Lean revolution

Posted on 13 Feb 2009 by The Manufacturer

GKN Wheels, the offshore wheel making division of GKN Group, has implemented several lean practices to streamline its operations including an electronic data interchange system and visual management systems. These have enabled faster order fulfilment, among other benefits. TM talks to company spokesman Colin Hales

One of the UK’s most established engineering businesses — GKN Wheels — a producer of large, off-highway wheels for manufacturers of construction and agricultural plant and machinery, is adopting systems and quality standards previously only seen in the automotive industry, as part of its commitment to lean logistics. This drive for quality is helping to strengthen and add value to the customer and supply chain partnerships.

Colin Hales, plant manager at GKN Wheels Telford, says the introduction of lean logistics methodologies has been a crucial factor in helping to bring about efficiencies.

“My background in the automotive industry has been especially useful in helping to deliver lean logistics at GKN Wheels in Telford,” he says. “For example. automotive manufacturers have been familiar with the principles of visual management for many years but it is still relatively new to the off-highway wheels market. By implementing some simple and effective visual management processes on site, we are delivering our customer orders more accurately, reliably and to a higher standard than ever before.”

Applying lean management processes has not been straightforward in an industry where customer demands have changed relatively little over the years. Without the drive to significantly improve on delivery times or simplify ordering processes, there is less impetus to deliver process improvements. However globalisation of the off-highway industry, and the increased competition this is bringing is helping to accelerate change and encourage manufacturers and suppliers to look for ways to improve efficiency and deliver value to the entire supply chain.

The Importance Of Leadership

With its experience of quality-driven automotive manufacturing, GKN Group has become very committed to lean enterprise — a set of best practice principles which has been adopted by GKN Wheels.Underpinning the commitment to lean logistics, each GKN Wheels manufacturing site has its own Site Continuous Improvement Leader (SCIL) to help instil lean thinking locally. At the Telford site, the SCIL has guided a team to complete a value stream mapping exercise of its entire production process — from receipt of the customer order, through to delivery of product to the customer’s shop floor. In 2009, there are plans to strengthen the company’s commitment to lean enterprise further by providing training for plant managers, which will enable them to actively support the take-up of lean principles across the business.

As part of its commitment to lean logistics, the Telford site is continually reviewing its automated electronic data interchange (EDI) system, which allows customers to share their production schedules with GKN Wheels, which means that orders can be processed automatically to ensure punctual delivery. This streamlined customer interface is particularly useful in the production of off-highway wheels, which require a longer production lead time, largely because they are produced to a bespoke design and finished in the OEM’s preferred paint finish.

“This system gives us a real-time overview of our customer’s demands,” says GKN Wheels’ Hales, “and allows us to plan ahead to ensure we can fulfil their requirements in a reliable and timely way, while keeping finished stock inventories as low as possible. We can also provide customers with a regular analysis of their delivery schedule adherence, showing all variables, such as last minute order changes. It is potentially valuable information, helping customers to identify and address scheduling issues.”

At GKN Wheels in Telford, most of the orders come from big producers of construction or agricultural machinery in the UK, Europe and beyond. With bigger production runs than some of the company’s other global manufacturing centres, the Telford site is well placed to trial lean initiatives. This is evident in the site’s pioneering approach to the introduction of visual management systems.

Seeing The Difference

Since adopting lean enterprise principles in 2007, GKN Wheels Telford has adopted some simple visual management systems, which have helped to improve the accuracy of order fulfilment by optimising production line management to ensure sufficient stocks are available at all times.

Colin Hales explains: “Visual management systems are not complex and make good common sense. We have introduced a lane painting system, which indicates the stock levels available on each production line in the number of production hours it would taketo replenish them. For example, green indicates that four hours or more of stock remains, amber means just two hours of stock remain and red means there is just one hour of stock remaining. At the same time as avoiding production line downtime, we are helping to maintain stock levels for our customers and improving efficiency.”

Similarly in the area of dispatch, GKN Wheels Telford has introduced robust visual management systems, which allow workers to identify individual orders so they can be picked off easily and verified before dispatch.

Lean logistics is still a work in progress at GKN Wheels Telford and Hales is keen to extend the use of technology throughout the production plant. In particular, he believes there is scope for the use of bar coded production line systems, which provide realtime status information about each customer order at every stage of the production process.

“Bar coding systems can work well in any lean engineering environment, particularly where there are multiple production runs underway, delivering medium to high volume orders, at any one time,” he says. “This is something we would like to adopt at Telford in the near future.”

Preparing For The Unexpected

Lean management is also enabling GKN Wheels to be more responsive to unexpected customer demands and this is helping to strengthen customer partnerships.

For example, one customer approached the company recently to ask if it could step in to fulfil a last minute wheels order after they had been let down by another supplier. Referring to accurate visual management systems, including online customer EDI information, it was possible to assess plant capacity quickly and commit to deliver the order in time for the customer to resume production on Monday morning (the customer approached GKN Wheels on Friday).

“While such order demands are exceptional, our ability to deliver on them makes a big difference to the way our customers view us and means they can see the benefits of working with a well-managed supplier, operating to highest best practice standards,” says Hales.

Lean leaders at GKN Wheels Telford remain focused on continuous improvement and believe that the efficiencies that such methodologies can deliver are especially valued during difficult economic conditions. The globalisation of the off-highway vehicles market is driving quality standards throughout the industry and lean management practices are becoming a key differentiator. Colin Hales concludes:

“We are stepping up our commitment to lean enterprise and see it as a key factor in maintaining and growing our market share. Our customers increasingly expect us to be in a position to deliver contracts to the highest possible standards, wherever they are in the world. Our objective is to be in a position to do this, every time.”