Operations Management

Production Line Design

Written by Andrew Goldman for Gaebler Ventures

The traditional straight-line assembly formation can lead to inefficiencies. Learn about the advantages of the U-shaped line in this article.

When people think of the production line, a traditional image of the assembly line comes to mind.

Production Line Design

This usually means a long manufacturing line, like Henry Ford's great vision. While these lines still exist, they are not always the most efficient way to utilize labor and space. If you have a long assembly line in your company, you may be able to gain productivity and efficiency with the implementation of a U-Shaped line.

There are several problems with the traditional straight-line assembly structure. The first problem is the overall size of the line. If an employee has to walk from one end of the line to another, it can take a lot of steps. This can be even more troublesome when the employee has to carry or transport material.

Picture Henry Ford's auto assembly line. If the person at the door assembly station needed to bring paint the painting station, he'd have to walk all the way down the line with the material in tow. This is both cumbersome and wasteful.

Another problem is with communication. If the person at the end of the line needs to tell the person at the front of the line to stop feeding material, they have to physically walk along the entire line to communicate this problem. This takes both time and energy.

The U-Shaped line can solve both of the above problems. By setting up the assembly line in a U-Shape, the end of the line is now much closer to the front of the line. This allows for better communication, as employees at different stations are now closer to each other. In addition, it's easier to help one another out, as problems can be communicated, and labor can be balanced. Materials that need to be transported now have less distance to travel. These are all major benefits of the U-Shaped line.

Another major benefit of the U-Shaped line is increases to efficiency and productivity. Here's a great example.

I witnessed a bottling line that was in a straight line formation. They had one employee feeding an accumulator with empty bottles. At the end of the line, they had another employee catching bottles off a line and boxing them. For reasons mentioned above, I encouraged the company to switch over to a U-Shaped assembly line. Once this was set up, the beginning of the line was right across from the end of the line.

It turns out the person feeding the bottles did not have that much work while the person catching bottles and boxing them was swamped. Now that the two jobs were close to one another, they could both load the line and box the finished product simultaneously. This allowed the work to be completed in less time, as the feeder no longer waited until all the empty bottles were unloaded before helping the boxer at the end of the line.

There are definitely costs associated with switching to a U-Shape that need to be considered. Machines have to be moved around along with electrical outlets. This is can be costly. In addition, there will be a small learning curve with your employees where it will take them a little while to get used to the new set-up.

Do some calculations and map out the new layout with pen paper. Calculate the expected labor savings versus the cost. You'll find the costs of switching over will be far less than the savings that will result. In addition, there is the added benefit of extra space that the U-Shape often creates in your facility.

Andrew Goldman is an Isenberg School of Management MBA student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has extensive experience working with small businesses on a consulting basis.

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