Manufacturing Cycle Times and How To Improve Them

A team gathering inside of a factory building

Every business has a vested interest in carefully monitoring its productivity, especially in a manufacturing environment where repetitive tasks can be standardized and optimized. 

The most common metrics used for this purpose are manufacturing cycle times, lead times, and takt times. Progressive companies try to control these factors in order to save money, conserve valuable resources, make accurate forecasts, protect workers, reduce waste, and provide the best possible service to their clients. 

We will explore these concepts in greater detail and then describe the ways in which both the supplier and their clients can work together to reduce manufacturing cycle times to their practical minimum while still maintaining product quality and process stability.

Navigate to these sections in the article:

 

What are Manufacturing Cycle Times?

Manufacturing cycle time is a measure of how long it takes to make a finished product, from the moment the order lands on the factory floor to the moment that an item is shipped out.

Depending on the processes involved and the kind of part being made, the cycle time in manufacturing is the aggregate of incoming positive material identification, queuing of semi-finished goods, fabrication, post-finishing, assembly, final inspection, packing, and shipping. 

Each of these steps can also be calculated separately, where they’re called “process times”. We will discuss process times vs. cycle times in more detail later in this article.

 

How to Reduce Cycle Times?

Before cycle times can be reduced, the manufacturer must first ensure that every process is stable. If cycle times vary widely from one production run to another, then the system is chaotic and unpredictable. That makes it impossible to collect accurate data or to apply logical and systematic control.

Even if a process is basically stable, in the real world there is always some degree of variability. Manufacturers try to limit this variability as much as possible, in order to achieve an Overall Equipment Effectiveness of 100%. This is the theoretical ideal, where all machines and processes are running perfectly. Not easy to achieve, but there are several practical steps that can be taken to improve the performance of any manufacturing business.

It’s important to note that it’s not desirable to push cycle times down too low, either by running equipment beyond its operational limits or by pushing the workforce to the breaking point. You’re looking for stability and consistency over the long term, not trying to set an impossible and unrealistic performance record.

 

Optimize Machine Layout

It pays dividends for a factory to optimize its machine layout in order to reduce unnecessary waiting or transit times between operations. This might involve moving production cells closer together so that value-added operations naturally flow from one area to another. Or they can be connected with conveyor belts, mobile platforms, shelves, or other solutions that enhance product flow.

Even saving just a few seconds in the downtime between operations can add up to very big cost savings and increased productivity in the long run.

Over the years, many industries have tried different combinations of equipment, raw material, and manpower in order to achieve the machine layouts that work best for them. There is no one answer that fits everyone, so you must work within the constraints of your budget, physical space, and the type of processing involved.

One great advantage that manufacturers now have is that there are many virtual simulation tools available that allow industrial engineers to rearrange, on the computer screen, the production lines, power supplies, storage areas, inspection stations, and all of the other components of a factory floor, without actually interrupting the current workflow.

 

Reduce Machine Downtime

Production equipment converts raw material into a finished product or performs some kind of operation on semi-finished goods that add value to the item on its way to completion. Compare this, for example, to equipment that is merely used for holding or transport, which doesn’t add value.

Manufacturers want to maximize the time that their machinery is adding value, but bear in mind there will always be some intrinsic limitations for any operation. Machine overheating, for example, must be controlled. Some equipment will also require routine maintenance, restocking, lubrication, calibration, or other interruptions to workflow. There is also the consideration of tooling changes and set-up times from one job to another, which can be considerable.

These types of interruptions are inevitable, so progressive managers use analytic tools to calculate how best to streamline their operations to achieve maximum throughput, profitability, and, ultimately, customer satisfaction.

 

Automation

Automation is a great way to streamline repetitive tasks. 

There are many solutions available now that can perform routine jobs that used to be done by people. Aside from relieving the physical burden on human workers doing manual labor, automation is absolutely steady and predictable so it helps when calculating manufacturing cycle times. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that an automated process can always work faster than a skilled human operator.

