Manufacturing Lessons from a 150 Year Old Factory

Our Perspective

I had the pleasure of touring the 150 year old Beech River Mill last Friday. This company, a manufacturer of custom made wooden shutters and doors,  is the last mill operating on the Beech River, a short river flowing through Ossipee, New Hampshire. Mills  have been on the Beech River since the late 1700s, and many building foundations remain along the riverbank. The mill was busy, fulfilling orders for many building restoration and custom home projects throughout the northeast.  The operating floor, still residing on the original wooden planks, was an interesting mixture of modern and Victorian era woodworking equipment. Of particular interest were the comments from the workers. Although the Victorian equipment had a dozen oiling ports on it that needed to be filled before the machine started, as long as the machine was lubricated and the blades were sharp, the machinery worked beautifully. If a component wore out, a visit to the local blacksmith generally solved the problem. The modern equipment, with its computers, sensors, and other technologies is far more sensitive. Breakdowns are more frequent and repairs are more difficult and expensive.

Lean manufacturing is about eliminating waste.  Sometimes that waste  is not apparent. Modern, high productivity equipment would seem like an easy choice to eliminate  labor intensive, lower production rate equipment.  And sometimes it is. However, aren’t  higher downtime rates and delays in repairs of the modern equipment wasteful? Maybe slower and steady is the least wasteful way to operate some of the steps in your production. You must look at the entire operating system and the interaction of all the components on the final product and the output of the factory before you make any changes. How many of us have heard the regrets of manufacturers who bought equipment that didn’t work the way they thought it would?

Proponents of Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints look at the entire manufacturing system and its throughput in ways that make these types of decisions less troublesome and more effective. In fact, in Goldratt’s popular business novel, “The Goal”, an old piece of equipment saved the day for a factory trying to eliminate a production bottleneck.  As the economy improves and you’re looking to expand, step back and consider a Theory of Constraints approach to your situation before you make any decisions.