To batch or not to batch: Building Efficiently in Large Batching Operations

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Batching issues tend have a profound influence on the flow characteristics of a manufacturing plant and substantial gains can be made by properly understanding underlying principles. Almost all kinds of automotive operations are associated with large batching operations. The following are the commonly found large batching operations in the automotive manufacturing units:

  • Forging – Forging Presses
  • Casting – Core making and Molding Machines
  • Plastic Components – Plastic Molding Machines
  • Sheet Metal – Metal Presses

Conventional operational thinking is based on maximizing the utilization of these batching machines. But one of the major issues with large batch sizes needed for maximization of capacity utilization is that it increases the overall production lead time and leads to poor on-time delivery to customers. This is because executing large batches results in “capacity stealing” – ie the capacity is utilized for production of items that is not needed in the immediate time horizon at the cost of immediately required items and/or items required for confirmed orders.

Large batches at batching machines can also create “Capacity Waves” at downstream operations. This is largely due to the fact that the space available between the large batching machines and downstream operating machines/lines is limited and downstream operations are forced to “suck” the inventory created by the large batching machines.

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Figure 1: “Peak and Lean Production Periods”

The situation becomes worse in the cases where the batching machine is feeding multiple manufacturing lines downstream. Such a phenomena, then creates “lean” and “peak” production periods across lines. “Lean Periods” is essentially near starvation of the downstream processes and may lead to idling of labour whereas during “Peak Periods”, the downstream processes are flooded, leading often to Overtime situations. A figurative representation is presented in figure 1.

The conventional way of operation which essentially focuses on utilization, with the above mentioned consequences, makes them appear as constraining machines and planners plan the entire production considering these machines as constraints. To the contrary, in most of the plants, it has been our experience that the batching machines have never emerged as internal constraints in the manufacturing set up. These batching machines tend to have sufficient excess capacity. The deluge of inventory lying past these machines clearly point out that these machines are not constraints to the flow in such situations. The real constraints have largely been found to be in the downstream operations! For instance, in case of sheet metal operations the constraint is mostly found in the welding and finishing operations whereas in castings it is found in fettling and finishing operations.

As mentioned earlier, increased batch sizes will decrease throughput and lead to poor on time delivery to customers. Moreover, increased batch size also affects work-in-process inventory levels, manufacturing lead time, local and global safety time issues, and finished goods stock levels by increasing them. Therefore, since batching on a non-constraint at the plant is undesirable – ideally batch sizes should be reduced to levels required for consumption in downstream processes or for orders in the immediate horizon. But, on the other hand, smaller batches increase the number of setups which in turn can totally erode the protective capacity of the non-constraint machine converting it to a constraint machine. This can also then result in poor on-time performance.

This phenomenon of a batching process can be depicted by an “Inverted U Curve” where both extremes are non-optimal points and should be avoided. The optimal capacity and high “On Time Performance” occurs somewhere in the middle of the U Curve. This means that large batches with the eye on utilization or very small batches based on immediate consumption can both be detrimental for the plant. The optimal point for different machines with different capacities needs to be identified through an iterative process but it will be found between these extremes (Refer figure2).

In such scenarios of batching operations, it is also essential to decouple the batching machine from the downstream operations. This is to allow these machines to have the flexibility to be out of sync with rest of the operations downstream without creating disruptions of in flow in either. Placing buffers immediately after the machines will result in capacity release from the existing batching machines and help in moving close to the optimal capacity. The batching machines will now respond to the trigger received from its buffer consumption making it possible for these machines to take larger batches. But since the downstream activities now consume from this buffer, the cycles of starvation and flooding are also averted. These downstream activities will act as an independent system with its WIP being controlled by trigger from the FG inventory consumption and ensures on time delivery to the consumer.

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Figure 2: “Inverted U Curve” of a batching machine

It may sometimes be observed that capacity release obtained by reducing the batch size (ie. stopping excess production of only one type of component) may not be enough to offset an extra set up. This is a phenomenon where the “Inverted U Curve” has the points A, B and C very close to each other. This implies that the spare capacity available at the batching machine is very less and immediately improvement techniques based on SMED has to be deployed.

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