Monday, December 31, 2018

Pull System at Chipotle

A Pull system is a production method that creates product to match customer orders.

Imagine if you walked into a Chipotle (or Subway, Quizno's, Potbelly's, or any other quick-custom restaurant) and ordered your burrito, and you were told to hang on while they looked through the pile of already-made food for one that matched your order, if they could find one with all of your special requests. No one wants to eat an hours-old burrito.

Or, what if you ordered your burrito and then had to wait an hour while all of the ingredients were prepared? Fully customizable, you could opt out of lime in your rice, but your lunch hour is over before you eat.

Restaurants like Chipotle are working to strike the right balance between customizable (white or brown rice?) and ready to go (sorry, the cilantro is already in there). As soon as a customer walks in the door, the restaurant springs into action to fill the order. While that's happening, as well as before and after, other members of the team are working to resupply the assembly line with prepped ingredients like chopped vegetables so they don't run out.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Breweries as Benchmarks

Benchmarking is a great way to get ideas for equipment, processes, layout, and more.

The trouble is not every company that makes things is openly willing to let you inside. It's worth trying anyway, but in the meantime, breweries are famous for hosting tours and letting you take a peek. There is almost certainly a brewery near you that will give you a tour of the operation for a very reasonable fee (and often with tastes as well, if that's of interest!).

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Holiday Shutdown

Many factories close between the Christmas and New Year holidays.

The quiet time in the holidays can be used for a few purposes:

  • Deep cleaning without interruptions from production schedules
  • Re-organization of factory layout
  • Strategic planning off the factory floor
  • Time off with no work at all

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

What is 5S?

5S is the set of activities used to keep the factory floor organized. Each of the five terms starts with "S": Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain.

An organized factory stays clean, ready to make product, and ready to receive visitors on a moment's notice. 5S gives you both style and substance and builds a foundation for other manufacturing activities. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Gemba walk - where it happens

A "Gemba Walk" is the manufacturing term for the leadership at a factory walking on the plant floor.

The translation of gemba (from Japanese) is essentially "the real place" or "the place where it happens".

Embrace the auto-play of the Hamilton soundtrack in your head and take a walk around the entire floor when you arrive to the studio and before you leave. It makes problems stand out and gives you a sense for how everything is running. Even if you're the only one that works in your studio, there are often visual cues that will remind you of something you'd ordinarily forget, such as cleanup activities.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

How to Fill - Liquids

Here are some ideas for pouring out liquid materials.

Home and Hobby: pour using a spout on a jug, place the liquid in a baker's piping bag, or into a ziptop bag and then cut the corner.

Small-Scale Manufacturing: Gravity fillers (for thin liquids): manually open and close a valve while the liquid runs into the container.

Medium-Scale Manufacturing: Piston fillers(for thin or thick liquids): piston fillers automatically measure the same volume into each container and can either be manual (hand pulled) or connected to a compressor to be activated by a foot pump.

Large-Scale Manufacturing: several connected and automated piston fillers in an in-line conveyor system, usually including a scale for a filled weight check and other process steps such as bottle sealing.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

2-bin system, a backup battery for production

I just ran out of battery power while using a cordless drill.

Luckily, I didn't have to stop my project, because like most cordless drill users, I have 2 batteries. Whenever one runs out, I just pop on the backup. The spent battery charges while I keep going.

Having a 2-bin system in place is the same way with materials and WIP in a production system. You never need to stop a project to make more of the material you need when you have a full extra bin ready to go at all times.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Hershey Kisses and unintended consequences

Did you hear that the iconic Hershey's Kiss is having a bad year?

Bakers are reporting that the chocolate confections have the very tips broken off, altering their look and thus changing the longstanding look of some homemade cookies this holiday season.

Apparently customer service told some bakers that the tips were removed intentionally, to avoid the collection of small bits of chocolate in the bags.

