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Redressing space optimisation

Commercial property prices have recently hit an all-time high. At a time when business rates are in the public eye, facilities managers are under pressure to deliver more for their available space.

Here, Andy Owen, managing director of electric tug specialist MasterMover, explains why simply spending more on extra space is not the answer and how companies should take a closer look at optimising their existing setups.

The value of the UK's commercial property hit an all-time high of £871 billion in 2015, accounting for 13 per cent of the value of all the built environment in the UK. That is according to the Property Industry Alliance's (PIA) Property Data Report 2016, which also showed that business rents and rates have both gone up in the last ten years.

These rising costs have certainly placed a financial burden on factory and plant managers to do more with the space they have, sometimes having to squeeze in another production line or maximise storage space so that they can increase profits without resorting to the high capital investment necessary to extend their current facilities to add more space.

Simply adding space without adopting a lean approach will compound the inefficiency. Adding extra building space for unnecessary storage or equipment will make it harder to make a feasible return on investment.

Customers now have a wide choice in the marketplace and few manufacturers have responded to offer this flexibility. Being able to use the existing factory space to scale operations up and down to match low and high volume production, particularly for seasonal requirements is crucial.

So how do you know if you are using all of your factory space efficiently? The easiest way to spot inefficiency is with untidiness. They say cleanliness is next to godliness and a plant that lacks organisation and uniformity will inevitably compromise on safety and efficiency.

Using Japanese philosophies such as Kaizen will overcome these problems. Assigning a dedicated location for tools and parts will stop factory staff picking up the 10mm tool when they really need the 19mm tool. It will also mean they don’t have to waste precious time looking for each tool when they need it. The same goes for workstations, benches and materials storage and handling.

Going into a factory or plant and seeing workers walking on pre-assigned routes, along numbered walkways instils a cultural norm throughout the business, telling each team member that they can improve safety, efficiency and accuracy by being more organised. Of course, it also helps each person do things quicker.

Win back space
Once you have the basics sorted, the next step is to rethink processes and equipment. One of the biggest challenges I see manufacturers face is creating a staged-production setup. For example, a high-volume automotive plant may have over 20 stages, from the chassis to the finished vehicle that is driven off the production line every few minutes.

Likewise, an aerospace assembly plant may have 25 low-volume stages where a £6m wing section, made of lightweight aluminium and carbon fibre, requires a delicate operation using hoists and cranes to move it into precise alignment with mobile drilling rigs used for joining parts.

The problem in both of these applications is that many manufacturers are still using traditional equipment, such as forklift trucks and cranes to move products and parts. This means you have to leave a roadway all the way through the factory to allow the forklift to manoeuvre parts, or spend hours attaching a wing section to a crane to move it precisely into position.

The easiest way to win back space in these scenarios is to use electric tugs. Capable of moving wheeled loads from 2000kg to 30,000kg, MasterMover's electric tugs can be used by a single pedestrian operator and do not require a license.

Crucially, the tugs are very compact and capable of being manoeuvred in tight spaces, allowing manufacturers to move forklifts and cranes to the periphery of their factory. This eliminates the dead space throughout the factory  and can even be a way of creating semi-automated production lines that can be scaled to suit demand.

For instance, Airbus, one of the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers, uses MasterMover pedestrian electric tugs as an integral part of its wing assembly plant in Broughton.

Using the principle of weight transfer, electric tugs enable a single pedestrian operator to move heavy components with ease. Components can be moved in a safe and controlled manner without the need for forklift trucks or overhead cranes. This, in turn, means that Airbus is able to organise its assembly layout to suit its specific working practices without having to account for overhead cranes that only operate in one direction or forklift trucks that need wide internal road networks.

By stepping back and taking a closer look at how they are using their existing factory space, plant and facilities managers can make some small and incremental changes that will allow them to do more with less and make the most of their existing assets without simply throwing some more space at it. With commercial property now so expensive, there has never been a better time to take the next step towards efficiency and productivity.

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