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Posts Tagged ‘Operations Strategy’

One of my sisters-in-law (I have several) runs a frame shop. A trip to my wife’s hometown often means stopping by her sister’s shop and hanging out while mats are being cuts and frames assembled. So I was curious then to read an essay to read in the New York Times about running a frame shop — even more so given its title, The True Price of Customer Service (Aug 21).

The essay is written by the founder of Artists Frame Service, which is based here in Chicago and has generally been very successful. It has been open for more than three decades and (according to the article) is 20 times bigger than the average US frame shop. Part of how it got that way is by promising faster service. Since its founding, it has promised to turn around orders in a week. Consistently delivering on that, however, creates operational challenges.

What I was really asking about was the one-week turnaround: Was it worth the trouble? Did it matter enough to customers? I was asking because it is not an easy commitment to keep. If someone orders framing on Monday afternoon, it will not go into production before Tuesday morning. And it has to be done by Friday for it to be inspected and wrapped and put in the pickup shelves by the following Monday. That means we really only have three days to get it done.

The challenge has always been that some weeks are so busy that my staff members have to work 10 or more hours of overtime, while other weeks are slower and their hours are cut. I considered switching to a 10-day turnaround. This would effectively double the amount of time that we have to complete an order. But I worried: Was this the equivalent of cutting Samson’s hair and losing the magic?

Let me start by saying that in terms of operations, this is a really nice problem to think about. It highlights some important points about managing processes to provide fast service. (more…)

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Here is an interesting factoid for you: 24% of all the vehicles manufactured right now are built on just ten platforms. What’s more, by the end of the decade that number is expected to grow to 30%. The number comes from an Automotive News article that looks at some of the consequences of the trend (With the push for standard parts, quality is key, Aug 6).

First, why automakers are trying to move in this direction is clear. Being able to build multiple model off one basic platform saves a ton of money in product development as well as tooling and build manufacturing facilities. Further, they benefit from a bit of risk pooling; if one model is not selling particularly well, that may be offset by another that can be built at the same plant. Thus, even if a model slumps, all that expensive capacity is till being used. (See this post from last fall on how Ford is cutting its number of platforms from 15 to 9.) Globalization also plays a part in this. What kinds of vehicles sell well might vary across different continents, but if European, Asian and North American models can all be built on the same platforms, manufacturers with a global footprint can be ever more cost competitive.

But what about suppliers? With purchased components making up a significant chunk of the cost of a vehicle, car makers would like standardization there. In a perfect world, you would have the same break system on every model built on a platform, but that brings challenges.

“The requirement that we face is clearly to develop products from the outset in such a way that they can be used in all the platform derivatives without the expense of making changes,” said Sabine Woytowicz, regional quality director at Valeo in Germany.

But with mass standardization, a part with a quality problem can now be supplied to millions of vehicles. That puts a premium on quality. …

Martin Thier, director of corporate quality management at the Mahle Group, said: “When obtaining an order, we check its feasibility for both product development and manufacturing even more closely.”

It comes down to “knowing precisely what you do, what you can do and how good you are at it.”

For example, he said, there is now a more intense interest in investigating how an inconsequential error in one part would produce an effect in a different component.

(more…)

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I have never really given T.J. Maxx much thought. I can’t recall the last time I was in one of their stores, and going to T.J. Maxx has not been an obvious choice to me since I was in high school (and that tells you more about the shopping options in Manchester, NH, in the early 80’s than anything else). But now Fortune has an article singing the praises of T.J. Maxx — or more accurate its parent company TJX, which also owns Marshalls among other retail chains (Is T.J. Maxx the best retail store in the land?, Jul 24). The article is full of all sorts of interesting nuggets (TJX is basically the successor company of Zayre, another retailer from my childhood, who knew?!) as well as laying out seven “secrets” from the company playbook. Some of these are about positioning in the eyes of the customer (e.g., Put real treasure in the treasure hunt) or management talent (Find a CEO who gets retail). But many of their points go right to the stores operations and how it manages its supply chain.

The off-price business is a volume game: selling a ton of goods and selling them fast. The measure of speed here is how quickly a company turns over its inventory: TJX does that every 55 days, vs. 85 for its peer group, according to Morningstar. Indeed, the company is structured to whisk items through its distribution centers and stores—and a lot of items they are: TJX shipped some 2 billion units to its stores in its 2014 fiscal year (which ended on Feb. 1), up from 1.6 billion in fiscal 2010.

Former employees say that the stuff moves so rapidly that merchandise is often sold before TJX has paid its vendors for it. The busiest stores can take daily delivery of product, which employees put out on the floor right away—a “door to floor” approach that cuts down on the amount of space needed for backroom storage. Sources say items typically go on markdown if the turn rate is slower than about seven weeks, which also contributes to the rapid flow.

(more…)

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Have you ever thought about pallets? You know, those wood contraptions that can hold a pile of stuff off the floor while letting a forklift easily scoop up said pile? Here’s a snapshot of one that just happened to be lying around the Northwestern campus.