There are potentially two downsides to automation. One is the financial investment. This expense must be recovered by the manufacturer, so automation makes sense for processes that are going to be performed for a long time.

Also, the nature of most automated or robotic machinery is that it’s usually stationary. That means a loss of flexibility once the equipment is in place.

 

Used Skilled Labor

Another advantage to using automated or robotic equipment is that it frees up skilled workers to do what they do best – exercise judgment, solve emerging problems and constantly find new and innovative improvements to processes. These are analytical skills that humans excel at but machines do not. Empowering the workforce to be an active part of the company’s strategic goals is a great way to reduce cycle times.

 

Optimize Product Design

This is one area where clients can actively assist in improving the cycle times of their own production. They can do this by agreeing to make subtle, but important, changes to their designs or the tools and materials used to make them.

One way to do this is by simplifying a design to reduce unnecessary complexity. This means a part can be made faster and it might even eliminate a processing step. Alternate materials can be considered, which might be faster to machine or require less post-finishing.

There are other choices that product developers can make. For example, plastic injection mold tools can be optimized for faster cycle times with the addition of hot runner systems. These systems are more complex and expensive to make than their cold runner counterparts, but the tools can be cycled much more quickly. For large volume orders, saving a little time on every finished part can add up to hundreds of hours, and that more than recoups the cost of the tool.

Therefore, we advise that product developers work closely with their manufacturing partners to discuss ways that they can tailor the design to fit the process and the raw material in order to achieve the fastest cycle times.

Two men reviewing machine parts at desk and on a monitor

Cycle Times vs Takt Times

In the next section, you will learn about cycle times versus task times and the differences between them.

 

Takt Times Definition

What is cycle time vs. takt time? Cycle time is sometimes confused with takt time, but they aren’t interchangeable. ‘Takt’ is German for ‘rhythm’. It describes a workflow where incoming raw materials are supplied to the factory floor at the same rate as finished goods are shipped out. It’s a highly stable system, meant to cater to regular customer demand. It’s efficient, but not necessarily a system that is running with the lowest possible cycle time. Rather, it’s focused on distributing the total workload evenly throughout the organization.

 

How To Calculate Takt Time

Takt time can only be reliably calculated if customer demand is consistent in both volume and delivery dates. If it is, then the total volume per order is divided by the actual productive time available within a certain period (day / week / month). With that simple calculation, the producer knows how many parts they must make per time unit, at a regular and steady rhythm. They can plan their raw material purchases in advance, with little on-site inventory.

Auto robotic arm used during PIM

Cycle Times vs Lead Times

Cycle time is sometimes confused with lead time, but in fact, they’re entirely independent of one another. In most cases, the end customer wants to have both the shortest lead time and cycle time, but this is not always practical. The lead time is dependent on how long it takes to gather together the necessary resources to begin production, and if those resources are in limited supply, or prone to seasonal fluctuation such as with seasoned timber, for example, then production must wait – regardless of how efficient the manufacturer may be.

 

Lead Times Definition

The lead time is the interval between an order being accepted and the moment actual value-added production begins. This metric is highly variable between industries and can range from just a few hours up to years, depending on the scope of the project.

 

How to Calculate Lead Time

Most service providers offer an approximate lead time. This is because it’s hard to say exactly, to the second, when an order is booked and exactly when it begins production. It generally refers to when the order is sent to the production floor and is scheduled. Lead times are typically expressed as the day on which production begins, rather than the hour or the minute. On that basis, both the manufacturer and the customer have a reasonable expectation of when finished parts will go out the door and can plan accordingly.

 

Process Times Definition

What is process time vs. cycle time? A process is any value-added operation and forms one component of the overall cycle time. As we mentioned, a process must be stable and repeatable so managers can make reliable calculations about how to optimize it.

A single process can sometimes be interchangeable with a machine’s cycle time, for example during plastic injection molding. One machine cycle makes one finished part, and this is as fast as the machine can go for that operation.

The secret, therefore, to improving total cycle times throughout the entire factory is to first optimize each individual process, and then secondly reduce downtime or waiting between those processes.

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