If this is true, no doubt the change to the production process sounded like a great way to solve a vexing problem. Tiny chocolate bits in a bag and in a packaging process are annoying and seem like they could cause problems for bagging machinery or other areas. So, proactively eliminating all of these delicate tips on the chocolate candy must have seemed like a great solution. After all, the iconic shape for the kiss was only created because of the process used by the machines (the name itself came from the chocolate machinery "kissing" the conveyor belt, leaving the confections behind). So, the very tip of the chocolate isn't something of value to the customer. Right?

It seems like this side effect of the original process was indeed of value, or it became so over time and perhaps unbeknownst to the engineering team. A process "improvement" had an unintended change to the aesthetic quality of the product and likely caused far more trouble than it prevented.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

What is Lean Manufacturing?

Lean Manufacturing is a mindset of reducing waste.

Waste is any resources (time, money, energy) spent on something that's not of value to a customer.

Although many of the tools used for identifying and reducing waste were developed in the Japanese auto manufacturing industry, they are now commonly used not just in manufacturing but in many service industries like health care.

Although Lean is the overall approach and mindset of waste reduction, those that practice Lean can use many different potential tools to accomplish this task.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Abstinence-Only Inventory Management (Or, What is JIT?)

Just In Time (JIT) is a popular admonition to businesses that's meant to focus on the perfect amount of inventory to have.

What is the perfect amount? Zip. Zero. Zilch. Absolutely none.

This approach has failed us, the same way abstinence only education fails us. Perfect adherence to JIT principles is unattainable in practice. We should spend more time talking about reasonable inventory management instead of defaulting to feeling like failures on this topic because we haven't met an impossible goal.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

What is WIP?

WIP is a manufacturing acronym for Work In Process.

It's anything that's begun the journey from something you buy into something you will sell. It's neither good nor bad.

Bad things about WIP: It's considered part of your inventory, and should therefore be minimized when possible. Having WIP means there is product to spoil, get contaminated, or to get stuck in your process when the finished good stops selling.

Good things about WIP: having some WIP is a lubricant for getting finished product out the door. As part of a pull production system, when a customer orders product, you can move all of the WIP forward in your process in a short amount of time rather than creating the finished product from scratch when the order is received.

Finding the right amount of WIP for your studio depends on many factors like how many production hours you have and the total active and passive time needed to create your products.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Factory Hate Alert - Seth's blog

Seth Godin's blog has a lot to say on the nature of work. Here's a post on a factory versus a studio:

The boss in a factory relies on compliance. More compliance leads to more profits. Do what you’re told, faster and cheaper, repeat.
This is the history of the twentieth century.
At Seth's blog, factories are maligned. It's "okay" to choose to work in a factory, which to him means being a mindless cog in a machine or being a barking overlord in charge of some cogs. If you read his posts consistently, it's clear that he thinks this isn't work that really matters. It's outdated and not worth considering as a valuable contribution to modern times.
For those of us that:
1. Run factories, no matter how big or small, and
2. Care very much about the nature of our work and the quality of our products, and
3. Care very much about our workers and trusting them to make decisions and contribute materially to the business beyond doing exactly as they are told,
this constant factory hate can feel harsh. If that describes you, welcome, let's talk about how to make factories better. 

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Finding Bigger Suppliers, part 5

An Example: is a specialty distributor of various plastic products. Buckets, bottles, measuring cups, scoops and more. A distributor like this is great for buying items to run your facility: buckets for storage, measuring cups for mixing, etc.

For repeated purchases of a single item such a a 1-tablespoon scoop, this same distributor may be the best source. There is no minimum, so you can order a single item for testing or use in the studio. They offer quantity discount breaks when purchasing over 300, over 600, and over 1800. What if you consistently purchase 1800 or more scoops? If you'll go through 1800 scoops in less than 3 months, it's time to look for better pricing.

