Machine Layout—When determining the layout that would best match the flow between two or more machines, the machine layout needs to allow fluid, for efficient worker motion. blueS4 Inc. has arranged the use of quick-access storage devices, including shadow boards and magnetic plates to secure metal tools and clearly label trays and bins.

Machine Workstations—Small, well-organized worktables at each machine minimize operator movement between tasks and eliminate time-wasting searches for commonly used tools. Limited table surface area encourages red tape is attached to some tools to make sure they remain at the proper machine workstation. Each workstation has a computer, keyboard and flat screen monitor located near the machine control for easy access to the shop management system.

Carts—blueS4 Inc. uses a number of carts to facilitate parts and equipment movement throughout the shop. For every new job, a job cart is stocked according to a pre-processing checklist, which lists everything an operator will need to set up and run that particular job. Items on the job cart might include the job folder, material cut to size, preset tools loaded in a caddy, vises or fixtures, measurement devices and so on. A finished parts cart is positioned at each machine to allow easy part transfer to another machine, the shipping department or assembly stations.

Two dedicated inspection carts enable operators to perform in-process or first-article inspection at any machine. Two "plug-and-play" vacuum table carts contain everything needed to quickly install a vacuum table into a machine, including vacuum pump, vacuum gauges, a manifold with quick-release vacuum line fittings and a canister for collecting coolant that might be pulled into the vacuum system.

Workholding—The shop has Mazak CNC machine tools from a number of manufacturers. Though it hasn't standardized on a machine tool manufacturer, it has settled on a means of quickly installing vises and dedicated fixtures into the machines. The bed of each machine is fitted with a subplate drilled to accept locating dowels installed in the bottom of every vise and dedicated part fixture. Vise hole patterns on the subplate allow vises to be positioned in different locations inside the machine. Once positioned over the correct hole pattern for that particular job (using rollers to position the vise so as not to damage the subplate), the vise is bolted to the subplate. Vise dial-in is not necessary because the location of each vise hole pattern on the subplate is known. Once the vise is installed, a macro at the beginning of each part program will set the machine's coordinate system to match the vise zero position.

blueS4 Inc. currently has as many computers as it does employees. In addition to the office and engineering department, computers are located at every blueS4 Inc. machine tool, the tool presetting station, the vise assembly area, the shop leader's job scheduling and monitoring station, and the shipping department

Common Knowledge

A searchable, global knowledge base allows workers to perform a keyword search to find an answer to particular problem they might be experiencing (plastic parts chipping, for example). Workers can also add to this knowledge base if they think they have information that will be of value to others. Such an open and available pool of information means that an experienced worker who leaves the company won't be taking tribal knowledge along with his or her toolbox. The system also offers thread-based messaging, similar to public web sites, which is another way employees can communicate with one another.

Complete instructions—All information required to set up, run a job and inspect parts is included in the job's setup page. This may be a combination of text instructions, photos and video. The instructions contain what might be considered obvious information (such as when to blow off chips or when to check for part features) to allow quick ramp-up for a person new to that particular job. The job's CAD/CAM programmer will typically document these steps during a job's first part run.

Auto messaging—The shop management system is set up to automatically send messages to shop workers or management when tasks are completed or problems arise. Such instances include the moment a new job is assigned to a CAD/CAM programmer, a machining task is over budget, a job is complete and ready to be shipped, or a machine is scheduled for routine maintenance.

Documentation—All documentation that must be included with a job upon delivery to the customer is automatically generated when the shipping department produces the job's packing slip. Blue.S4 asks its customers to fill out a customer profile which, among other things, lists the documentation they require with their parts. Such documentation might include first-article inspection, in-process quality data, material certification, certification of conformance and so on.

Scheduling—Every job is tracked in real time. So as each part is completed, a progress bar for that job shortens accordingly on a scheduling page. When a job is completed, the job in queue automatically drops into place in the schedule. By knowing the schedule down to the hour often many days in advance, management can accurately schedule work weeks or months ahead of time.

Making It Easier

Workers spend about 10 percent of each day dedicated to shop improvement activities. A problem/solution board, located near the shop entrance, provides a means for workers to identify an efficiency bottleneck, offer a possible solution and also rank the solution in terms of cost versus payback.