I recently came upon the following definition of Design Thinking in Wikipedia.

Define, Research, Ideate, Prototype, Choose, Implement, Learn.

This took me back to 1998/99 when I was working for a company who manufactured Vinyl Dip Molded products for automobile and medical device companies. The product was made by dipping aluminum molds in liquid vinyl and curing the same by passing it on a conveyor through the oven. Once out of the oven the products were stripped manually from the mold and post processing was carried out. Post processing operations included punching and trimming of the products on fixtures.

My role was that of a Plant Engineer wherein I was involved in plant maintenance, process improvement, equipment trouble shooting, designing /building new production equipment and building fixtures for the post processing operations. I got to play with control systems, built pick and place robots and had a lot of fun.

The Director of operations gave us the Define phase of the problem to be solved

DEFINE

  • The new years contract with a major automobile company required a more competitive price structure. So the goal was to try and take the number of operators from 4 to 3 by using work saving tools if feasible
  • Increase operator comfort level by a more ergonomic arrangement of the production cell

RESEARCH

  • I spent a day on the line observing the operations and talking to the operators and production supervisor
  • The consensus was that the line was producing many different products using a multitude of fixtures and the operators had to walk back and forth with the fixtures from storage to work table. There was also a lot of heat from the oven which produced a level of discomfort on warm days
  • The talk with the operators also indicated that they would love to sit down and discuss ways and means of improving the system

IDEATE

  • We assembled a team consisting of 2 operators (Happy Harry & Simple Sue) who were very familiar with the production line, one production supervisor(Big Al), the director of operations (Old Man Phil) and one engineer (Tinkerer Dan)
  • We went over various interesting suggestions on the first day which included rotating horizontal carousels, multipurpose fixtures, industrial cooling fans, work rotation, telling the automobile company to take their business else where and using a robot
  • We then decided to sleep on our ideas and return the next day

PROTOTYPE

  • We had a pleasant surprise the next day
  • One of the operators carried a fan into the conference room. He did make a strong statement on a great simple cooling idea
  • The other operator had a small card board model. The model was a 4 sided horizontal rotating carousel. On each side the operator had made small models of multipurpose fixtures.
  • Harry and Sue had another surprise for us. They claimed that the new fixture could actually make their work much more simpler and it would only take 3 operators as opposed to the 4 we were using in the present operation
  • We took a break for lunch to mull over the suggestions and the models presented

CHOOSE

  • The choices were really simple in this case.
  • We decided to go with carousel for production and the fan for cooling
  • We also decided as a group that there would be no pressure on the operators to manage with 3 if for some reason the rotating carousel was not as efficient as we had hoped for

IMPLEMENT

  • We built the rotating carousel in house using 80/20 erector sets
  • The whole system took less than a week to complete
  • The operators were involved during design and construction offering valuable suggestions along the way
  • The system was completed, commissioned and tried out

LEARN

  • This is what we learnt from the project
  • The effort was successful
  • The team did reduce the operation to 3 operators
  • The team also increased production by 25%
  • The company was able to get the new contract
  • The exercise encouraged the team to continue the efforts on other manufacturing cells
  • We improved the system as we went along
  • Process improvement does not have to have big investments or take a lot of time
  • What was really important was team effort, imagination, involvement of line staff, common sense and a will to succeed

Of course back in those days we called this KAIZEN

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