Dude, You're Getting a Dell--Every Five Seconds
The PC maker's newest and biggest factory makes its other state-of-the-art plants look like slowpokes.
By Christopher Null

(Business 2.0) – No one builds computers more efficiently than Dell, so it makes sense that the world's top PC maker would eventually figure out how to take state-of-the-art manufacturing to another level.

With WS1--Dell's newest PC factory, in Winston-Salem, N.C.--the company is doing just that. At 750,000 square feet, WS1 is more than twice the size of Dell's former No. 1 plant, in Austin. After opening WS1 in October, Dell is already projecting that PCs will roll off these assembly lines 40 percent faster than at other plants, that overall downtime will be reduced by 30 percent, and that equipment will be physically handled 25 percent less often. By January, Dell says, machines will come off the line at the rate of one every five seconds.

The brainchild of Travis Simpson, Dell's VP for North American operations, and Richard Komm, the company's factory-design guru, WS1 is the culmination of 10 years of research (and potentially more than $200 million in tax incentives from North Carolina). The logic behind it is simple: According to Gartner, Dell's once-superior unit sales growth has slowed down to match the overall industry average for the first time, and competition is tight and margins razor-thin in desktop PCs, which account for more than half of the company's $49 billion in sales. If the upgrades prove worthy, Dell can squeeze more profit out of PCs and better capitalize on sales of higher-margin notebooks and servers. -- CHRISTOPHER NULL

Heavy Lifting Instead of using robots to handle tasks like packing mice and cables--which can slow production at other plants--Dell found a better use for automation: ergonomics. At WS1, one set of robots plucks computer chassis and places them on conveyers. Another drops finished machines into boxes. Why? Too many worker-injury claims caused by lifting. "All of our automation is driven by ergonomics, not productivity," Komm says.

Supply on Demand At Dell's older plants, a single assembly line can produce only one type of computer (representing about four models) without being shut down and retooled. WS1's lines are all equipped with the tools to build any of Dell's 40 machine designs at any time. This way, an order for a particular model isn't held up until there are enough requests for that model to justify retooling a line. "Other factories have a process-driven flow," Komm says. "WS1 is focused on one thing: How do we get it to the customer in the shortest amount of time?"

Common Ground Each assembly line at WS1 has a small stock of the most common parts, so workers don't have to run to "the supermarket" (a nearby storage area) every time a computer is built. Complex orders still require such "kitting," but many others have generic configurations, with minimal customization required. Stocks are also located in exactly the same place on every line, so supervisors can see at a glance if supplies are getting low and assign a "parts runner" to quickly restock.

Team Building Komm borrowed a trick from automakers: assembling in teams. At WS1, three workers, each with a specific set of tasks, build a computer. Called a "progressive build," the process isn't as extreme as the old Model T assembly line, which gave a single, specialized task to every worker, but it allows workers to focus on a subset of delicate assembly operations. The result: They learn their jobs faster, and Komm estimates that Dell can reduce errors by as much as 30 percent.

Speed-Read At WS1, Dell uses a new "quick test" procedure, with a tester working in tandem with each three-person assembly team. This fourth member runs a set of standard checks on every computer that comes off the line to verify that it's wired correctly and will boot. If the machine works, it moves on to more extensive testing; if it fails, the tester can let the production team know immediately--in less than four minutes instead of 60. Komm says, "The faster you get feedback to the operator, the fewer defects."