Montana Boat Builders lead carpenter Tony Davidson feels
the edge of the drift boat he is sanding at the shop in Livingston.
THINKING LEAN PRODUCES BIG RESULTS FOR MONTANA COMPANIES
by Carol Brenner
Being lean is a concern for more than just weight-conscious Americans. Manufacturers, too,
like to be lean, which is best described as eliminating waste in day-to-day operations and being customer driven. Montana companies in communities as large as Billings and as small as Opheim are applying lean manufacturing concepts with help from the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, a national leader among manufacturing assistance programs. MMEC is a statewide outreach center in the MSU College of Engineering.
Overall, the center provides direct, unbiased engineering and managerial assistance, often as a partner with other public and private resources. It has completed more than 1,000 projects since the program began in 1996. The center operates from six offices in the state--two in Bozeman and one each in Missoula, Kalispell, Billings and Helena. More than 500 manufacturers in 47 of the state’s 56 counties have worked with the center.
Much of the center’s help focuses on lean manufacturing best illustrated by the methods that Toyota uses.
Jim Markel of Red Oxx Manufacturing in Billings, which makes sturdy luggage, was operating like a small company, thinking he didn’t need the manufacturing systems that large companies use. When Al Deibert from MMEC arrived at Markel’s door in 1996, Markel employed two workers, and he didn’t see how operating like Toyota would make a difference in his productivity. “If you are adding value with a process, you are a manufacturer,” Markel said. “If you can make 20 fenders in an hour but can only paint two in the same amount of time, you’re losing money. Too much work in progress eats your lunch.”
Now Markel puts a number to everything, and his efforts have paid off. His PR5 Safari Beano received “Gear of the Year” recognition in the 2004 spring issue of Outdoor Buyers Guide and passed rigorous lab tests at the Army Natick Soldier Center in Natick, Mass. The Red Oxx bag beat the overseas competition in design, materials and construction.
At Big Sky Woodcrafters in Laurel, a simple change like turning a table saw around increased productivity because the machine was no longer in the way of other equipment.“When we moved the saw, the footprint changed, productivity increased, and we began getting organized,” said co-owner Kathy Barta. Barta and her husband bought the company in 1995 and struggled with pricing and costs until they finally sought help from MMEC. A cost-of-goods study gave Barta a financial management tool to better compete in a market heavy with foreign labor. BSW now focuses on custom items. “I now know which products make the best profits,” Barta said.
Jason Cajune at Montana Boatbuilders in Livingston thought big about boats. His family ran a 45-foot long tour boat in Glacier Park for more than 30 years. But he thought too small where his business was concerned. Like Red Oxx, he was encouraged to operate like Toyota. Once he began to evaluate materials usage and time tracking, it helped him realize cost and time efficiencies.
MMEC engineer Brian Pendergast saved Cajune thousands of dollars, Cajune said. “Brian took on the monumental task of evaluating our processes from milling raw wood and making finished pieces to composite fiberglass lay-up, and coating and finishing work,” Cajune said. When Montana Boatbuilders built their new building at the end of last year, MMEC and its companion program, the University Technical Assistance Program, helped plan the layout, how to use each room, the placement of machinery and the flow of work space. Instead of 12 to 15 boats a year, the company now produces 20 to 24 custom boats and the same number of boat kits.
MMEC has reached out as far as Opheim in the northeast corner of the state where Granrud’s Lefse produces up to 55,000 one-pound packages of lefse every year. Lefse is a Norwegian flatbread made from potatoes. Owners Twyla Anderson and Alice Redfield operate the seasonal business in a garage, its original home since 1977.
MMEC engineer Dale Detrick analyzed each lefse-making step for time, efficiency and cost. With his help, plans for a new building were drawn, but bids proved too costly. To boost sales for the new building, the company completed a marketing analysis. Lefse packaging and the Web site both got a face-lift, which increased demand and led to plans to automate the original 1977 rolling machine.
Feedback from manufacturers tells MMEC its efforts are paying off with customer satisfaction scores ranking best in the nation among similar centers.
Its Investment Leverage Ratio, an indication of how well MMEC clients have succeeded, ranked second best nationwide. Both measures come from recent federal National Institute of Standards and Technology/Manufacturing Extension Partnership impact measurement systems. “When you consider there are 59 centers (like MMEC), most with more and larger manufacturers, this is nothing short of stellar performance,” says MMEC director Steve Holland.
To provide more opportunities for state manufacturers, Holland now is involved in an effort called MilTech Extension.
“MilTech helps companies with new and innovative technology to overcome technical or logistical difficulties for meeting Department of Defense contract requirements,” Holland said.
A unique partnership with the MSU TechLink Center, MilTech has helped eight Montana companies since it started just over a year ago.