Getting Productive

By Mark Madler – San Fernando Valley Business Journal    Monday, August 11, 2014

A manufacturing rebound has helped the recovery despite little job growth. One answer to the riddle can be found in new technologies boosting shop-floor efficiency.

Like many manufacturing companies in Southern California, aerospace parts supplier B&B Manufacturing in Santa Clarita finds itself under pressure from customers to keep costs down.

So the company, which employs 230 workers spread out in five buildings at the Valencia Business Center, meets that challenge with a strategy summed up as “better before faster.”

What that statement means, said Jeff Lage, vice president at B&B, is using statistical analysis to develop steps in the manufacturing process that reduce waste, produce higher quality parts and precisely meet customer specifications.

After all, getting it done right the first time is probably the single biggest efficiency step in manufacturing.

“If we can improve the process capabilities we will have less scrap and less poor quality parts,” Lage said.

Manufacturing is an industry in transition as new equipment, new technology and new ways of doing business boost efficiency and productivity – even as employment numbers dwindle.

These changes were highlighted in a recent study from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. on manufacturing in Southern California – and its paradox of producing more with fewer workers.

Los Angeles County still has the largest manufacturing base in the country, with more than 360,000 workers, but job losses have been brutal: some 169,000 were lost between 2002 and 2012, according to the report.

Indeed, the San Fernando Valley has been an example of this trend as much as anywhere in the country.

Manufacturing came into its own during World War II when thousands were employed assembling aircraft at the Lockheed plant in Burbank, and by the parts suppliers feeding that work. But Lockheed closed its Burbank operations in the early 1990s with the end of the Cold War and cut backs in defense spending. Still, aerospace remains a big part player locally, from the large component manufacturers such as Northrop Grumman Corp., to small machine shops.

And from Glendale to Camarillo and north to Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley, companies in other industries are making medical devices, health and beauty products, specialty vehicles, batteries, security barriers, lighting fixtures and movie making equipment, among other products. All in all, the county accounts for nearly 30 percent of manufacturing jobs in the state, according to the LAEDC study.

Christine Cooper, vice president of economic and policy analysts at the LAEDC, and one of the authors of the study, said the diversity of the region’s manufacturing base has always been one if its strengths.

“It’s not dependent on any one industry for prosperity,” she said.

Now, manufacturing is undergoing a transformation. High-volume, labor-intensive manufacturing is relocating to other states and foreign countries where labor costs are lower. And what remains are sophisticated products that lend themselves to technology advances, such as automation, 3-D printing, and state of the art software.

Three of those companies, Natel Engineering Inc.. Frazier Aviation, and Solid Concepts Inc., are highlighted in separate profiles that follow.

Sophisticated software

Some of the biggest advances have come from CNC-controlled machines. That’s an acronym for computer numerical control, software that can operate control mills, lathes and water jet cutters with little human help. Mastercam from CNC Software Inc. in Tolland, Conn., and HSMWorks, from Autodesk Inc. in San Rafael, are two of the most common software programs.

Joe Klocko is director of the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, a state program that provides training and education to manufacturers.

He said manufacturing software is so sophisticated that it can analyze the design of a part to determine the most efficient way to make it. “It will optimize the time and spindle speed. It tells you if you make this part it can only be assembled in one way,” he marveled.

But all that technology means that companies must invest in employee education and training.

Jeannine Kunz, managing director of workforce and education for SME, a Dearborn, Mich. Manufacturing industry trade organization, said training is something her group stresses.

“Otherwise you end up with technology people are not utilizing to the fullest and businesses not getting a (return on investment) with that technology,” she said.

The production floor at B&B contains up to 100 CNC machines, some of which have a starting price of $750,000. Lage said that kind of investment requires his company to place emphasis on training employees – both how to use the machine and how to solve problems when something goes wrong.

If a part is made incorrectly, workers and managers analyze the mistake until the answer is found. B&B likes its employees to be lifelong learners and all new hires spend time in the inspection department, the smallest in the company, to determine if they are a team player.

“We care about our culture because it has so much impact down the road,” Lage said. “We have to be moving in the same direction to get that synergy and that is a tall task.”

Kunz from the SME recalls a large car company that wanted its labor force to improve its efficiency. It started by looking at the 30 job classifications at its plant and how it took several people to accomplish one task.

The solution was to broaden the skills of the workers so they didn’t have to wait for another person to do the next step on the production line. “There is movement toward broader based skill sets,” she said.

Klocko works with manufacturers primarily in areas north of the 118 freeway and into Ventura County. He said he gets all sorts of responses when making suggestions on improving productivity. Some welcome the changes while others basically give it lip service. But the benefits are clear to him.

“If you are not moving into the (efficient) direction you are going into an out of business mode,” he said.

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