By Steve Degon of Presstek October 4, 2004 -- As we approach Graph Expo 2004, there is increasing attention being paid to improving the manufacturing process in the printing industry. Whether it is the JDF Pavilion or CIM City, there will be lots to learn at Graph Expo about improving productivity and automation in the manufacture of print. This is a critical area of education for print service providers. We must all work hard to modernize our manufacturing processes to ensure print remains a viable alternative--or complement--to the wide array of new media our customers have at their fingertips to enhance their business communications. On the vendor side of the equation, most suppliers have made significant progress in the implementation of modern manufacturing processes. Lean manufacturing has become de rigueur for manufacturers of equipment and consumables, and there are lessons to be learned from these implementations that can benefit the print service provider community as printers work to improve their own manufacturing processes. I wanted to share some of the experiences we have had at Presstek in implementing Lean Manufacturing with the hope that some of these lessons learned can be applied to improve operations for the print service providers among the OnDemandJournal reader base. Lean Manufacturing? Lean manufacturing is an evolutionary step beyond just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing. Lean Manufacturing techniques allow companies to produce more with existing resources by eliminating non-value-added activities, whether they are manufacturing equipment, consumables or printed output. Implementation of Lean Manufacturing in the manufacture of equipment and consumables is driven largely by customer demand for smaller runs of high quality products—a challenge being faced by printers as well. Traditional manufacturing methods can result in excessive inventory, too much motion, and wasted resources. Take a look around your operation and see if any of this applies to you. If so, Lean Manufacturing principles can help you improve. Lean Manufacturing reduces costs by using people and other resources more effectively, implementing ongoing process changes and eliminating waste. Bottom line? Lean Manufacturing means improved margins! A Lean Example At Presstek, we have made significant investments in implementation of Lean Manufacturing principles, and it has paid off for us. Since Presstek was founded on the principle of delivering environmentally friendly solutions that simplify the manufacture of print, one of our key priorities was to make our own manufacturing process as environmentally friendly as possible. To that end, most of our processes at our Hudson, NH facility are emission free. If not, we put controls on them to keep them from polluting. Basically, we have designed our manufacturing facility so nothing goes down the drain. We also turned our attention to the manufacturing process itself. In our operation, we use two manufacturing methods: one for making printing plates and another for making laser-based DI systems. For plates, the techniques focus on clean-room coating, drying, web converting, and web handling. For the systems, it is a combination of patented hardware and software concepts. To improve those processes, we had to make some significant changes in how we build our products. The goal was to be able to grow our manufacturing output without growing our employee base. So we set our sights on increasing our productivity, and we focused on what would bring the biggest return in investment. One of the key things we found was that cross-training our employees was vital to our Lean effort. As a result, we cross-trained all of our assembly technicians in our three areas of discipline. This cross-training has allowed us to implement a unique twist on modern manufacturing concepts: Instead of dedicating technicians to a specific station or cell along the production line (often resulting in a narrowly defined set of relatively repetitive tasks), we developed a one-person, one-machine philosophy. That means that we have focused individuals who take the machines we manufacture from station to station, staying with the same machine throughout all of the manufacturing stations it must go through. These technicians then hand the machine off to testing as they complete each station. This way we get immediate feedback that each process was completed successfully rather than waiting until the end of the line to discover potential errors. Each person and machine move through five progressive stations. Each station is paced so the next person is ready to move into it when the first is done. The time to complete a machine is equally divided between assembly and testing. It is a completely linear process—if a machine fails in final test, it stays in final test and we bring the technician to it. And our approach is working well. In 2003, we saw a 65 percent reduction in workmanship issues. Another advantage to growing Lean was a near elimination of our stockroom. Only the very bulky items are stored away from the line. Most of the parts are at point-of-use and replenished to those points. We even have some vendors who replenish directly to the floor. With these Lean strategies in place, we can now focus on the manufacturability of new products. This takes teamwork from employees across the company. The design engineers are integrated into the manufacturing group and production line. As we build the prototypes, design, and manufacturing work together. Also integral to our product development process is feedback from customers and end users. We are well aware of what our print provider customers want. And we understand the short-run color print needs of the future. As an integral part of our Lean Manufacturing strategy, new product development is continuous as we strive to bring to market products that will help print service providers meet these emerging needs even better. Applying Lessons Learned So how does all of this apply to the manufacture of print? As we have worked to deploy modern manufacturing techniques in our company, we see a lot of synergies in what we have learned that can be applied to almost any print production environment. Here are a few for your consideration: Cross-training not only has made our manufacturing operation more efficient, but it has been good for our employees, expanding their horizons, keeping them interested in what they do, and helping us retain good people. Giving a technician end-to-end responsibility for the manufacture of a product, whether it is a printing press or a printed brochure, helps build pride of ownership as they see a defect-free product roll off the line, ready to be delivered to a customer. Our people take their responsibilities seriously and work hard to maintain the 100% defect-free status of “their” machine! Developing closer relationships with suppliers to reduce inventories has paid big dividends. Our operation consumes less space, and we have virtually eliminated the cost of keeping large inventories on hand. Whether you are talking about chips or chipboard, managing a large inventory of materials consumes resources unnecessarily. Our restructured manufacturing process has put day-to-day decisions in the hands of the people closest to the work. They are often able to see opportunities for process improvement more clearly than management one step removed from the actual work. Building a more efficient manufacturing process by bringing the principles of Lean Manufacturing to your business can deliver remarkable results. I urge you to educate yourself on these principles and look for ways to apply them in your business.