Cross-Train Employees to Maintain Productivity

As a mid-sized contract electronics manufacturer, we must be constantly able to adjust to fluctuations in operational workloads. And, at this size, we can’t shut down a line to accommodate for vacations and parental leave. Instead, we cross-train employees so that there is never an empty seat in our manufacturing process. Our experiences with cross-training employees may provide helpful ideas and guidance for other enterprises that also carefully manage capacity.

We operate two SMT lines, as well as a PTH line, with a total front- and back-office staff of roughly 45 employees. Over more than 25 years of operating in this way, we have learned a great deal and streamlined the process of cross-training. We’ve also realized a number of benefits that are perhaps not outwardly apparent, but which many other businesses could likely appreciate as well.

Because we are in the low-to-mid-volume, high-mix business, we see a constant fluctuation in workload by operation. In addition to doing PCB assembly we also do mechanical assembly, test, and after-market warranty work. Sometimes we’re run off our feet with SMT (surface mount technology) work; other times we are full-tilt on test, or on box builds.

The only viable means for a small business like ours to manage these workflows is to cross-train employees so that any employee can fulfill more than one operational focus area as required. We have a goal to never have an empty seat in our manufacturing plant – that is, to always have someone able to cover every job. Doing so ensures that we can remain responsive to customers. It’s also critical to being flexible to accommodate the variety of jobs we do in any given week or month.

Whatever your business is, it’s worthwhile to consider what opportunities there are internally for cross training and cross functionality. Following are some of the lessons we have learned along the path to achieving this goal.

Identify Areas Ideal for Cross-Training

Certain types of work lend themselves well to cross-training, while others absolutely require it. It’s useful to identify these areas and ensure you have them covered. For example, in our business, test and assembly are complementary jobs in that understanding one improves performance in the other.

Likewise, you can maximize cross-training in areas where it is natural. For example, machine operators can also set-up machines, but the reverse is not necessarily true. So, training set-up staff in machine operations is useful.

Consider, as well, areas where cross-training provides high value to the business. In a specialized function such as SMT machine operator, for instance, it could be detrimental to the business to have an empty seat. Cross training can minimize that risk.

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