Manufacturing a bright future
In the early 2000s, Milwaukee-based Phoenix Products was facing a host of challenges, including increasingly slow deliveries to customers, out-of-control inventory and high employee turnover.
By 2004, the issues had reached a crescendo for the special-purpose lighting equipment manufacturer. “We had been running overtime every Saturday for a year and a half,” recalls Phoenix Chief Executive Officer Scott Fredrick. “We had to do something.”
A Business Journal of Milwaukee article by Professor Emeritus Rajan Suri introduced Fredrick to what that something would be: a set of principles advocated by the UW-Madison Center for Quick Response Manufacturing, founded by Suri and currently directed by Associate Professor Ananth Krishnamurthy.
Five years and a series of joint projects later, Phoenix and the QRM Center have established an ongoing partnership with significant results. The time needed to produce one particular lighting system has decreased from as many as 14 days to three days, overtime costs decreased by 75 percent, inventory turns increased by 46 percent, and revenue per plant hours increased by 27 percent.
The partnership’s first project began in 2005, when QRM Center graduate students worked with Phoenix to evaluate the company’s fabrication processes, and in 2006, students studied Phoenix’s assembly processes and provided recommendations that resulted in major workforce rearrangements. In 2007, the partnership addressed the company’s material handling and storage strategies. In 2010, the partnership began a new project to eliminate work stoppages in all areas of the company, and QRM students have recommended workflow solutions that could save Phoenix as much as four to five hours of lost labor every day.
Krishnamurthy says the partnership is a win-win. “Our industry partners help us understand important issues faced by Wisconsin manufacturers in today’s competitive market, and together we work toward finding new solutions to these tough problems and implementing them,” he says.
“We are proud that our research has helped Wisconsin manufacturers become more competitive and profitable.”
CQPI: Celebrating 25 years of quality research
The offices of the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement (CQPI) are housed in the UW-Madison Engineering Centers Building, but the center’s real work happens in hospitals, intensive care units, nursing stations and other healthcare settings around the country.
Founded in 1985 by Professor Emeritus George E.P. Box and the late Professor William G. Hunter, CQPI was revolutionary from the start for its emphasis on finding quality not only in finished products, but also in the processes leading to products and services. Initially focused on manufacturing quality, CQPI faculty demonstrated a commitment early on to community outreach-oriented work. “CQPI was a huge change in how people thought about quality and methods for analyzing and monitoring quality,” says Procter & Gamble Bascom Professor in Total Quality Pascale Carayon, who has directed the center since 2000. “The center has become known throughout the United States as a place where people have developed a lot of new ideas and models.”
Each CQPI director since Box has steered the center toward different, important process and quality challenges. When Carayon took over, she guided CQPI toward healthcare-based issues, which is mainly what the center now addresses. Carayon also has overseen the transition of center personnel from mainly engineering and statistics researchers to include experts in healthcare and psychology, as well as partners from disciplines across UW-Madison.
Currently, more than 30 researchers and graduate students are affiliated with the center on a variety of projects funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, National Institutes of Health, and U.S. Department of Defense, among other national agencies. Beyond healthcare, CQPI researchers are applying human factors engineering to computer and information security and other work processes.
Carayon says the center’s basic idea of looking at process challenges means the center will never run out of problems to study in collaboration with partners from many industries. “Quality and process improvement is something that is needed everywhere,” she says.
Get the skinny on lean
be competitive is very important, as our manufacturing philosophy needs to be reinvented.”
After 10 years of working with various manufacturing firms, Professor Leyuan Shi has produced a software tool that will help manufacturers implement quantitative management strategies for significant results.
Shi, an optimization expert, says quantitative management is about matching tasks, such as custom orders, with available resources, such as idle machines. She has created a framework to do this complex matching, and the principles of that framework make up the backbone of the new tool.
“Helping manufacturers be competitive is very important, as our as manufacturing philosophy needs to be reinvented,” Shi says. “This tool will help tremendously in making our manufacturers more efficient and profitable.”
Efficiently matching tasks and resources eliminates waste, the goal of a business strategy known as lean manufacturing. “When people start talking about implementing lean, they usually only consider qualitatively applying the general concept to a particular part of their operations,” Shi says. “By collaborating with several different manufacturing firms over the years to use my optimization framework theory, we’ve created a ready-to-use tool for systematically achieving lean production throughout a company’s entire operations.”
The tool is composed of a user-friendly interface connected to a remote scheduling-optimization server. Companies purchase subscriptions to automatically upload real-time operational information and create and optimize schedules. The tool is affordable since businesses don’t have to purchase any expensive software or hardware, and Shi is able to keep track of how the tool is working in various settings and continually tune it for better performance in the client’s factories.
Currently, three manufacturers are using the tool, and Shi is piloting it with several clients of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
Early results from Shi’s partners indicate a 25-percent increase in capacity, or the ability to produce more output with the same labor and equipment. Shi anticipates future partners will see even better capacity results, as well as significant decreases in inventory and lead times.