of big data; it is lean in its simplest form.

The ‘green’ aspects of lean haven’t stopped at greater energy efficiency, either. Our company, which was acquired by Alstar Oilfield Contractors earlier this year, has doubled-down on recycling and material waste reduction across every aspect of our operations, from the lunchroom to the corner office to the plant floor.

Take our modified sandblasting process. By replacing silica sand with steel slag, we can reuse the same material up to 250 times, and then recycle it instead of diverting thousands of pounds of sand into the landfill each year. The installation of a self-contained chamber has the duel benefit of preventing dust from contaminating general air quality as well.

Now, along our journey, I appreciate we have enjoyed some unique advantages. Not every company our size (around 140 people in our plant at the moment) can be, nor should they be, looking at new construction to solve their workflow issues. Yet, I readily contend the principles we applied are universal, and can benefit most manufacturers, regardless of their limitations or capacities:

To begin, think engagement — there are some great ideas trapped in your organization if only they were released with the right questions.

Think agility — products and processes evolve, and your ability to pivot quickly can be your competitive advantage in the market.

Think green — often, the right long-term ecological choice turns out to be the right long-term economic choice.

And, finally, think collaboratively — suppliers and customers are a wealth of knowledge and insight into your business. Tap into it.

Lean is not a young man’s game, nor an old man’s obsession. It is the path that leads toward the factory of the future. 

Chester Nagy is the president and chief operating officer of Plains Fabrication & Supply — a division of Alstar Oilfield Contractors. In 2016, he was named one of the 11 most influential people in the oilsands industry.