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Promat Preview: The Prospects For Lean Material Handling Are Looking Up

Dec. 28, 2006
By investing in the right equipment, companies can take their lean manufacturing practices to a higher level.

The main goal of material handling is to move products quickly and efficiently through a warehouse. The less time a product sits, the better.

The main goal of lean manufacturing is to eliminate waste in all facets of a business, particularly when it comes to reducing inventory. Lean material handling, then, sounds like an idea that marries two like-minded concepts. And that's true enough, but don't be fooled into thinking that this marriage won't require a lot of work.

According to Dick Ward, executive vice president with the Material Handling Institute of America (MHIA), lean material handling often requires having the right equipment in place, and as he sees it, the best place to start is with horizontal and vertical carousels, and vertical lift modules (VLMs). A VLM, as defined by the MHIA, is a storage system that consists of two parallel columns, each of which is divided into fixed shelf locations that can hold a single storage module such as a tray or tote. This type of equipment helps companies maintain the simple practices required by lean by delivering automation that can boost productivity.

Sheet metal stored in vertical lift module"Lean manufacturing is all about managing your processes simply with a measurable response to deliver a return on investment," Ward explains. "You can achieve the first steps of lean very easily, and then you reach a point where you can look for the next opportunity. Many times, carousels and VLMs can help you make the most of that opportunity," he notes, as well as the most of existing space.

Rogan Corp., for instance, a Northbrook, Ill.-based manufacturer of 13,000 different types of hardware knobs and dials, launched a lean manufacturing initiative with the aims of increasing productivity, reducing labor and freeing up floor space. Using five VLMs in three departments, the company was able to free up 5,000 sq. ft. of floor space, with "up" being the key word as part of the strategy involves two 21-ft. VLMs for buffering mold bases, and another two VLMs for semi-finished inventory.

Rogan has put the freed-up space to good use by setting up manufacturing cells using both existing and new equipment, giving the company greater control in process inspection and greater throughput without increased labor costs. Productivity has increased by 22% and inventory has been dramatically reduced.

For Texas Aero Engine Services Ltd. (TAESL), which provides maintenance on aerospace engines, VLMs provide a better way to track inventory and a distinct upgrade from the manual shelving TAESL had been using. Too much time was being wasted while workers went searching for parts, picking them from the shelves, filling their carts, and then moving the carts to where the engines were being rebuilt. Another problem was that the company was running out of available warehouse space.

Instead of adding more square footage to the warehouse, TAESL opted to add six, 32-ft. high VLMs, which are linked with the company's SAP-based enterprise software. Thanks to an improved ability to manage capacity, TAESL saw return on investment for the solution within three months.

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