One of the latest fads in business is “LEAN” everything. Most often the concept of lean gets implemented in the United States simply by having fewer people doing more work. It is a shame that this very powerful tool has been misunderstood and misused by so many American companies. This is reminiscent of the Just- In Time craze a decade ago. The Japanese created JIT as a robust manufacturing philosophy that reduced inventory,improved quality and substantially reduced risk through out the supply chain. US manufacturers only saw a slick delivery system that simply put the burden of the inventory onto the supply chain.

If American manufacturers looked at ‘Lean’ from a different perspective, and thought outside of the box they would find a whole new world with greater capacity, more throughput, reduced costs, better quality and compete with the Chinese head to head. Unfortunately, monthly and quarterly statements or what the “analysts” might think , get in the way all too often.

In the plastics molding world, the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) keeps statistics on the industry. Boiling down their volumes of data you can get a look at what lean can be. They indicate that a molder with more than 6 employees per machine is probably not doing very well. A molder with 4 to 5 employees per molding machine is doing OK, and any molder with less than 4 employees per machine should be doing just fine.

How does a molder go from more than 6 employees to 4 or less per machine? The MBA way is just down size and start laying off skilled (expensive) personnel. The correct way would be to add sales and automation without adding more people, and extensively train the workforce in new methods.

The Japanese have embraced a technology they call “lights out” for nearly 30 years. By running multiple shifts with only the day shift manned and the off shifts unmanned your operations become”Lights Out” This is the ultimate in LEAN, but you have to really think outside the mainstream to make this work.

International Plastics is a “lights-out molder”. While the rest of the molding world struggles to get down to 4 employees per machine (Excluding Administration), International Plastics operates 2.2 machines per employee (Including Administration). While computers, robots and automation large and small dominate the manufacturing space, employees find meaningful not menial work.

It’s time for American molders to stop whining about China and start thinking lean. Lean does not mean down size, go brain dead, or roll over for China, India or whoever is the cheap labor of the day – it means grow, expand, be creative, try new methods and automate everything you can, and attack the market. The Chinese have only 1 advantage – cheap labor, if you make your product with little or no direct labor you just beat them at their own game. Remember their standard of living is going up- so will their wages. In ten years their labor cost will be on par with the rest of the Pacific Rim, and you will have an even greater advantage from automation. Jack Welch of GE fame said it best more than a decade ago, “You have 3 choices, Automate, Emigrate, or Evaporate.”

International Plastics has been a leader in lights out molding technology for nearly 18 years – we have chosen to automate.