How to Ramp Up Production After a Lull

In an ideal world, manufacturing would never stop, and fully secure processes, well-integrated automation and smart business practices would keep shops operating 24/7, 365 days a year. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In reality, shops often face interruptions in production and downturns due to circumstances beyond their control, including unusual events such as a global pandemic. While a well-prepared shop can weather these production slowdowns, the real problems often start when it’s time to ramp production back up again.

Economists may do significantly more math than the average astrologer, but their predictions often amount to the same thing – guesses. This is particularly true for events like the COVID-19 pandemic, which have few historic precedents, and none of them more recent than the Spanish flu, which occurred more than 100 years ago. Instead, shops must take advantage of lulls in production to prepare themselves for business to come back – and business always comes back.

The key factor to preparedness is flexibility. Extended periods of downtime make for excellent opportunities for cross-training operators and reorganizing manufacturing environments. A well-rounded team of manufacturing professionals can react far more seamlessly to future changes in customer demand. Likewise, an effective high-mix/low-volume (HMLV) production strategy that prioritizes efficient machining cells over functional departments helps shops quickly react and retool to reach new customers in new industries the next time the economy contracts.

Indeed, cross-functional cells offer a variety of benefits. Workers are no longer responsible for a single operation, but an entire production process, improving engagement and motivation. Cells organized around part families also improve ease of scheduling, as cycle times will remain consistent across jobs. And with only a single queue at the start of the cell, parts flow quickly for reliable lead time.


When consumer demand resurges and the economy picks back up, manufacturers are often tempted to pursue new business aggressively and take on as much work as possible to recoup lost time and money. But having too many jobs in production at one time without sufficient capacity can cause work in progress (WIP) to pile up, which, in turn, makes it more difficult to meet customers’ deadlines. Conversely, Little’s Law demonstrates mathematically that if you control WIP and you know how long it takes for orders to move through an empty workshop, you can provide very reliable delivery dates.

For these reasons, during a lull in production, it’s best to clear out WIP entirely, and when business returns, limit the number of jobs that go out to the production floor. When shops control the pace of production, they can much more easily match the amount of incoming work to the lead times they can achieve with their total production capacity. In practice, manufacturers achieve optimal lead times at around 80% of machining capacity.

By minimizing WIP, shops also prevent operators from making costly errors or inefficient workflow decisions. A lull in production is the perfect time to not only institute better workflow management practices, but to also integrate a digital solution that can simplify the process for the front office. A fully optimized system that turns orders into completed parts on a reliable schedule is a simple, effective way to gain or maintain a competitive advantage.

In the midst of an upswing, shops are often tempted to push the flexibility of the modern HMLV manufacturing environment as far as consumer demand will allow, but this strategy only works as long as production capacity is available. When a shop reaches its capacity, it can either grow, or it can specialize. Both options have advantages and disadvantages, so manufacturers must closely study their own capabilities – it may be that specialization allows a shop to capitalize on a big competitive advantage, or that growth will allow a shop to pursue a significant new job opportunity.

The 21st century has already seen significant wars, major recessions and, now, a global pandemic. Manufacturers and economists alike hope for a long period of peace and prosperity to come, but the only constant in the world is change. To achieve long-term, sustainable success, manufacturers must find strategies for mitigating the risk of that uncertainty and prepare themselves to be ready when the economy roars back to life.