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So in many ways, there is nothing particularly special about pallets except that they play a key role in logistics and supply chains. They basically make schlepping stuff modular. What is actually stacked on the pallet doesn’t matter; a guy with a forklift can just pick it up and put it on or take it off a truck. Which is not to say that pallets are uninteresting. The people at Planet Money did a whole episode on pallets (Episode 545: The Blue Pallet, Jun 11) that makes for great listening. Here, check it out:

The key point is that there has in fact been innovation in the pallet market. What you see above is your basic stringer pallet. It consists of 15 pieces of wood and a bunch of nails. Note that with those three pieces of wood sandwiched between the other twelve, a forklift can only pick it up from two sides — either the front or back in the picture above. The alternative is to have a block pallet. A block pallet replaces that those three pieces of wood with nine blocks. Those blocks give extra spacing on the other two sides and a forklift can hoist the thing from any side. That additional flexibility increases efficiency. Go to a Costco. They have essentially mandated all their suppliers send stuff on block pallets. If you unload as many tractor trailers as Costco does, the productivity boost from block pallets really adds up. (more…)

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Reshoring — moving manufacturing from far-flung global locations back to the US — has been a popular topic both in the general press and on this blog. What’s not to like about it? As long as manufacturing allows average humans without extreme degrees of education or super rare skills to make a decent wage, new employment opportunities in manufacturing are always going to create a buzz.

But just what kind of firms are bringing work back to the States? According to the Wall Street Journal, we are mostly talking about smaller enterprises (Bringing Jobs Back to U.S. Is Bruising Task, Jun 25).

More than 80% of companies bringing work back to the U.S. have $200 million or less in sales, according to the Reshoring Initiative, a nonprofit that encourages companies to return production to the U.S. Many supply parts to bigger companies or, if they sell directly to consumers, are seeking to cut out lengthy supply chains from Asia.

But big companies have the resources and experience to hopscotch around the globe. It’s harder and riskier for small firms to do the same.

So for every General Electric moving appliance manufacturing back to Kentucky, you have lots of firms like Chesapeake Bay Candle dealing with much smaller product lines. To some extent this is not too surprising. Whether you are GE or Chesapeake Bay Candle, managing a long supply chain or navigating cultural differences is nontrivial. One of those firms, however, can much more easily absorb the cost of having in country staff or can resort to throwing around its sizable weight to get a good deal. Further, a multinational like GE can also have ambitions of growing in China that may not be a priority for a small player like Chesapeake Bay Candle.

While it is not surprising that smaller firms play a big role in reshoring, that is also a problem.  (more…)

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Why invest in automation? The answer to that question is often to cut cost — a straight up move to replace labour with capital. That has the obvious implication that firms in high-wage locales like the US should be willing to invest heavily in fancy machinery while those in lower-wage countries like India should be more cautious in doing so. That may not always hold, however. As the Wall Street Journal tells it, there is one Indian industry that is investing heavily in automation and it’s not really about shaving costs. The industry in question is generic pharmaceuticals and the driving force behind the capital investments is maintaining high quality standards (India’s Drug Makers Move Toward Automation, Jun 5).

Despite an abundance of low-cost laborers in India, all of [Dr. Reddy's Laboratories'] plants are moving toward fully automating their production process “to avoid good manufacturing practice pitfalls from regulators,” said Samiran Das, head of Dr. Reddy’s generic drugs manufacturing.

In the past decade, India’s pharmaceutical companies have blossomed into multibillion-dollar companies that now account for 40% of the generic drugs sold in the U.S. Those companies, however, have come under increased scrutiny in recent years from the U.S. FDA, for manufacturing, testing and other safety issues that are often the result of human error.

To ensure that their products don’t get banned from the U.S.—the world’s biggest drug market—many companies that can afford it are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to automate. …

Mr. Venkatanaryan, the head of the Dr. Reddy’s Bachupally plant, says the drive toward automation is meant to make the manufacturing process “mistake-proof.”

(more…)

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Today’s Wall Street Journal has a special section on “Unleashing Innovation in Manufacturing”. Among the more interesting pieces is a report on Roland DG, a Japanese manufacturer of industrial goods like wide format printers, milling machines and vinyl cutters. These all sound like boxes of metal filled with electrical components that should be built up by a team of workers as they move down an assembly line. But that is not how Roland DG rolls. Instead, they have each machine built by one person guided by a computer that displays instructions, makes sure the correct hardware is presented, and monitors what is done through a networked screwdriver (Japanese Firm Uses a Single-Worker System to Make Its Products, Jun 1).

On a recent day in Roland DG’s factory in Hamamatsu, a city in central Japan, one employee was assembling from scratch an industrial printer that ultimately would be more than twice her size and weigh almost 900 pounds. Another worker who had just joined the company’s fleet of part-timers was making a prototype milling machine. Yet another was assembling the dental-crown milling machine.

A computer monitor displays step-by-step instructions along with 3-D drawings: “Turn Screw A in these eight locations” or “Secure Part B using Bracket C.” At the same time, the rotating parts rack turns to show which of the dozens of parts to use. Meanwhile, a digital screwdriver keeps track of how many times screws are turned and how tightly. Until the correct screws are turned the correct number of times, the instructions on the computer screen don’t advance to the next step.

Workers are rarely confused, but when they are, there’s a button to press that will bring the floor manager running to help.

This video gives an idea of the system in actions.

(more…)

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