Fabricator’s POV
Ditching disruptions
Improving communication and paying attention to details can help eliminate mistakes that lead to downtime

mproper planning and unrefined processes are major factors in creating unnecessary downtime in a fabrication shop. A typical project can make its way through several stops and departments before it gets sent out the door, making communication and preparation among employees a necessary part of smooth operations.

“Planning how a job will be executed is critical for a cost-effective fabrication process,” says Spencer Garbs, director of manufacturing for WB Industries, a custom metal and structural fabrication, welding, and precision machining company based in O’Fallon, Missouri. “Improper or inconsistent planning can take the form of missing dimensions, inaccurate cut lists and incorrectly ordered material—among other things. These result in material supply issues, insufficient blueprints, quality concerns, which all lead to production downtime and negative financial impacts.”

Row together
In rowing, “catching a crab” refers to a rower losing control of his or her oar. The blade gets trapped in the water as a result of the boat’s momentum and the handle swings backward, sometimes going over the rower’s head. Needless to say, this mistake affects the entire boat—and slows everyone down.

The same type of quick, unexpected stop can occur in a workflow, and it’s critical to ensure that teams are working together to achieve efficiency and avoid disruption. “All levels and departments of the company need to understand the entire process and how their actions impact the company as a whole,” says Garbs. “This approach focuses on the team-first mentality, rather than the individual and departmental silos that often form due to personal goals that aren’t necessarily aligned with the company’s goals. A good analogy for this is a ship with one oar in the water for each department. If everyone rows at their own pace without clear expectations, the boat flounders in the water and makes little progress. However, if they all row in sync with each other, their resulting performance is markedly better, with improved morale as a bonus.”

Start at the top
Garbs says a good starting point for evaluating fabrication processes are high-level enterprise value stream maps, which are “great tools for identifying both the current process parameters as well as potential risk areas for future Kaizen events. Another step could be internal process audits to ensure the operators are following the documented processes. It is not uncommon in manufacturing for operators to deviate from the trained method and create a quality problem that the documented process would have mitigated.” In addition, Garbs says that management Gemba walks, which involve going to see the actual processes, understand the work, ask questions and learn, “are a great way to have a fresh set of eyes observe the fabrication process to identify potential issues before they escalate.”

At WB Industries, an opportunity to weld thicker material to exacting specifications for a customer gave the company a chance to refine its processes.

“I coordinated a weld trial based on the target materials involved,” Garbs says. “The variables for the critical weld parameters were identified (weld wire size, weld wire manufacturer, weld type, material thickness, preheat/no heat, cleaned/not cleaned welds, backing bar spacing, etc.). The combinations from these variables resulted in 60 unique, numbered weld samples that were tested by an external lab for their weld quality. Based on the lab testing, we chose the weld parameters with the best results for our application.” Those parameters were then included in the project plan and provided significantly better results.

Ongoing refinement
For process improvements to be effective, however, Garbs says “constant feedback and communication, consistent monitoring of performance, and corrective measures to prevent recurrences,” are all necessary.

“And although it’s often overlooked, it is critically important to include the production operators in the improvement process,” he says, “because they are the ones handling the customers’ products, and they have so much valuable information to offer.”

WB Industries
O’Fallon, Missouri, 636/272-2366, w-bindustries.com.