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How E3D expanded production during a pandemic

TLDR: We have a huge new production building and we’ve expanded production with lean manufacturing

2020 was a busy year for E3D. One of our biggest achievements was expanding production out of our main building to a dedicated unit in our business park.

In pre-pandemic times this would have been a monumental task. During a pandemic it became an astronomical task, and we’re incredibly proud of the production team for making it happen as efficiently and safely as it did.

As part of our expansion, production processes have been completely overhauled. We can now manufacture Hemera 1.8 times faster than before, occupying 20% less space and reducing operator costs by 40% per unit. Here’s how we got there.

 

Doing more with less

The latest production run of Hemera is an example of lean thinking at E3D. Lean methods set out to identify waste in its various forms and eliminate it, while maximising productivity.

Lean methods originated on Toyota’s production lines in Japan, and so use some Japanese terms: ‘Muda’ is Japanese for ‘waste’, ‘Poka-yoke’ is Japanese for ‘mistake-proofing’, and ‘Kanban’ roughly translated means ‘Billboard’. These have all been applied to Hemera production.

 

Process flow map

To unpick production bottlenecks, the process needs to be mapped out from start to finish. A process flow map shows every manufacturing operation, including operator time taken per step, operator motion, operator workload, space occupied, travel involved, and so on. Each aspect is painstakingly analysed to remove Muda (‘waste’) from processes.

We measure operator workload to make sure operators aren’t left waiting around or being overworked. We measure operator motion per manufacturing step to work how to keep all necessary tools and equipment within reaching distance. Having two buildings introduces goods transportation, so we also need to measure how long that takes and limit it wherever possible.

 

A process flow map helps us plan production and unpick bottlenecks in processes

One-piece flow

In the old days we would batch produce Hemera. Four operators would carry out production step one by populating 200 units with parts, before handing over to the gear press operator for production step two.

Applying ‘one-piece flow’ to the line means each unit is populated with components right up to completion. Resources are optimised: operators assemble units and press gears simultaneously. Every operator has the same workload, they aren’t left waiting around, and equipment is utilised 100% of the time. No production capacity is wasted.

Simple changes such as these mean we increase productivity, production speed, production capacity, and in turn reduce operator costs by using four operators instead of five. Production space is reduced too: fewer operators mean fewer workbenches. What’s leftover can be reallocated to add value somewhere else on the production floor.

 

One-piece flow is faster and more efficient than batch production

 

Gear pressing!

Poka-yoke

We’re all human, we all make mistakes. Poka-yoke (‘mistake proofing’) seeks to help operators avoid mistakes by drawing attention to them as much as possible. Identifying the root causes of problems and implementing preventative actions helps maintain a quality final product.

Poka-yoke helps us reduce training time, improve safety, reduce waste, increase productivity, and promote a culture of continuous improvement.

 

A simple example of Poka-yoke. The cylinder can only fit in one hole, so it’s impossible to make a mistake

Kanban

A fun side effect of having two buildings is we use electric golf carts to ferry stock between the production floor and storage. Waiting times and unnecessary transportation of goods are forms of lean waste, so we use a Kanban scheduling system to limit these.

Production line operators have two bins of each component type available. If one bin is empty, this is a visual signal to the warehouse team that more components are needed, and an operator will transport more over.

The second bin of components is still available to the production line while the first one is being refilled. The flow of components is never interrupted, and assembly operators have all the components they need all the time.

 

Golf carts are on hand to transport goods when needed. Fun fact: if you’ve ever used ticket list applications like Trello, Jira, or ClickUp, this is another example of a Kanban system

 

Did I mention we use golf carts?

 

Another Kanban example: blue boxes = inbound goods, green boxes = outbound goods

 

Total preventative maintenance (TPM)

To keep production running like a well-oiled machine, you need to keep your machines well-oiled. The last thing you need is a vital piece of equipment breaking down when production is running at full capacity. This creates delays, which are expensive.

As the old adage goes, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’. Operators check and service production machinery at regular intervals to prevent machinery breaking down at crucial times. We use software systems to remind us when machine maintenance is due, and we make sure all operators are effectively trained on how each piece of machinery works so they catch irregularities ahead of time.

 

This custom grease dispensing robot applies a specific, repeatable amount of grease to each Hemera unit. A barcode scanner registers each unit so everything shipped can be traced back to its origin

 

5S

‘5S’ stands for ‘sort, set in order, shine, standardise, and sustain’. Each operator workspace is sorted for the best efficiency. If a tool is used five times per minute, it’s kept nearby. The workspace is set in order so unnecessary tools are put away. The workspace is clean and organised (or shined) to prevent mistakes. Working processes are standardised, and a culture of maintenance is created to sustain processes. These principles help to keep product quality high.

 

Continuous improvement cycle

The continuous improvement cycle

There’s always room for improvement, so we apply a ‘continuous improvement’ model to everything we do, whether it’s the manufacturing department or the commercial team. If we identify an opportunity to improve something in the process workflow, we plan how it can be updated, implement changes, and constantly review how they are working for us to get the best effect.

 

prusa 3d printers

We have 3D printers on the production floor so we can rapidly fabricate jigs, fixtures, and other tools to improve processes

 

More capacity than ever before

When manufacturing at volume, it’s the little things that add up. With lean thinking, we reduce production time and costs, increase manufacturing capacity, and keep product defects to a minimum.

Thanks to these changes, our manufacturing capacity is stronger than ever, and we can now comfortably fulfil far more orders than we could one short year ago.

 

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