The manufacturer of these particular scoops is listed right in the description - Airlite Plastics. If you call Airlite and inquire, you may learn that their minimum order is 2800 pieces. If it's reasonable to purchase that many at one time (one guideline is if you'd use them in 3 months or less), then you'd save money by changing to the larger supplier. If your needs don't fit the minimum quantity for the larger supplier, then you can happily continue using the same distributor knowing you're getting a good price.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Finding Bigger Suppliers, part 4

How to Find a Bigger Supplier

If you’re moving from a distributor (large catalog, small minimum purchases) to a supplier for a single item, you may need help finding out who to buy from. Look for information on the packaging you receive for clues of where your distributor is located or even their name. Your distributor may use drop shipping to send you a full case of product – does the invoice have your address as the ship-to and your supplier as the sold-to or bill-to address? That’s a drop ship distributor, and you may find better pricing by hunting down the bigger supplier. Do a search for any marks or specifications you’re able to find on the product and find out the minimum quantities for the larger supplier.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Finding Bigger Suppliers, part 3

Test: Are you consistently buying the largest size offered by your distributor? 

If you’re buying a dozen at a time, a large distributor with a big catalog is the right source. If you’re buying full cases, that’s a sign you may need to find the next level of supplier.

If you've emailed your supplier asking for bulk pricing beyond what's listed on the website, that's a nearly sure sign you should re-source to a new and bigger supplier. Be sure the supplier offers a significant discount if you're purchasing in large quantities. 

Finding Bigger Suppliers, part 2

Test: Are you getting all of your materials from one place?

If yes, you should attempt to re-source your highest volume items with larger suppliers to see if you're missing out on cost savings. You probably bought 1 or one dozen of a product when you were first testing and making it. Are you still buying from the same supplier? Some specialize in having a million products on hand, a one-stop shop. Others have fewer items in stock, but better pricing. If you’re getting a lot of different raw materials from the same place, it’s time to examine your supplier list. Stay with the specialty distributor for your test and small run products, find dedicated suppliers for larger quantities. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Finding Bigger Suppliers, part 1

If you're just starting, then using a specialty distributor works well to make your first dozen or few hundred items. If you know you're going to be repurchasing items and you know how often, it's time for a new source. Rather than one distributor that provides your packaging, raw materials, etc, you'll find suppliers that specialize in a single class of items. You'll increase the number of suppliers you use, but gain in cost savings since dedicated suppliers will give better bulk discounts.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Specialty Distributors

Do you purchase your equipment and supplies from a specialty distributor? Here are some ways to tell:

1. The company name has your industry or hobby in it.,,
2. The store/distributor carries a wide range of items you might need for your hobby, from the long-lasting equipment to the consumables.
3. There are low or no minimum quantities for ordering items.
4. discounts, if any, are available when buying multiple dozens of items, with a note to ask about bulk pricing.
5. The distributor makes it very easy to buy kits or otherwise get multiple things you need to create a finished product. They may provide recipes or other inspiration for new products.

Specialty distributors are fantastic for hobbyists, very small businesses, and R&D purchases for larger manufacturers. If you've outgrown the appropriate size for using a specialty distributor, however, you're overpaying for all of the services above that you're not using and it's time to look for a bigger supplier.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Specialty Distributors vs Suppliers

Do you purchase materials through a specialty distributor or set of suppliers? Here are a few key differences.

Specialty Distributor
Product Line
A to Z for making your product or for your industry.
Fewer items; single type of product (plastic closures, bulk dry chemicals,)
Best Ways To Use
Browse the catalog to see trends and get new ideas. Purchase a few for R&D and testing a new product
Get Best Pricing on a single item. Quote minimums for planning purposes when calculating product pricing. Sourcing once product is launched and you have expected volumes that justify bigger purchases
Typical order size
1 dozen, 1 case, 1-100
1 pallet, 1 truckload. 1000+
WSP, SoapSupplies, 
PackagingPrice, Jedwards

Monday, December 10, 2018

Materials Reserve Worksheet

Managing your Materials Reserve requires matching the materials you have with the time needed to restock those materials. You can work through each material using the worksheet below.

