There’s a Method to This Engineering Thing

ISE Magazine Volume : 50 Number: 01
By Raj Sanne

Simplification and asking the right questions make for better aircraft and assembly

Broadly speaking, methods study can be defined as a systematic study, recording and critical examination of how people, systems and organizations do things in order to make improvements. This definition can be applied to any process in manufacturing, services or other sectors. It is a technique of subjecting each step of a process to close and critical analysis and identifying unnecessary or nonvalue-added activities or parts of the process that do not contribute to making a product or service.

This is the removal of things that a customer does not want to pay for but that do add to the cost. It is the essence of industrial and systems engineering.

The art of elimination and simplification

Industrial and systems engineers have various approaches to improve processes.

For example, we can eliminate a step in a process, if possible. This will eliminate all elements and equipment used in the step or process. This should be the first focus, as it produces the best results. Not only does it eliminate the cost of the step, it eliminates the possibility that the step could introduce an error into the process.

Management could combine steps, tools, jigs and fixtures to enable simultaneous processing and minimize any handling involved in the process. The jigs/fixtures used should be combined if possible to minimize the number used in a process. Likewise, rearranging steps or processes can eliminate redundant steps or elements of a process.

After elimination, ISEs should look to simplify the steps of a process. Simplification involves establishing and standardizing the new process. For optimal performance, standard operating procedures should cover tools, workplace or line layout, materials and tools arrangement and the sequence of work performed.

The general principles of methods improvements should include principles of ergonomics.

This includes how workers use their hands and fingers. Visually examining how workers work can help you minimize fatigue by minimizing awkward postures during assembly. Industrial and systems engineers should try to minimize how often their workers bend or use force to assemble components. This can involve the way that parts and tools are presented at their workstations, how materials flow and how the process is visually controlled. Balanced work content is always better than unbalanced. The sequence of presentation should follow assembly process requirements. One-piece flow can minimize works-in-process and buffers.

Consider ways to minimize noise, fumes and other harmful aspects of industrial production. Proper lighting and illumination can minimize eye strain. The proper approach to a methods improvements project involves a number of steps, from the first (selection) to the last (sustainment).

Document the current process. Process charts, flow process charts, spaghetti charts, time study, load balance charts, two-hand process charts, workplace layouts, outputs and other details can be used to detail what your workers are doing. This helps you visually understand the current process and its potential for improvements.

Evaluation requires industrial and systems engineers to determine the pros and cons of each alternative. Use factors like cost of implementation, ease of implementation, benefits and pay for selecting the best alternative. There should be agreement among all stakeholders involved before implementing the solution.

Before implementation, document and train the persons who are working on it to enable them to become familiar and comfortable with the new way of working. Then your organization can install the new process and observe it for any possible issues. Resolve those issues to ensure that the new process is smooth and has no kinks.

And, of course, it is very important that the new process is supported and checked for long-term success and long-term benefits.

Of gaskets and assembly

Examples of methods improvements abound in assembly, including the following cases that involve aircraft and a factory.

An aerospace company that makes business jets had an interesting situation that required the application of methods improvement. The plane was built in Europe and flown to the United States, where employees working in the interior department covered and installed furniture, along with installing electronics and entertainment systems. These were high-dollar-value products and custom-built based on customer specification. The division had a wood shop that built all the furniture and cabinetry.

Workers used glue to apply veneer to a large, curved surface. Before that could happen, employees would soak the veneer in water to make it soft, as it is a very thin and expensive material. Glue would then be sprayed on the outside surface of the curved part, which looked like a shell.

After gluing down the veneer, workers put weights on top to make sure the gluing remained uniform and left no air pockets. This was left for eight hours before the weights were removed and checked to make sure the process worked.

1A payback to this method

Using methods engineering to improve processes has a positive impact on throughput and productivity. There are myriad ways to improve processes, all depending on cost and benefit considerations. Methods engineering forms an integral part of every type of process improvement, including lean manufacturing philosophy. This should become part of your organizational DNA, and everyone in the enterprise should be encouraged to think and be part of the change process.

Methods engineering, if wisely used with value engineering and other improvement tools, will significantly improve throughput and reduce the cost of manufactured products. Payback is greatest in cases of labor-intensive processes.