By Laurie Harbour, president and CEO
Harbour Results, Inc.

As you know, the manufacturing industry is facing a great deal of uncertainty. From tariff and trade agreements to a (potential) looming recession, many tool and die shops are experiencing challenging times and finding it difficult to see what’s in store for the future.

Although these factors are out of a shop owner’s control, it doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done to improve business. In times like these, it is critical that shops focus on what can be controlled. Does your shop have a strategic plan? Are you in close communication with your customers? Have you cut any unnecessary expenses out of the budget, including material costs and overtime? What are you doing in the areas of continuous improvement? All of these are steps in the right direction to steer through difficult economic times. Another area within your control that should be looked at closely is lead time – this supports the customer, assists your sales team and reduces the number of labor hours on jobs.

Accurately forecasting and reducing lead times are critical factors for any manufacturing operation. For shops, the consequences of extended lead time can not only impact the customer relationship but also prove to be very costly due to the inefficiencies. Following are four key aspects that should be integrated across the facility to help better manage operations and reduce lead time.


Your shop operation is based on tasks that are completed on a daily, weekly or monthly basis to produce molds. Standards can be applied to any process, task or procedure relevant to a shop’s operation. Without standards, you are inviting uncertainty.

Many shop owners are insistent that mold development is an art – but in reality, this is not the case. Take a good look at all of your operations, including every step of the mold design and development process and machining. Are there steps that are repetitive or similar? If so, this is an opportunity to establish a standard or set of standards based on the type of mold being produced or the activity being performed. With a set of standards or rules in place for processes and implementation, shops can reduce variability and create more predictable outcomes, resulting in time savings and improved quality.


Getting the most out of people and machines also is necessary to reduce lead time. Are there time lags when moving a block from machine to machine? Is your CNC equipment software optimized for speeds and feeds? By taking the time to optimize both equipment and processes, your shop will achieve greater efficiencies and reduce lead time.

For example, to reduce machine run time, CAM programs should be designed to take full advantage of a machine’s capabilities. To ensure optimal machine programming, whether the machine is new or existing, cutter paths and speeds/feeds need to be addressed. Listening to a machine run no longer is an accurate gauge of performance. In fact, some shops are finding differences of up to 20% between programs on the same or similar machines. Comparable improvements are being found after optimizing cutting tools for depth of cut and spindle rpm. To avoid this and maximize machine use, take the time to measure how long the program should run vs. how long it actually runs.

First-time quality

Ensuring a mold is produced correctly at all levels is another critical way to reduce lead time. While this sounds like common sense, time and time again a quality issue during the build process creates additional work, which adds time and cost to production.

Therefore, shops have a great deal of opportunity in machining quality. As internal customers become more stringent with incoming quality requirements (e.g. missing features, deburring, etc.), shops must hold the machining department to the same standards that other areas of the shop are utilizing. The lost time linked with sending tools back to CNC for re-work is tied to increased overtime and makes it more difficult to achieve tighter delivery timelines.

To eliminate lost time and ensure first-time quality, shops are starting with the basic task of validation. First, validating machines are properly calibrated, and then the calibration is confirmed through the use of machine probes, CMM and cloud scans. Unfortunately, many shops are confident that a given block or component is to spec, so they don’t check them at all. This means a possibly flawed part proceeds directly to the next operation… and the error isn’t discovered until too much time and effort have been wasted.

Investment in automation and software

Manufacturing automation and Industry 4.0 will transform the tool and die shop floor. As technology advances and is integrated with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Virtual Reality (VR), Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI), the industry is seeing a new area of automation in which software and machinery are increasingly more capable and the manufacturing value stream is more integrated.

Automation is being implemented at varying levels, depending on the industries served and the products being produced. However, looking at the full manufacturing process, there are many key areas – including CNC machining, maintenance, logistics, production scheduling, design/engineering, management and administration – where automation currently is being applied. These automations allow companies to develop and integrate new methods, techniques and systems that help reduce human intervention on the shop floor and, as a result, maintain or improve quality and efficiency.

To best understand where automation could be applied most profitably to improve performance and reduce lead time, shop leadership should conduct an audit to determine what technology and software has the easiest implementation to achieve the desired results.

Taking the time to address and manage these four aspects in your shop will take valuable time from your daily routine. However, by addressing them, you can make a significant impact in the quality, cost and lead time you offer to customers.

Laurie Harbour is president and CEO of Harbour Results, Inc., a business and operational consulting firm for the manufacturing industry, offering operational and strategic advisory expertise, as well as proprietary assessment programs, to help optimize business performance. For more information, visit