The Benefits and Challenges of Cellular Manufacturing for Direct Mail Production

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Matt Shanahan

My posts for SpeakingDIRECT often highlight new technologies IWCO Direct is exploring or capabilities we are adding, but innovation and efficiency aren’t just driven by the equipment we employ. Processes and workflow can be just as important in ensuring IWCO Direct maintains its leadership role in providing cost-effective direct mail programs that drive response and return on marketing investment (ROMI). One concept that we are investigating is cellular manufacturing.

What is Cellular Manufacturing?

This is an alternative to traditional batch or specialized manufacturing. In a batch manufacturing process, the machines are grouped together by their function or type, creating specialized areas. In a cellular manufacturing approach, multiple types of machines are grouped together to eliminate staging and handling between different specialized areas in the manufacturing process. Cell designs can range from multiple machines in close proximity to a fully automated and integrated series of machines functioning like a single large machine.

The cellular manufacturing approach brings a number of efficiency benefits that reduce our time-to-market. It greatly decreases material staging and handling between operations, lowering overall cycle time of the process. It also minimizes waste and spoilage due to having less WIP (work-in-progress). In addition, it often allows operators who are cross trained to run multiple machines at once to increase overall productivity. However, these benefits don’t come free, and they present their own set of challenges.

Finding the Right Balance

Balancing manufacturing efficiencies and capabilities can be a challenging task. Speeding up a machine or process typically requires additional constraints and tighter tolerances be placed on the products being produced. This “give and take” presents the same challenges with grouping equipment into cells. As more and more machines are grouped together, the complexity increases significantly. This complexity often limits overall flexibility and may restrict capabilities and innovation. If left unchecked, it can cause a diminishing product portfolio and undo all the efficiency gains. This is especially true in the direct mail industry where product diversity and innovation are equally as important as speed-to-market.

It comes as no surprise that IWCO Direct has a very large and diverse platform of machines. This presents some very interesting and challenging problems to solve. This same diversity also gives us extensive experience and some of the most knowledgeable people in the industry who are already hard at work testing new ideas and concepts. We have some new very promising concepts that strike the balance between speed and innovation, and are excited to accelerate these ideas through our Innovation Initiative shared by Meg Hanaman in an earlier post.

The most challenging aspect of what we’re doing is to harness the efficiencies of cellular manufacturing while expanding capabilities through equipment innovations at the same time. Fortunately, we are committed to Continuous Improvement and have the team that is up for that challenge!

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