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Companies Use Down Time to Invest in Future

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. That's true of many Wisconsin manufacturers who are busy retooling their operations during the current economic slowdown. These manufacturers believe that lean and other improvement strategies will make them stronger and more competitive once the recovery begins.

"When the economy is red hot and companies are swamped with orders, the quest for greater efficiency often takes a back seat to getting product out the door," says Wayne Raisleger, a Milwaukee based WMEP manufacturing specialist. "It's a Catch 22: companies need to be more efficient but cannot find the time to do so." But now that the economy has slowed, those pressures have eased.

"For many companies, this is an ideal time to invest in the future," says Raisleger. A key reason: employees have more time to participate in training and productivity-enhancing projects.

"There are things manufacturers can do right now to reduce costs, increase profits and win new customers. We're not talking about big-ticket expenditures - we're talking about affordable and proven strategies that offer an immediate payback," he said.

Keeping the focus on improvement also sends a powerful message to employees and customers. "Being proactive gives people a sense of confidence and it builds morale," he said. "It's a statement telling them ‘we're in this for the long haul.' " That's a message many employees need to hear right now.

Arimon finds additional savings

Wire harness manufacturer Arimon Technologies Inc. began laying the groundwork for lean manufacturing last year at its plants in Montello and Manitowoc. The company has worked with WMEP to conduct kaizen events and develop cells. Now that business has temporarily slowed, it is devoting significant employee resources to finding new areas for improvement.

"It's much harder to take people off production when your business is booming - even though you know you will reap benefits down the road," said Randy Detjen, lean manufacturing coordinator for Arimon. A good portion of kaizen is training in problem solving, he said, and "what better time to train than when you are slow."

In recent weeks, Arimon is "re-kaizening" areas in the plant where improvements have already been made. The company is capturing additional savings and hopes to achieve more as the process continues. So far, floor space has been drastically reduced, to the point of consolidating two buildings into one. Quality has been improved and work in process has been significantly reduced.

The company also has made significant strides in shortening lead times and improving on-time delivery, Detjen said.

Other Wisconsin firms are gearing up for busier days ahead. Chris Butzen, owner and president of Brown Deer-based Great Lakes Friction Products, recently shut down production for a day so all 12 company employees could attend a Principles of Lean Manufacturing workshop offered by WMEP.

"We're looking to streamline our processes and improve our efficiency," Butzen said. The firm, which makes brake and clutch parts for a variety of applications from mining trucks to lawn and garden equipment, is in the process of identifying areas for improvement. Employee involvement is critical.

"It's a little easier right now to get the employees involved because we've got a little breathing room," he said.

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WMEP provides technical expertise and hands-on implementation assistance to small and midsize manufacturing firms on advanced manufacturing technologies and business practices includinglean manufacturing, ISO, value chain management, and strategic repositioning services for manufacturers and manufacturing facilities located in Wisconsin.

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