A materials reserve is best used for purchased items like raw materials. Work in Process (WIP) and finished goods (FG) should be managed using a bin system to keep a steady flow that coordinates with your batch sizes. The materials reserve allows for a larger and less frequent purchase, a bin system is better for items made in house that can be replenished more regularly. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Materials Reserve Sign - Printable

Make something similar and print these out to indicate that it's time to reorder. Taping it across a box flap or opening of a container makes it the most effective, so you cannot physically access the reserve product without seeing and removing the sign.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Count It Once

Touching things once is best. Counting things is a big waste of time as well. Can you cut down on the number of times you count something?

Some ideas:

-do you need to count out empty lip balm tubes for each batch, or can you fill enough to empty your batch and count the tubes as you label them?
-if you're making multiple items, can you count them all once at the very end, instead of as you make them?
-do you have a standard size tray or bin size that fits a set number of items? If your tray fits 100 pieces, then you can count full trays in hundreds and save time on individual items.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

..But If You Have to Touch It Twice

It's better to touch something once.

If you must touch it twice, use the second time as an inspection step.

Best: (1x) 
Pull and Pack one order at a time, from packing slip to packed box.

Better: (2x with inspection) 
Pull orders once, then pack them while double-checking the packing slip to ensure there are no errors.

Okay: (2x, no inspection) 
Pull and pack an order, label with order #, then later label with shipping label. No opportunity to inspect the order for errors in the second step.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Touch It Once

Touching something more than once is nearly always a big waste of time.

It feels more efficient to make items in big batches, but it's not often true in reality. Below is a list of the steps involved in a 2-step operations, beveling edges and stamping a logo into three soap bars. Processing the bars three at a time has 18 steps, one at a time has 12 steps. Of course, not all of them will take the same amount of time, and setup is a factor, but this should convince you to at least time yourself doing operations in different ways instead of always doing one single operation for as many items as possible. Single piece flow also cuts down on the amount of space needed for an operation, since it doesn't require all of the production for the day to be sitting in each step at the same time.


1. Pick up a bar #1.
2. Bevel the edges of bar #1.
3. Set bar #1 down.
4. Pick up bar #2.
5. Bevel the edges of bar #2.
6. Set bar #2 down.
7. Pick up bar #3.
8. Bevel the edges of bar #3.
9. Set bar #3 down.
10. Pick up a bar #1.
11. Stamp bar #1.
12. Set bar #1 down.
13. Pick up bar #2.
14. Stamp bar #2.
15. Set bar #2 down.
16. Pick up bar #3.
17. Stamp bar #3.
18. Set bar #3 down.


1. Pick up bar #1.
2. Bevel edges of bar #1
3. Stamp bar #1.
4. Set bar #1 down.
5. Pick up bar #2.
6. Bevel edges of bar #2.
7. Stamp bar #2.
8. Set bar #2 down.
9. Pick up bar #3.
10. Bevel edges of bar #3.
11. Stamp bar #3.
12. Set bar #3 down.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Written Signs And Reminders

A written reminder, placed where you'll find it at the right time, is a gift from yourself.

"If you can see this sign, it's time to reorder this item" is a great way to manage inventory in-person. This can be a printed sign with detail about part number and supplier, or a scribble of marker at the appropriate low-level mark on a jug of oil.

Online and digital inventory systems are useful too, but some days you are spending all your time on the floor. Physical reminders work well for a physical production space.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Managing Inventory with a Materials Reserve

To avoid running out of materials, you want to hold a reserve of raw materials. You’ll have a physically separate space for these materials so as soon as you touch them, you’ll know you need to re-order. Your reserve is enough to last you until your new order comes in. How to calculate this size:
1.   How long until you’ll receive this item?
      1a.    How long from when you know you need to place an order until it gets placed? 
      1b.    How long until it is shipped from the supplier and received by you?
2.   What is the maximum amount of materials you expect to use in the time you calculated in #1?

By adding together the times in (1a) and (1b), you have the total time during which you'll be using your reserve. Depending on how many you use per day, create a reserve that will last until the replacement order arrives. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018

5S - how big factories keep things organized

Keeping work areas clean and organized is a challenge no matter if your daily output is 10 bars of soap or 1000 cars. Big factories with staff dedicated to Lean Manufacturing have a set of best practices surrounding organization known as 5S. It originated in Japan and contains 5 steps, each beginning with an "S" term. In English the five steps are below. 

