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Lean manufacturing: Using air casters to mobilize your factory floor

How can manufacturers operate more efficiently, more productively, and at reduced cost?

That’s the key question behind lean manufacturing, a strategic approach to designing manufacturing systems and processes to create, as Industry Week writes, “a seamless flow of people, material and information. It’s all about effective use of time.”

Through lean manufacturing techniques, manufacturers can achieve all kinds of benefits, ranging from maximizing floor space to optimizing throughput to minimizing movement. The approach can generate real benefits; for example, Assembly Magazine reports that one manufacturer producing commercial air conditioners and heat pumps was able to reduce hours-per-unit from 9.28 to 5.19, a 44% improvement.

But lean manufacturing relies on agility and adaptability, and manufacturers can easily run into problems here. The ability to re-engineer, re-sequence, and re-position production lines becomes paramount to achieve and maintaining efficiency.

“Focus on the relationship between the machines,” advises Jamie Flinchbaugh, a partner in the Lean Learning Center. “Make sure the equipment fits the flow and fits the relationship between other machines in the manufacturing system.”

But what if the machines don’t fit the system or flow?

That’s where air caster systems come in.

Air casters use standard compressed shop air to literally float loads on a 0.005” film of air, enabling the load to move much like a hovercraft or a puck on an air hockey table. With an air caster system, a single operator can move a machine or assembly weighing multiple tons in minutes simply by pushing. Heavier machines can move just as easily but may require multiple operators for safety.

Thus, using air casters, manufacturers can move almost any element of a production line in minutes without having to schedule costly downtime or hire specialty labor. And because air casters fit within the footprint of the load and can move omnidirectionally, they work even in tight spaces – perfect for lean manufacturing layouts where machines are positioned close together.

Air casters support lean manufacturing principles in several ways.

First, they enable manufacturers to continue using existing machines. Dennis Dureno, vice president of Buker Inc., a management consultancy group specializing in the manufacturing sector, says: “Often, [manufacturers] can come up with ways of utilizing what you already have rather than going out and buying something new. For instance, simply rearranging a piece of equipment may help reduce floor space. Changing feeds and speeds can also help you utilize all the capability of existing machines.”

Second, they enable manufacturers to maintain lean principles over time. The initial lean manufacturing implementation will result in an optimized, efficient manufacturing process; but change is inevitable. Operations grow and shrink. Markets shift. New products are developed, old ones are retired. Organizations move facilities. But lean manufacturing demands constant efficiency. “Keeping material moving requires that you organize machines around product lines,” says Dr. Jeffrey Liker, director of the Lean Program Office and the Japan Technology Management Program at the University of Michigan. “Ideally, you locate them next to each other, in sequence, so material can flow through the processes one piece at a time.”

With air casters, floor layout and production sequencing can be easily changed at any time to accommodate evolving needs and demands, while minimizing (or even eliminating) the downtime required for other load handling systems (e.g., forklifts).

Third, air casters provide more flexibility than other movement systems. For example, air casters can eliminate the requirement for “first in – first out” in an assembly line by floating products on air. Instead, air casters can be used to rework factory floor layouts quickly and easily into any configuration that makes sense under lean principles, e.g. change the orientation of machines to fit more compactly into the available space, quickly remove individual machines for service or replacement, or add new machines without disruption (see graphic below).

With their machines and assemblies literally floating on air, manufacturers can use air casters to make achieving and maintaining lean manufacturing a breeze.




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