4 places custom manufacturers often experience bottlenecks in production

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From 10,000 miles above, production bottlenecks all look the same: a queue forming upstream, and a trickle coming out the other end.

It’s at the ground level that they don’t always appear so clearly.

Almost every system has a bottleneck. Actually scratch that: every system has a bottleneck — at least one point governing capacity and throughput. Even if a system is running at full capacity, one node, machine, process or employee will be the weakest link.

In the highly competitive realm of custom manufacturing, one severe bottleneck can undermine a manufacturer’s ability to compete. And if unaddressed, it will become — unfortunately — part of the scenery, like a dam. And next thing you know, you’ll be accounting for this dam, pouring resources and effort into the reservoir that forms upstream (think the supply overstock and shuffling of work-in-progress that could be taking place this very moment on your plant floor).

So for your consideration, we submit four places that bottlenecks often occur in an SME custom manufacturing plant:

1. Engineering

Custom manufacturers handle additional design elements before slating things for material resource planning and project execution. This initial stage is time-consuming, expensive on the employee and software side, and, completely necessary. However, many manufacturers don’t properly integrate and streamline this step with production, and since it’s the first step, it can easily be overlooked as a bottleneck. Too bad, since it might actually be the most serious of bottlenecks in your operations, and in many ways the easiest to remedy.

Every additional hour spent turning designs into estimates, work-orders, and request for quotes to suppliers only slows down the entire production chain. Solution? Speed all these stages up by integrating CAD designs with your material resource planning. A system like Genius ERP will automate error-prone and time-consuming steps, like the preparation of a bill of materials and quotes for the parts a job needs to free up expensive engineering time so that this department can handle more requests, and ultimately bring in more jobs.

2. Inventory

Inventory is the eternal struggle, and in custom manufacturing environment material forecasting is always a gamble. Many shops will succumb to a ‘buy it now’ mentality, and then be surprised when they didn’t anticipate everything that was needed for a job. Confusion about which resources exist in the warehouse and what has been allocated for future jobs makes inventory a major bottleneck in production. Waiting for a certain hydraulic component or even just a box of washers is demoralizing to say the least.

And unlike many other bottlenecks, this one isn’t static, i.e. it hits at multiple points in production. It is the ninja of bottlenecks.

The best way to address this is to put in place systems that truly deal with the unique inventory needs of high-variable production. You might not be able to forecast like a repeat shop can, but custom manufacturers can definitely confirm, and react to what they need early on in a product’s inception. The backbone of this is communication across departments, and reliable inventory and job data to work with.

3. Customers

Ironically enough, customers often cause a bottleneck. They are the ones who demand on-time delivery, yet when you need their input at stages of production, a delay often occurs. Scheduling milestones, assessments and installations with them is dependent on two variables: your ability to meet these deadlines accurately, and their ability to absorb these deadlines. You can only control one of these two things can you truly: your ability to stick to production schedules.

When you are precise on timing and delivery, customers will have greater pressure to be as well. This bottleneck tends to improve in reaction to putting in place highly reliable systems that consistently hit deadlines. Plus, customers love working with a well-oiled machine.

Getting to this point is a sum of all parts when it comes to addressing bottlenecks and improving operations. This is a goal more than anything.

4. Management

This always reminds me of the difference between reactionary and reactive: one includes a delay. More often than not, management can undo a lot of hard, fast and accurate work by sitting in the way of next steps, or not properly conveying information when needed. In essence, management is acting in a reactionary fashion, taking time to control and answer to things at their pace, rather than being reactive to things as soon as they come their way.

The truth is that traditional forms of communication don’t always answer the call of fast-paced custom manufacturing. Greater clarity is needed for management to become reactive (let alone proactive, which is an entirely different art to master). Management needs a complete overview of production if the stage is to be set for reactive action that doesn’t dampen any productivity and capacity gains made by addressing any and all bottlenecks across production.


What we are essentially talking about are systems in production causing bottlenecks, or not properly addressing bottlenecks that exist already. One way to help remedy this is to have planning systems in place and establish standards for production that minimize the occurrence of bottlenecks.

Michael Connors

Michael writes on manufacturing, technology and current affairs for Genius Solutions in the role of content strategist. He studied journalism and worked in both news and PR before joining the company in 2017.

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