Originally published January 1996
For device manufacturers, the key challenge of the decade may well be to satisfy the increasing needs of their customers to shave costs while improving service. For most companies, this challenge means looking beyond traditional improvements in design and manufacturing to areas such as distribution and service. A recent example is Varian Oncology Systems (Palo Alto, CA), which has found fertile ground for innovation in its installation process.
Six years ago, Varian took almost 10 weeks (500 hours) to install one of its 9-ft-tall, 10- to 15-tn medical linear accelerators used in the treatment of cancer. Installation costs ran in the millions of dollars annually. Since then, the company has cut installation time in half to five weeks (215 hours), reduced installation costs by 41%, and simplified the installation process by 30%.
Varian accomplished this by no high-tech means. Instead, it employed cross-functional teams of service and manufacturing personnel to brainstorm and analyze the installation process, aided by process-mapping software. These teams uncovered and corrected wasteful steps during installation, and rectified a pattern of inadequate communication between the field and manufacturing personnel.
"Varian Oncology Systems first used these continuous-improvement approaches in its manufacturing, and has applied them to improve all its business processes," says Keith Krugman, vice president for customer support. Varian set as a goal the reduction of excessive time and costs in installing its accelerators. To tackle the problem, the company's customer-support organization established the cross-functional teams to examine the installation process and its many loopholes. The teams charted the installation process, from start to end, using a process-mapping software application, Visio (Sharpware Corp.), to create detailed flowcharts of the process.
Initial discussions uncovered some 100 issues, most of which were unnecessary steps in the installation process. Though each solution saved only an hour or two of installation time, combined they saved many more. Early savings totaled $750,000.
Other, more product-related issues necessitated altering the design of Varian's linear accelerator or its packaging. For instance, the unit's klystron, or x-ray energy source, was previously shipped separately to sites. Today, additional bracing devices hold the klystron in place, so it can be shipped as part of the accelerator. This change saved some five hours per installation.
In addition, the accelerator's modulator doors and emergency off-switches are now installed at the factory, saving an estimated two hours per installation. Similarly, pilot holes were added to the unit to help reduce by one hour per installation the time needed to pin the equipment together.
The Varian teams saved additional installation time by changing packaging methods and shipping with the units materials needed for installation. They determined, for instance, that the foam packaging "popcorn" used to protect some accelerator parts was unnecessary, merely creating a mess that service people had to sweep up after the machine was installed. Eliminating the popcorn saved at least one hour per installation.
Further, they found that hardware was often misplaced on-site, and that service staff had to go to a hardware store for the necessary nuts and bolts. Now, the accelerator shipment includes a spare parts kit. This change saved some two hours per installation. Similarly, they found that service staff had to scout for a grocery store to purchase the distilled water needed by the accelerator. Today, distilled water is packaged with the accelerator, saving one to three hours per installation.
In addition to improving the productivity of its installation teams (the same number of installers can do 75% more installations than in the past), Varian has improved its service to customers. According to Varian's Krugman, "The improvement has helped several hospitals open their radiation therapy departments on schedule and gain a faster return on investment."
As health-care providers become increasingly cost-conscious, more device companies may follow Varian's lead in wringing inefficiencies from the installation process. --Robert Seeley