Pictures transcend language barriers in a way no other learning aid does, and a person can grasp their meaning almost immediately.

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Visual work instructions reduce comprehension time and errors, raising quality and efficiency.

For any company that performs fabrication and assembly, documenting work instructions and processes is a daunting task. Customers revise and update their products frequently. Assembly process improvements require changes to paper documents. Often, before the paper document can be changed, the product or process has been revised again. Providing up-to-date work instructions for the assembly area requires constant attention to the documentation.

As a fabricator of precision sheet metal components and assemblies, Metcam produces many assemblies with custom designs. Because of the many different assemblies and a culturally diverse workforce, creating documents for training assembly workers becomes difficult. Here, production personnel are not churning out millions of identical parts year after year. They are tackling unique fabrication orders, sometimes in small batches. Production runs can be anywhere from one or two parts for an order to a sea-going container full of product.

Until December 2010, the company employed traditional written work instructions, just as manufacturers have long relied upon. These work instructions, augmented with photographs and diagrams, were paper documents that had to be controlled and stored so they were readily available for training the assembly operators. Creating, controlling, and storing these documents was a time-consuming process and added no real value to the product. Damaged and lost documents had to be replaced frequently. A better solution would be totally electronic documents delivered on-the-spot to the workstations. But how to accomplish this?

See It, Build It
Metcam devised a new approach for work instructions, creating a system that would make them totally visual and require no paper.

Sight is the first and most fundamental sense human beings use for learning. From the day we are born, we use sight to aid physical, mental, and emotional development, taking in and processing the information we see. The company believes human beings' innate capacity for visual learning could be employed successfully in training fabrication and assembly workers. It designed individual workstations, each equipped with a flat-screen monitor. Full-color, digitized images of each station's operation, with critical points clearly marked, would be stored as a group on a computer dedicated to that specific fabrication cell. The computer would transmit the visual work instruction for each station to the corresponding flat screen, giving workers an accurate, pictorial reproduction of the operations they were to perform. The visual instructions not only would help train workers in the process through repetitive exposure, but also would remind them of the correct procedure if they needed a refresher.

Another benefit of the system was that pictures transcend language barriers in a way no other learning aid does, and a person can grasp their meaning almost immediately. Compared to the time involved with finding the right information in a written work instruction, reading it, and processing it -- plus the time for interpretation if a language barrier existed -- visual work instructions could reduce comprehension time exponentially.

The pilot program for visual work instructions began in 2010 on a fiber optic tray assembly line. The results exceeded anyone's wildest expectations. Not only was time to create work instructions reduced; set-up for the assembly line documents took only a few mouse clicks. An additional benefit was that assembly errors were reduced by 86 percent. A facility-wide commitment to implement visual work instructions was announced in January 2011.

The pilot program indicated visual instructions provide more benefits than maintaining paper documents, with the digital imagery instruction system increasing the quality of production and improving plant efficiency by minimizing set-up time and facilitating the staff's flexibility.

The benefit of the system lies not only in the visual instructions themselves, but also in their placement directly above the workstations and the use of a dedicated computer to control and deliver them. (Even the best visual aids lack impact and efficacy when they are grouped on the wall of a plant many steps away from the line.)

With a few clicks of the mouse, supervisors can ensure only the most current procedures are displayed and that they appear in the correct sequence. Late-breaking change requests from customers can be incorporated more rapidly than if new documents and diagrams had to be produced and distributed and new training sessions had to be scheduled. Furthermore, it's easy to switch gears to display a different set of instructions when the assembly or fabrication line begins a new order.

At press time for this article, a second assembly line was preparing to switch to visual work instructions. Eventually, it is expected that visual work instructions will replace outdated written work instructions entirely.

Challenges and Opportunities
The significant outlay for hardware upgrades was one obstacle. In addition to the core expense of flat-screen monitors and dedicated computers, there were peripheral expenses, such as the cost of purchasing and installing network cabling, workstations for the line computers, and software to run them. However, as prices for computer hardware continue to come down, it becomes easier to justify the expense in hardware and software, especially given the reduction in time to produce work instructions for the visual system versus one using paper.

In addition to assembly information, Metcam plans to use the equipment for safety, personal protective equipment, environmental training and messages, and other crucial plant-wide communications. The repetition of messages afforded by the online visual work instructions helps to ensure that training requirements from ISO, OSHA, and other standards bodies are met. The firm may measure training effectiveness by having workers complete a quiz at the end of each month to ensure recall of what they learned.

More importantly for the long-term health of the company and its workers, the visual work instructions enable worker flexibility with minimal training. This helps in scheduling, eliminates downtime, and reduces the monotony of repetitive tasks on the line. That, in turn, results in improved worker satisfaction and lower turnover rates, adding momentum to the effort to provide best-of-class quality and efficiency with minimal waste.

About the Author

Sue Max is environmental, health and safety manager for Metcam, a fabricator of precision sheet metal components and assemblies for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) representing a wide variety of industries, including telecommunications, electronics and HVAC. Metcam's advanced metalworking capabilities include laser cutting, punching, forming, hardware insertion, welding (including robotics), powder painting, silkscreen, and assembly. Metcam also assists clients with product design and manufacturability to reduce their total cost of production. Its award-winning service combined with an aggressive focus on quality, environmental management, and lean manufacturing, simplifies the outsourcing decision for firms worldwide. For more information, visit www.metcam.com.

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