There’s so much written about instant gratification. We all want it – now. The millennial generation has really taken it on the chin with this concept. It’s really not them – it’s all of us. We’re more impatient – at the store, in the car, when we are Internet searching. If we can do things faster, we believe we can get more done each day.
It’s the same in business. If a company can get product manufactured and out the door, there’s time to take on more opportunities. Many times an engineer can invent a way to speed up a printing press or bottling machine to increase production. Not us.
For a company like Sunset Hill Stoneware, it’s not that simple. We don’t have machines that will go faster at the turn of a switch. We employ artisans who hand throw mugs on a pottery wheel – one at a time.
From start to finish, if everything goes well, our mug-making process for a single unit is 5-7 days. That means that nothing can go wrong during manufacturing.
What could happen? Breakage, wrong artwork or color applied, natural glazing minerals melt differently during final firing, kiln misfires, artwork cracks, etc. When that happens, we hold the order and redo what needs to be replaced (yes, another 5-7 days).
Merchandise on Display
Retailers rely on Sunset Hill Stoneware to have American-made products on their shelves. They say the faster, the better. Why the urgency? Many of them have seasonal shops. Think about Yellowstone National Park. They have 12 shops typically open from April through October. If we ship in November, they could end up with months of costly inventory. It’s the same for a bed and breakfast or gift store. Every business has a peak season and we coordinate our work within those seasonal demands.
We can’t make our potters throw faster, but we can improve their efficiency without sacrificing quality and consistency. It starts with our pottery wheels. Our wheels are custom designed and maintenance free. What does that mean?
A typical potter throwing 200 mugs a day will most likely need pottery wheel maintenance at least every six months. Our Sunset Hill Stoneware pottery wheels have no downtime and require no maintenance. And our computer-engineered wheels allow a potter to select how fast they want to start and stop, along with adjusting their throwing speeds. Why is this important? When a single potter is throwing 200 mugs a day, every second counts. During an 8-hour day, there is 480 minutes. Divide that by 200 and our potter’s are throwing a new mug in less than 2-1/2 minutes. (Watch us in action!)
And every production employee has the tools they need within reach of their work station. It’s this investment in duplication of work stations, cutting tools, sponges and water supply that makes us more efficient and speeds up our processes.
Speedy Drying Times
Wet clay contains a lot of water; in fact, it is at least 25% water. So after a mug is thrown, it needs to dry. As it dries, the water evaporates and the particles of the clay are drawn closer together resulting in shrinkage. We expect about 12.5% shrinkage and our potters plan for that. What becomes more challenging is controlling the drying time during the different stages of manufacturing. The clay pieces have to dry uniformly. If they dry too fast, the medallion artwork could fall off, handles won’t adhere, pieces could have cracked bottoms or the mug overall will appear warped.
We control the drying process a few ways:
- Using building automation to control our heat and humidity levels. This maintains 45% relative humidity in our facility during every Wisconsin season.
- Designing proprietary mobile damp carts for each potter. These innovative damp carts slightly dry our pottery while maintaining optimal moisture content for the next manufacturing step of properly applying handles and medallions.
- Engineering a specially-designed drying room. This aerated environment dries our pottery for the next manufacturing step in less than 30 minutes vs. the piece having to air dry overnight.
These expedited drying methods help us deliver the quantity of product needed at the right time with minimal waste.
Visibility Drives Efficiency
When a business can streamline their processes and gain visibility to their procedures, it will help them gain momentum. That’s what our newly implemented HawkPoint MRP II system does for us. It helps us plan our day, week and month more efficiently.
We can enter our orders and visually communicate with our artisans what style, glaze and artwork is required for each piece, along with any details of special artwork placement and bottom stamps. After the final firing, the stoneware pieces are carted via traveling workstations into our shipping department. It is there where transport details are automatically imported into UPS, packing lists are auto generated and tracking numbers are auto emailed.
Speed and Strength Achieved by Process
Well-run organizations from small start-ups to larger players have a need for process. Structure and visibility helps a business evaluate their strength and weaknesses, identify areas for improvement and react quicker.
The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of our products and services; deliver consistently to our customers in the timeline needed while increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty. Leveraging our processes helps us deliver new products and services quickly and efficiently without reinventing the ‘wheel’ every time. For us, keeping our wheels spinning is vital for success.
Keeping watch. Pat