For a machine builder, lean can work two ways. One is internally, that is, the way a company designs and builds machines. The other lies in the work of the machines for customers. The essence of lean manufacturing is the elimination of waste. Machine builders find a number of creative ways to eliminate waste in the build process and for customers.
The Italian tanning and leather working industry is located in a broad valley in the northwestern part of the country. Tanning can be a smelly and polluting industry. Although there is no evidence of that fact now, 30 years ago the river flowing through the valley was so polluted that no one considered fishing from it. Through the concentrated efforts of the companies in the valley, the river is no longer polluted and fishing is once again popular.
The market for leather has changed drastically over the past ten years as shoe manufacturing has mostly migrated to China. The United States remains an important market for leather working machines, though, because of the automotive and aircraft industries. Leather seat covers wear better and are easier to keep clean than alternative materials. Italian leather working machine manufacturers maintain close ties with their customers in order to help them be competitive.
One source of waste and pollution can be found in leather finishing. It’s no surprise that engineers have studied ways to apply dies and dry the leather as efficiently as possible in order to cut out all possible waste. The engineers at Gemata S.p.A. (www.gemata.it), for example, looked at the way machines had been built to spray the pigment resulting in clouds of overspray and runoff. They perfected a roller technology that applies pigment only to the leather with no waste. It works well with newer pigments that are water-based rather than the more environmentally unfriendly solvents.
Engineers at Erretre S.r.l. (www.erretre.it), another company in the same area of the “tanning valley,” took a different approach in order to achieve the same lean objective. By designing new spraying mechanisms, they were able to track pieces of leather through the process and reduce the amount of paint going into the air by almost two-thirds.
Another industry that faces challenges of applying ink to a substrate is converting—coating and laminating materials for eventual use in the packaging industry. Nordmeccanica S.p.A. (www.nordmeccanica.com) is an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in that market and has also taken a look at how to apply ink to the materials feeding through its machines. Pigments usually need a fluid base for application, and solvents were the traditional answer. But solvents involve overspray, drying ovens and unsafe fumes. Nordmeccanica uses a technology that they refer to as similar to super glue, that is, two components of the pigment are mixed right at the point of application. Not only does this eliminate the solvent problem, but it also eliminates hot air blowers that use a lot of energy. The result is a leaner energy profile.
Transportation can be another source of waste—especially if you are shipping a lot of air. The converting lines that Nordmeccanica makes when packaged would include a lot of wasted space in the shipping containers. It is solving that problem by establishing an assembly operation in Shanghai, China. This greatly reduces shipping costs.