Work cells can take you step-by-step to a more efficient workplace.

Have you ever considered installing work cells in your sheet metal shop?

W. Edwards Deming, Ph.D., the father of numerical quality-control systems and one of the individuals most responsible for turning the post-World War II Japanese industrial complex into a quality-control leader, might think that's a dumb question to ask.

Although it is not clear exactly how much Deming directly contributed to the Japanese efficiency concepts of "quality control circles," which allowed the people in a specific work cell to function as an independent "team" of problem solvers and efficiency seekers, or the design of work cells and their implementation, it is clear that these two concepts were closely linked to and highly dependant on his quality-control systems.

Toyotal production system

One of the most widely recognized examples of quality-control circles, work-cell applications and numerical quality-control manufacturing is the world-famous Toyota production system, often called TPS. The waste-reducing process introduced such concepts as just-in-time delivery.

Toyota Motor Corp. is considered world-class in efficiency, quality and competitiveness. And few people would argue that work cells have a great deal to do with that success.

But it takes more than systems and machines to create and support manufacturing, or in the sheet metal industry, fabrication excellence. It takes "change."

In an interview, Deming was asked if other nations had adopted his methods, especially the United States.

Deming said his suggestions were well received by engineers, but most people in management ignored them.

Then he was asked why the Japanese were different, especially since they may not have fully grasped the concepts at the time.

Deming replied that he felt the Japanese never considered themselves too old to learn or change.

You may wonder how this all applies to sheet metal shops. Actually, it's a lot more relevant than you might think.

Applying it to sheet metal

Your HVAC shop and every other HVAC shop in the world already uses work cells, but they probably have never been organized for productivity and efficiency. (See "Too much, too little or too late," June 2004). Here's an example.

A coil-line operation could qualify as a work cell. But what makes it a work cell?

To qualify, your coil-line (full or partial) operator must have everything he or she needs to produce full joints (or variable-length plasma sheets) throughout the course of a normal eight-hour workday within three steps of an imaginary work cell "boundary" around the coil line.

This means operators have an overhead power hoist to load the coils from a coil-holding area immediately adjacent to the coil cradles - no hunting down a forklift. Also, work orders with sticky labels delivered or downloaded to the coil-line controller, a personal bar-code reader for job, time and task-productivity tracking.

The operator must also have an efficient and properly positioned exit system for the full joints or plasma variable-length sheets, both of which are totally dependant on the relationship positioning of two other work cells, the staging/shipping areas and the plasma-machine work cell.

On the other hand, if the coil-line operator must go find a forklift and retrieve coils from a distant coil-holding area, or constantly walk back and forth to the office to pick up printouts and sticky labels, or push rolling tables of variable-length sheets 75 or 100 feet to the plasma machine, then the coil line is not set up as an efficient work cell.

So the real question now becomes this: Can a relatively unsophisticated HVAC sheet metal fabrication shop successfully adapt the advanced productivity and efficiency technology used in companies such as Toyota? Yes. Will there be some risk and financial commitment required? Yes. Will the chance of long-term benefits far outweigh the time and cost required? Yes.

To get a sense of how efficiently your shop is right now, take a minute and have the shop supervisor walk through the connector fabrication operations. Have him or her count the footsteps. Do the same thing with the vanes and tie-rod-fabrication areas. Now compare the footsteps required in your shop with the model connectors, vanes and tie-rod work-cell setups in the sketches with this article.

Surprised? Now just imagine if your total shop operation were set up with highly efficient work cells that can increase productivity 20 percent, 30 percent or more at each operation. Work cells can do exactly that.

(Efficiency expert Jim Segroves is the author of Sheet Metal Shop Burden Recovery Guidelines. Contact Jim Segroves Consulting at 712 E. Walnut St., Garland, TX 75040; call (972) 494-6333; fax (972) 272-7062; see on the Internet.)