Industrial sheet metal contractors are different than most sheet metal contactors. While all contractors do custom fabrication, as each job is unique, industrial  contractors do a greater variety of products - not just ductwork.

Industrial sheet metal contractors are different than most sheet metal contactors.

While all contractors do custom fabrication, as each job is unique, industrial  contractors do a greater variety of products - not just ductwork.

The flow of work is constantly changing and products fabricated may never be made again. With this in mind, many industrial contractors are hesitant to try lean techniques. They wonder if they are applicable to their shop environment.

While much of it was originally pioneered in the automobile manufacturing industry, lean has also been successfully applied to high-mix, low-volume job shops. Some tools may not always be useful, but others are most applicable. Applying lean thinking will make the industrial contractor more competitive and successful.

When considering possibilities, one should always start with the goal. Doing lean just for the sake of it should never be the end goal. The goal should be to capture and grow market share. Lean becomes a pathway to that goal. For job shops, the focus of lean should be on reducing lead time, improving on-time delivery of the products and reducing waste.

Reducing lead time, meaning the time it takes for a piece of material to be fabricated, will allow contractors to be responsive to customers’ last-minute needs. When customers know they can depend on a contractor to always meet the promised delivery date even in response to a quick turnaround, the customer will become or stay loyal. This puts the contractor in a position to gain market share especially in this very competitive market.

Improving lead time requires a focus on creating continuous - or near-continuous - flow of the fabricated products. Continuous flow will also help identify problems quicker. This can improve quality - another customer requirement. With continuous flow, quicker communication between steps is needed because you can’t hide the problems in the large batches.

Continuous flow also facilitates increased productivity and conserves resources.

Industrial sheet metal contractors should concentrate their efforts in these areas:


We do not run automated fabrication plants; workers make the product and are necessary to make lean work. Front-line workers need to be engaged in reducing lead time and waste. Engagement comes through teaching lean principles and tools, and asking workers what they think can be improved. Management must listen to employee ideas and take action where possible.

Management should discuss each job’s requirements and delivery dates with the workers so they buy in to the requirements. Doing a “walk-through and talk-through” with employees before starting any major job will improve productivity. Creating continuous flow in the job shop environment will necessitate workers with multiple skills so work can be moved around as needed. The work must be safe or workers will feel used. Teach employees problem-solving skills so they will address problems in a systematic and effective way.


For continuous flow to be successful one must ensure that a quality product is being produced. No “GIGO” (garbage in gives garbage out) can be allowed. Masaaki Imai, a renowned lean guru, puts it this way: “Don’t get it. Don’t make it. Don’t send it” in regard to defects and errors.

If one receives bad quality, do not do a work-around but work with the previous supplier to get it right the first time. One must know what “done right” is to make the correct product, and never pass on poor quality work downstream. Workers can do root-cause analysis to prevent GIGO if trained in problem solving.

Small batches

Most industrial fabricators traditionally do work in batch mode. Flow is a foreign concept. Creating continuous flow, or close to it, starts with “FIFO” (first in, first out). Don’t start fabricating a product until all is in place to finish that piece before starting the next. Often what happens is material is sheared and then sits on a rolling table for several days. This table may even get moved out of the way several times during the day.

Do not start a job only to have to stop while waiting for some specialty item on back order. To get the best flow possible, think through the flow of the job and walk through it in the shop to identify ways to move product from one tool or step to the next.

In many cases in the industrial shop, the product can’t flow continuously from one step to the next, but it can be “pulled” to the next. Pull means don’t make or send it to the next step until that step is ready. Many contractors often push product through by cutting all pieces for the job at one time. They then batch load the pieces and move them to the next step. They are pushing it downstream. If the welding station is not finished with the previous job and more product is brought to the work area, it congests the space and creates confusion, as workers now must worry about the next job.

Lean especially focuses on managing the hand-off between steps. Don’t let work pile up; don’t keep cutting more pieces. Move workers around to create flow in the downstream steps. Focus on quick setup for work at each step.

One mistake often made by shops as they expand to a larger shop is to spread out and move tools and equipment further apart. Two of the basic wastes are movement of material and of people. Movement is not value-added work. Don’t spread out in new facilities; keep the distances safe and to a minimum.

Organize the workplace

Reduce “treasure hunts” - people walking around looking for stuff. Use the lean tools of Five S and kanban to minimize such hunts. Workers should carry frequently used tools like tape measures and box cutters on a tool belt. Other tools should be located close to where they are frequently used. There is much wasted time in shops as workers are searching for tools.

Work ‘families'

Contractors typically located all the shear and cutting equipment in one area and all the brake machines, welding units in another and so forth. This is organizing the shop by function. A better way is to focus on common families of products fabricated and arrange key tools in the typical fabrication sequence. Concentrate on the main types of products fabricated, not the once in a lifetime exception. Work to create flexible or virtual work cells that can be rearranged, as different products are required.

Remove bottlenecks

Identify the potential bottlenecks for each type of work. Do frequent “muda,” which means “waste” in Japanese, walks to watch how work flows - or doesn’t. Especially look for piles of work in progress, signaling stalled flow. Watch for when the product is waiting and/or being moved to another tool. These are non-value-added steps and should be reduced if not eliminated. Attack the seven basic types of wastes common in all processes.

Make work visual

Post the jobs to be done each week on a board so workers can see the priorities. Update progress daily so everyone is aware of the status. Mark on the floor where the material is to be placed for the next job. Color code the pieces for each job. Most fabricators use a simple printed color-coded label that cannot be seen or read clearly at any distance away from the label. Design a more visible system so that at a glance one can see if everything is correct or parts are mixed.

Post and review, at least monthly, key measures such as: quality, safety, lead-time target, and actual and on-time delivery.

When industrial fabricators apply these tools, they will be able to gain market share and be more profitable. One must think lean to become lean. Yes, lean does apply in this industry too.

Dennis Sowards is an industry consultant and guest writer for Snips. His company is Quality Support Services Inc. Sowards can be reached at or (480) 835-1185.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail