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Lean Helps Small Company Do More With Less

ARS teamed with Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership to increase work volume

Published: Wednesday, September 20, 2017 - 11:02

American Rheinmetall Systems (ARS) LLC, formerly Vingtech, is located in Biddeford, Maine. Established in January 2007, as part of a Norwegian company that had received a supplier contract for the U.S. Army’s CROWS remote weapon station program, the company was acquired by the Rheinmetall Group in June 2010. In 2016, the company changed its name to American Rheinmetall Systems to better associate itself with its parent company in Germany, Rheinmetall Defence.

ARS is a mechanical and electro-optical engineering company specializing in sophisticated system integration, assembly, and R&D. Its core business has not changed over the years; ARS still supports the remote weapon station but has also won additional contracts with the U.S. Army and Navy. Electro-optics and fire controls are their specialties; assembly and testing is done at their plant in Biddeford.

They don’t do fabrication; all the components are purchased from suppliers. These are militarized products that must perform in rigorous environments, in both high and low temperatures, and through heavy vibration. The tolerances to make them work across this wide band are incredibly tight; everything has to go together exactly.

ARS got in touch with the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP) in 2015 because they felt that their hands-on assembly processes had a lot of inefficiencies. Bruce McGill, one of GBMP’s continuous improvement managers, was assigned to the project. Within a little over two years, all of their existing work centers have gone through lean events and all production employees have participated in at least one project.

Brad Hittle, president and CEO of ARS, oversaw the initiative: “We picked one work center at a time to do the inch-wide, mile-deep approach and by the time we got to the last couple of projects there was a real enthusiasm. It’s infectious, when one group starts to take off on their own, the others see that and it’s inspiring. As we approached the last couple of projects employees were saying ‘I’ve been waiting for you to pick my work center.’ That’s when I knew we had gone about this in the right way, as it had started to build on itself rather than being a flash in the pan. By the time we got to the last project, there wasn’t any more selling to do.”

ARS’ products were designed in Norway and not originally expected to sell in great numbers. When the company landed a contract for 15,000 pieces, they found that their processes weren’t suitable for that kind of quantity. As they tried to scale up to handle that kind of volume, they naturally did things like building huge batches and sub-assemblies, carrying a lot of work-in-process inventory and sharing tools.

“GBMP’s Bruce McGill has been an awesome fit for us because he has such broad experience,” says Hittle. “We needed to communicate to staff that using single-piece flow and 5S will make your job easier. That’s a hard sell, sometimes, to people who have been doing things the same way for several years. That’s where Bruce was invaluable to us, because there wasn’t any objection that people came up with that he couldn’t counter with a demonstration proving that the lean approach works better.”

“ARS is serious about thinking differently,” say McGill. “Brad recognizes that lean is good for employees and for customers. He understands that sustainable change must come from their people, by allowing them to quickly apply what is learned through education and training to their own processes. I expect them to continue to make good gains as they use lean methods such as value-stream mapping to uncover more opportunities to strip non-value-added activities from their daily work.”

ARS’ production lead, Chris Lamont, shared his perspective: “When first approached with the prospect of introducing lean into our organization I was admittedly a bit skeptical. Sure, larger organizations with tons of resources could benefit, but would there be a positive impact on a modest operation such as ARS? The answer turned out to be yes. By simply removing as much waste as possible from each process, we improved productivity in measurable ways that were visible immediately by the whole team. With full support from top management, I believe we’ll be able to sustain continued improvements well into the future.”

ARS is in the process of transforming from a workshop to a stand-alone U.S. business. Parent company, Rheinmetall Defence, has made an investment in its future development. In order to accommodate growth, ARS needed to streamline its operation, create more space, and free up employee’s time to take on additional contracts.

“When the corporate folks are here from Germany, we show off a little by demonstrating that we are still doing the same amount of work in less space and they are very interested in that,” says Hittle. “We didn’t want to constantly be expanding the building and hiring new workers, because there are inevitable ups and downs in the defense business. We’ve tried very hard to keep our workforce as steady as possible. In order to do that, we had to have a lot more flexibility in time and space. Our key performance indicators for these projects asked how much cycle time can we reduce and how much floor space can we open up?”

Through the various lean events, they have freed up a huge block in the middle of their mechanical assembly production floor and are doing the same amount of work in 9,000 square feet of space as they were doing two years ago in 20,000 square feet. This gives them the ability to put an additional line in on short notice.

As part of the training, participants were shown how to create spaghetti diagrams to document their existing processes. This enables people to identify redundancies and wasted motion. Initially, one process had 72 different steps before it was reduced to 31 steps.

Significant cycle-time improvements occurred in ARS’s electro-optics assembly area. Originally there were multiple jobs and everyone controlled a small piece of the process. With some cross training, they’ve gotten to the point where each employee can build an entire camera from start to finish and the amount of time needed to build a unit has been reduced by 40 percent. This was a fundamental change to how this assembly was approached.

“We had such a disjointed process with so many bottlenecks that if one person called in sick it could really throw a major wrench in the works,” says Hittle. “Now, if one person calls in sick, it just takes out one-sixth of your production for the day and doesn’t affect the other five-sixths. We don’t have machines that do the work, we have people. For us, they are our greatest asset.”

Another lesson from the training was that “it doesn’t have to be perfect.” One group worked out of a makeshift cell for weeks and found more things that they wanted to improve as time went on. Eventually they got to the point of wanting to build a more permanent set up but had gained greater insight into the process by taking baby steps.

Hittle summed up the experience saying, “We used a typical kaizen approach, we didn’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, we didn’t take years, and we didn’t have to take lines down. Employees just found a better way to do what they were already doing. They eliminated waste that was mostly in the form of empty space and lost time searching for tools and walking great distances. Now, everyone understands that continuous improvement is what we do, it’s a part of our culture.”


About The Author

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Based at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, GBMP is your one-stop resource for continuous improvement education and facilitation. GBMP stands for the “Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership” but the nonprofit organization works with companies all over the world providing suggestions and solutions resulting in millions in cost savings and increased sales. Each year GBMP trains more than 7,000 people on continuous improvement principles in customized, on-site classroom and shop-floor training sessions and educates more than 1,000 participants in public workshops, plant tours, and the Manufacturing Roundtable.