Chain of Thought

Can Material Handling Smarts Slow Manufacturing's Brain Drain?

U.S. manufacturing is suffering from a skills crisis, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. It cited a Deloitte Consulting study in which respondents reported that 5% of their jobs remained unfilled because they couldn't find workers with the right skills. One educator the story quoted put it in clear terms: “In the 80s U.S. manufacturing was 80% brawn and 20% brains. Now it's 10 brawn and 90% brains.”

In the same edition of WSJ another article said “What Your Employees Don't Know Will Hurt You.” It said that because many leading companies are reluctant to share corporate financial information with employees, plant workers are kept in the dark about things like warranty expenses. Consequently they may cut corners on quality in hopes of meeting production cost targets—blissfully ignorant that returns are dipping their company deeper and deeper into red ink.

What these stories are saying is that not only can't manufacturers find new brains to put to work, but the brains already in their employ are being slowly starved to death.

So with such a dismal start to this week in manufacturing news, it was refreshing to read about some manufacturing smarts coming out of the material handling world. Lift truck manufacturer Crown Equipment just announce it received a patent for a manufacturing process that applies a concept that's commonly used in warehouses and distribution centers. By applying its TSP 6000 Series Turret Stockpicker in its own manufacturing processes, Crown was able to consolidate its welding, brake press operations, warehousing and material handling functions for its lift truck door and cover production into one cell.

This cell handles more than 190 parts in a little over 20,000 square feet. Previously, the functions were spread throughout the entire plant. In addition to saving floor space, Crown was able to reduce inventory by 33 percent, increase productivity and safety, reallocate labor and significantly improve on-time delivery.

This is a good example of manufacturing brains inspired by warehousing and distribution smarts. In its announcement, Crown stated that while it's common to see a turret stockpicker among distribution center aisles, you don't see it on the manufacturing floor. I wondered why—so asked Crown's Dave Beddow, Crown's v.p. of manufacturing operations.

“We developed a number of cellular manufacturing models in the past decade—most in a traditional ‘U' shaped flow,” he told me. “These cells have always incorporated different truck models from the Crown fleet, but up until this time, we had not incorporated a narrow aisle turret truck as the primary part delivery vehicle.

“We were able to tie in pertinent manufacturing processes that could be coupled together in a linear fashion. In fact the product flow was a natural fit for a straight-through design. The turret truck became the missing link that closed the loop for part delivery and the long straight two sided design fit nicely with the wireless aisle guide system.”

Crown has also implemented this warehousing-inspired concept to support small parts welding as well as its largest lean manufacturing cell to support mast component fabrication and machining operations.

Will Crown—whose traditional strength has been serving customers in warehousing and distribution center environments—be able to make hay off the brain drain in manufacturing and find hungry new markets for its manufacturing concepts?

“Over the past few years Crown has been a frequent host to customers and other manufacturing organizations interested in benchmarking our lean manufacturing methodology,” Beddow told me. “Being vertically integrated, the utilization of our own material handling equipment within the lean manufacturing operations has been a tremendous advantage. While we are not currently marketing our lean manufacturing systems, that potential exists as current and new product innovations allow for more applications of lean implementation strategies.”

So as manufacturing executives at the C-level rack their brains about the finding of fresh talent and the feeding of existing talent, I hope they eventually look to their colleagues in the material handling equipment industry for some inspiration. After all, those who specialize in material handling and logistics have luxurious access to chains of brains.

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