1. Sort: Get rid of excess items and equipment.

2. Set in Order: Take the remaining items and put them in the right place.

3. Shine: Keep it clean.

4. Standardize: Do the above 3 things regularly.

5. Sustain: Continuously improve the execution of these steps for the long term.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

HSCG Conference - May 2019

I'll be speaking at the Handcrafted Soap and Cosmetic Guild's annual conference this coming May.

My session will cover manufacturing of handcrafted items and how to use tips and tricks from larger factories to make a small studio run smoothly. It'll be a great chance to learn and meet with other small manufacturers and business owners.

Seth Godin (vs?) Me

I love Seth Godin's thoughts on marketing and work. Seth’s blog consistently says “that’s all well for factories, but we aren’t working in factories”. In fact, this blog was inspired by his recommendation to publish a post every day. (

This blog is for you if you DO, in fact, work in a factory. Here, we are people that make things, make them well, consistently. We are showing up in a particular place, and our work can't be done from a laptop traveling the world.

Based on the trending topics like digital startups and marketing work, we sometimes can feel we have left the physical world behind, but the world still uses physical products, and it's good to make them well. We still need butchers, bakers, and artisanal clean-burning candlemakers. This is a blog for people that make things and want to make them better. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Style and Substance

If you like to think of yourself as a messy genius (what your desk looks like is a good indicator), you might think a sparkling studio is choosing style over substance. If you're picky about aesthetics (what your linen closet looks like is a good indicator) you might think that a working studio is a temporary sacrifice to substance until things are cleaned up again. But a clean, working studio is both style and substance. Labeling and organized product flow through your studio should make sense whether things are being made or not. A plant tour is best done and enjoyed when things are actually made, and the making of the product should be as clear and organized as the space surrounding it.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Showroom Ready

Showroom Ready. Is your factory ready at a moment to receive visitors? If you get a call that the local morning TV show wants to film, do you have to pass because you’d be up all night trying to make your shop presentable? Keeping things orderly translates directly to more opportunities. A messy shop is the most obvious way to show someone you don’t care, and a clean shop is the easy route to a strong first impression.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Lifting Things

Lifting Things. Ergonomics is not just for computers. Anything we are working on should be working within easy reach, preferably in the same area as a strike zone while playing baseball (knees to chest and close in front of the body). If it’s not, consider moving it permanently or temporarily while it’s being used. Work stands lift an object to a specified height. Lift tables move the working height from high to low on a single item. Step stools bring a person up to a higher working height. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Beach Metrics

Just like beach muscles, which look good but don't do much to make a person stronger or healthier, there are lots of beach metrics in running a factory. Here are a few:

1. Number of employees
2. Square footage of a factory
3. Top Line revenues
4. Amount of product made
5. Number of customers
6. Amount of inventory on hand

It’s easy to see some of these business metrics and assume someone else's business is going well. But increasing these metrics can be either wonderful or a disaster for a factory, depending on the circumstances. Increasing the number of employees without increasing sales or revenue simply adds cost to the business. Moving to a larger factory space could be as much due to mismanagement of inventory and space as an actual increase in sales and throughput. These kinds of metrics are easy to quote to others, easier than sharing net margins, throughput per employee, total profits, or whether the owner is drawing a reasonable salary from the business.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Floor Loading - How Much Weight Can You Put on a Pallet?

How to calculate floor loading. A typical residential building code might require floors to withstand 40 pounds per square foot (or PSF). Office buildings might have a rating of 100 PSF. This is roughly the amount of weight you’d have with a group of standing people. For materials and equipment in industrial buildings, you can calculate how much weight is being applied per square foot. Typically, ground floors with poured concrete can sustain much larger loads than upper floors – consider this when looking for your industrial space. This is also important to keep in mind if you’re thinking of adding stacked racks for storage or a mezzanine office space.
For a typical Pallet (40x48 inches) of materials, here’s the max weight that corresponds to various floor loads: