Small manufacturer revolutionizing operations with Lean methodology

From left, Ttarp President and Owner Joe McNamara with Planning/Purchasing Manager Michele Agustin.

From left, Ttarp President and Owner Joe McNamara with Planning/Purchasing Manager Michele Agustin. 

Published January 16, 2019

“We needed to become much more efficient in assembly because it was a bottleneck. We couldn’t expand if we didn’t reduce the cycle time on our higher volume standard machines. ”
Joe McNamara, Ttarp Co. President and Owner

Ttarp Co. of Buffalo, NY, was in financial distress when Joe McNamara purchased it in 2013. To save the small manufacturing company from demise, priority went to stabilizing cash flow, updating accounting practices, and crystallizing a renewed sales focus. Fortunately, machine designs and quality weren’t an issue.

The efforts worked. Sales of the company’s technical converting production machinery nearly tripled in less than five years.

Now McNamara’s gaze is on plant operations, and specifically developing a specialty in assembly. This strategic plan for growth relies upon a key stimulant: the Lean methodology of eradicating waste.

Recruiting an employee to dive into Lean was easy, since Planning/Purchasing Manager Michele Agustin had expressed ambitions to become more involved in shop operations. She enrolled in Certified Lean Professional (CLP) training at UB’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE), facilitated by Julie Stiles.

Anyone who embarks on the CLP voyage of learning and applying concepts must identify and lead an improvement project. The area to scrutinize was a clear choice for both Agustin and McNamara.

“We needed to become much more efficient in assembly because it was a bottleneck,” McNamara says. “We couldn’t expand if we didn’t reduce the cycle time on our higher volume standard machines.”

So began a project that would save an estimated $14,000 annually, increase capacity, and be the catalyst for seizing upon greater potential.  

The case for change

Ttarp’s rapid sales growth did not come without pain. Lead time suffered, resulting in a loss of orders, customer grievances, and incapability to handle special orders.

With assistance from an internal project team, Agustin focused on the company’s biggest selling product in the quest to improve on-time delivery.

Lead time for presses averaged 21 weeks, much of it consigned to outsourced components and capacity throughput. Among the controllable processes, McNamara and Agustin knew assembly time was too high.

The CLP experience

When contemplating her months-long commitment, Agustin praises Stiles and the CLP material. “I’m so happy I took it. Career wise and interest wise, it was one of the best things I’ve done.”

She says easy-to-understand curriculum, paired with class interactions and Stiles’ abundance of industry examples, empowered her with a Lean mindset and tools. The first job was to acquire an accurate calculation of assembly time. A previous time study fell short in supplying details and precision.   

“The only way for me to get a good start point was to do a Gemba walk. Following our assemblers, from start to finish,” Agustin explains in recounting the task of observing work processes.

A value stream mapping activity and ensuing data collection showed assembly time amounted to eight days. Though it accounts for only 7.6 percent of the overall lead time, Agustin uncovered varying forms of waste. “I didn’t know the magnitude of it,” she says.

She discovered:

  • Assemblers traveling for over an hour and walking an average of one mile every day to retrieve parts and equipment
  • Inspections that could be eliminated with use of a jig
  • The assembler – who is also a supervisor – being periodically sidetracked by subordinates asking questions or seeking help  

The fix

Ttarp’s blueprint is evolving since Agustin’s project findings. She estimates about 70 percent of the facility underwent physical alterations to address inefficiencies, with more on the way.

The No. 1 change was implementing cellular manufacturing to better support single-piece flow production, replacing a layout that lingered from the historical batch production approach.

Parts once housed at the back of the building now reside in the cells, drastically reducing the assembler’s daily footpath. Heavier parts are stored at ergonomic-friendly heights to reduce the strain of lifting them. Rolling bins travel with the assembler. There is space designated for building a second machine adjacent to the cell in the case of unanticipated delays.   

Cells enable standard work, which fosters improved quality, McNamara points out. Quality, as perceived by the customer, also receives a boost because of the way materials are now stored. The finished product “won’t be as prone to scratches, blemishes and abrasions,” he says.   

“The idea of a higher quality – that’s longevity,” McNamara says. “It’s not going to get you any new sales, but over the course of the next five or six years it will subtly change the brand image.”

The burst of changes also included reassignment of a responsibility that monopolized the assembler’s time, allowing him to concentrate on assembly tasks. Sections of the facility reflect the 5S organization tool at work. Revisions to and expansion of a pull system equate to “not waiting longer than necessary for the parts we need, because we’re no longer overproducing parts that we don’t need,” Agustin says.

Concurrent to the project, McNamara led a separate team in studying the assembly process for a more complex machine. He has piggybacked on her efforts to effect improvements.

The impact

Agustin’s project directly slashed assembly time by two days, to six days. On paper, the calculation indicates capacity to produce 10 more presses annually.

But that assumes no room for the unforeseen. McNamara takes a more realistic view.

“It’s new so we don’t know this yet, but it should enable us to get one or two additional machines a year as a result of the lead time,” he says.

Decreasing assembly time has had an exponential ripple effect on other lead time factors that the company can regulate. This ensued in lead time dropping from 21 to 15 weeks.

“Because we were able to get the two days completely cut off, everything’s just rolling,” Agustin says.

She and McNamara believe lead time will continue to shrink as they examine the cell at a micro-level and turn attention to non-assembly operations.

Stationed on the factory floor is a flip chart beckoning all employees to jot down suggestions for improvement. Agustin manages the process of reviewing and addressing them as part of her new responsibility to manage Lean-based efforts.     

“We can come up with as many ideas as we want, but they’re the ones that really know how this whole thing runs and works,” she says in reference to shop floor personnel. “So their input is extremely valuable to us.”

Agustin’s project was the first step in the Lean-centered continuous improvement journey. As McNamara forecasts, “There’s a lot more to come.”