I was watching a show (via Tivo, back over the weekend) that I just discovered on the National Geographic Channel — Ultimate Factories, their episode on fire truck manufacturing at Pierce Manufacturing. It's a cool show for HD also. I think the “Ultimate” in the title tends to refer to the size of the products, not the Lean-ness or manufacturing excellence, necessarily. Episodes focus on products like John Deere farming gear and Winnebagos.
It takes 45 days to build a fire truck – each one is basically custom. But, of course, there's no mention of how much of that 45 days elapsed time is “Value Adding” — and how much is waste. We'll see as the show progresses.
“There are 33,000 fire departments and they each put out fires differently. So we have to be flexible in our design,” says the company president.
Are there really that many ways to put fires out? I can imagine having complete customization of features like paint color (they have 100+ versions of red — this isn't Henry Ford!!) or graphics but I”m surprised there's THAT much product customization. Building fire trucks seems more like building airplanes – where an airline can specify just about anything they want (or is that changing nowadays)?
The fabrication department has laser cutters that don't just crank out hundreds of the same part over and over (building inventory). They take three days worth of orders and software optimizes what parts will be cut out of which sheets — all of the parts needed to make the suspension. So although suspensions are built in batches, off line from the primary assembly area, the fabrication process does its best to minimize wasted sheet steel. Three days at a time — does anyone have any context for how that compares to other similar manufacturers?
The factory layout (as shown by the show) is pretty functional – fabrication, painting, final assembly. The fabrication area is pretty far from final assembly — it's definitely not a “feeder line” concept. Lots of forklifts and overhead lifts moving things around.
One example of waste reduction — they use 23 karat gold leaf paper to help put graphics onto the trucks. Pieces that aren't needed are swept up. A supervisor explained that they got $11,000 for the last bags worth of scrap gold leaf paper that they sold back.
Conpared to the other shows like this, the show features interviews with employees and supervisors (like the John Ratzenberger show and unlike the “How It's Made” show that just features a narrator and views of automation). This show focuses on the employees and customer needs, not just whiz-band automation, so I like that. A good amount of this show is focused on design features, not just how it's built, but that's interesting too.
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