In an industrial park just outside of Southampton is SPI Lasers, a firm who have seen the light when it comes to lean and have used it to become a serious player in the fibre laser game invited me for a visit. The company began life as Southampton Photonics Inc in 1999. The firm came about off the back of a project at The University of Southampton focused around the telecoms boom of the late 90’s. In 2001, when the telecoms industry crashed, the company went in to hibernation and later re-emerged in 2003 after appointing a new CEO and decided to focus on fibre lasers instead of telecoms. In January 2004 the company launched its first products. Since then the company has gone from strength to strength. I sat down and spoke with Don Riddel, chief operations officer for SPI, about the way lean had helped the company and the journey it had taken them on.
The company was growing quickly and in 2008 were in need of investment to continue their upward trajectory. In stepped Trumpf, a large German manufacturer of metal processing equipment: “When Trumpf came in they had a lean programme since 1998 and they brought in an ex-Toyota consultant to help set it up. They’d been doing it for more or less 10 years when they’d acquired us and they had rolled it out across all plants,” Don tells me.
“So when they acquired us in 2008 along with that came SYNCHRO which is their lean production system and it’s essentially synchronised production. A product comes along to the right place, at the right time with the right person the right tools and the right materials and is about synchronising that so you are constantly creating a value add at the workplace.”
SPI’s lean journey began in 2009 but it wasn’t smooth sailing. Despite their parent company having a lean programme that was about a decade old, it was in a completely different field and on a totally different scale.
“So you go to a Trumpf site to see how they’ve implemented it and they’re making flatbed cutting machines that are the size of a room with a TAKT time of 2 or 3 days. We’re looking at that saying that looks really incredible but how the hell do you apply that to making a fibre laser which is something small that you can pick up.”
Despite the lack of a blue print or like for like system for SPI to copy, through some trial and error they honed their lean strategies to suit their business. The company is a big user of Kanban in their production process and use a milk run system to ensure that parts are where they need to be when they are needed.
The factory is also covered in whiteboards and visual aids. As Don took me round he said “I don’t think there’s a wall in here that doesn’t have one on.” Everything is represented visually, Don explained that meetings concerning the shop floor took place on the shop floor and that daily meeting always happened stood up around a white board because it helps with focus. The whiteboards are covered with order updates, prioritised fault fixing and feedback from employees.
As a laser manufacturer, SPI encounter quite a few issues that are unique to them and their field. “Probably the biggest challenge is that you need good stabilisation in your production in terms of yields. High yields, low rework, good predictability to get to the point where something is running in a single piece flow.”
It is also a struggle to design a product to be lean when there is so much precise technology involved, Don explains that, “it sucks the R and D community in more than they want to be because there’s a lot of problems you can’t just solve in production, there’s a lot of physics and rocket science involved and so when you’re sitting down with your designers and say ‘I need this to work 99 times out of 100’ and they’re talking about what photons are doing and this and that but you’re saying ‘I don’t care I want it to work 99 times out of 100’ that forces you in to a much more structured approach.”
The approach that the team at SPI took was to get rid of the word yield because, as Don put it, “what production people tend to do is take the product of all those yields and say that’s our end to end yield. That doesn’t help in the context of lean.” The firm now uses on a ‘right first time’ method, “. If you launch 10 parts how many made it to the end with no problems no disruptions. It’s that percentage that we really care about.”
Lean is often seen to be the enemy of innovation, but for SPI the company needs to keep down costs but also stay at the leading edge of innovation if they want to maintain their place in the market. While speaking to Don he mentioned the fact that “you are only ever six months ahead of your rival.” The importance for the firm to constantly innovate is crucial.
That is why the firm design products with their lean manufacturing processes in mind. “At the very start, at the concept stage with R and D engineers, we trained them and then we worked alongside them developing the concept so that we could maximise what we could do.”
The key for SPI was to give their designers clear targets and training that helped them to achieve these goals. In designing the 4th generation of one of their products Don told me, “A lot of it’s not rocket science but we halved the number of piece parts. We actually reduced to 30% the number of unique parts, we gave them the target to get the labour down to 30% of the generation 3 product.”
In terms of mind set the point was to always be critical of their own work. It wasn’t to be happy with something if it worked, but whether or not the stages of design, production and function were all value add, “They picked through it and they latched on to the idea of breaking things down in to value, essential non value and true waste. They were the guys saying ‘why did we screw that in?’ But they had actually designed the generation three so they were critically analysing their own product, that was actually making sure what they put in to the generation four product was value add or really was essential non value add.”
Another common issue with lean is getting everyone in the organisation to buy in. It is one thing to have grand designs for your company that save you money, make you more competitive and move the organisation forward but if you don’t communicate the changes and why they are being put in to place then you might risk a mutiny, or at least some parts of the company not pulling as hard as other parts. SPI made sure that all members of staff understood the changes that were happening and why. “The question is can you really be an excellent company if it’s only driven by a few people. That was the big question and we thought no you can’t be.”
SPI has engrained lean in to the business plan from the very roots. Everything bears the mark of lean thinking, whether it is heijunka boards in the fibre production facility, a mechano-esque system for workers that allows quick and easy manipulation of the work place or training programme for every worker to help identify waste accurately. To SPI lean is “like a virus, it’s incredibly powerful.”