Bulletproof processes

Alpha Stamping is reinventing itself with lean manufacturing

STAMPING Journal December 2005
December 13, 2005
By: Kathleen McLaughlin

While some stampers are filing for bankruptcy, Alpha's lean manufacturing initiatives have propelled the Detroit-based stamper to a $50 million-dollar company and growing

Alpha Stamping Company is creating bulletproof processes.

Sound dangerous? It is for competing medium-sized stampers and assemblers.

While some stampers are filing for bankruptcy, Alpha's lean and mean processes have transformed the Detroit-based stamper into a formidable, $50 million company and growing. Halfway through 2005 the company netted $13 million in new business and expects to surpass 2004's new-business target of $16 million.

Bulletproof, indeed.

To meet its ultimate goal of becoming a $100 million company in the next several years, the stamper is refining all aspects of the business with lean manufacturing.

"At the rate we're growing, we need a strong team that understands how to quickly deal with problems as they arise and fix them—right, the first time," said Bob Stewart, director of advanced engineering and quality, Alpha Stamping Co. "Lean manufacturing is giving us the tools to create bulletproof processes that support the rapid expansion of our business."

Lean Beginnings

At many companies, lean manufacturing begins with a bang and ends in a sputter. Ten years ago the stamper attempted to start a lean journey, but management changes and an economic downturn contributed to the program's demise.

It wasn't a total loss, though. The stamper did incorporate the following lean practices.

Shadow Boards. All tool- and diemakers use common tools such as wrenches, pliers, and heavier hand tools. "We had 15 tool- and diemakers on the day shift, and if every one of them had their own roller chest with these tools, the toolroom would be too congested to function efficiently," Stewart said.

So the stamper placed a pegboard above the die repair table and painted the outline of each tool, such as a hammer. Common tools used on the job then were within reach at the work site. Also, anyone could check the board to see if a tool was missing and immediately look for it.

Team-oriented Die Repair. Every job was tracked for die repair time, adjustments performed when the tool was placed in the press, and perishable tool consumption. When a die is pulled for maintenance or repairs, most stampers put one person on the job. "You never get consistent output if one person works on a die," Stewart said.

Instead, Alpha's three-man die repair teams were choreographed like a ballet to make the most efficient use of their time. Each member was given a specific assignment while working in unison. For example, one team member was responsible for cleaning, moving the tool into the repair cell, and opening it up. The second diemaker performed die disassembly and reassembly. And the third diemaker sharpened the perishable tools to blueprint standards. Other tasks included making special shims, inspecting and replacing damaged details, changing broken springs, and logging tool history information into the database. These tasks were performed by available team members while more time-consuming grinding operations were performed.

"Everyone gets tired or has a bad day occasionally, but three-man teams don't allow the slowest worker to set the pace," Stewart commented.

Alpha's target for die repair was set at 90 minutes and was strictly tracked. Any repair that took more than 90 minutes required specific notes on what was going on and why it took longer. These notes became a part of the die history database that was used for trending die wear. When a tool exhibited repeated long changeover times, required excessive adjustments in the press, or perishable tool consumption was high, the tool was reaching the end of its service life. Management analyzed this data and implemented an action plan. For example, a new build order would be issued to create a replacement die long before the customer ever experienced degradation in part quality.

As part of a just-in-time endeavor, all dies were sharpened out of production—not just when a customer placed an order. "If there's an accelerated customer need, we're able to immediately put the die in and it's ready to go," Stewart said.

As steel prices began to spike and global competition heated up, management realized that the OEM's future successes were tied to creating wasteproof processes, not just incorporating efficiency changes.

It was time for a lean do-over.

Lean Restart

In 2003 the stamper welcomed a new chief operating officer with a passion for lean manufacturing. He helped re-energize Alpha's lean endeavors by appointing a lean enterprise champion. "One hundred percent of my time is spent looking for ways to eliminate waste and for continual process improvement," said Robert Kennedy, lean enterprise champion, Alpha Stamping Co.

To get started, Alpha's lean steering committee, comprising engineering, production, union, and nonunion employees, attended sessions at the Lean Learning Center, Novi, Mich., and the Pawley Institute at Oakland University, Rochester, Mich. Team members were chosen from all levels of the operation to balance labor and management perspectives.

Figure 1
After the lean team studied product flow and how a completed product is taken out of the press area, a diverter was added so an operator can switch from a full container to an empty one while the press is running.

"Lean manufacturing provides lots of different tools, but unless you have a cultural shift, the changes won't happen," Kennedy said. New endeavors often are viewed as flavors of the month by shop floor personnel, especially for workers who saw the first lean program fizzle. To get buy-in from the shop floor, a lean pep talk was held.

"Everybody leaves this place exhausted, but why?" Stewart asked in the pep talk. "You're tired not because your job is physically grueling, but because of wasteful processes that hinder getting the job done, like tracking down paperwork. Now is your chance to change what is wasteful so you leave ready to take on tomorrow."

To encourage participation, management encouraged the shop floor personnel to look at refining day-to-day processes. The first process to change was retrieving box labels from halfway across the building. "People work with what they're given," Stewart said. "When you give them an opportunity to make sense out of processes—it gets them motivated. After that, so many ideas rushed forward because everybody started to see the impediments to their successful day." Box labels now are available at the point of use for any operations that require them.

Ongoing Lean Endeavors

Instead of basing its initial endeavors on adding new tools to fix problems (such as quick die change equipment), the stamper is first focusing on eliminating waste without making capital investments. "We are focused on eliminating waste and coaching our employees on lean rules and principles," Kennedy said.

Improving Quick Die Change. As with die repairs, changeovers are now team-oriented. "We made it clear that this isn't a project, it's an endeavor or a journey, because we'll never be 100 percent lean," Kennedy said. "We'll always be striving to shave one or two seconds off a die changeover or eliminating waste from our processes."

Kennedy tapped the floor's production leader to work with him on reducing die changeovers and improving press efficiency. "We set our goal for one of the largest presses at 12 minutes; right now we're at 40 minutes," Kennedy said. To stay on track, the stamper hired an automation and quick-change consultant from Plante & Moran to mentor the project to ensure targets and timelines are met.

Streamlining the Shipping Department. The stamper's shipping docks are in the front of the 75,000-square-foot building, and its warehouse is located in the back. Because of the layout, lift trucks are constantly moving product back and forth, employees on foot are at risk, and everyone is exhausted by the end of the day. As the space is currently configured, the tumbling, product validation, and packaging areas are sandwiched in between an area where product is staged for shipment. There is obvious waste that can be eliminated, and process streams that need to be optimized, commented Kennedy.

"We've analyzed traffic patterns, paper trails, and material movement from the warehouse," said Kennedy. By creating a value stream map of the process, the team recommended moving the warehouse next to the loading docks. The goal is to eliminate bottlenecks, unnecessary motion, excessive transportation, and inventory. The engineering department now has redrawn the equipment map of the shop floor and presented it to the lean team for failure analysis.

"The lean team is now in the process of identifying potential problems associated with this proposed change and is adjusting the layout to eliminate them," Stewart said.

Increasing Plant Efficiency. The stamper is questioning all downtime caused by maintenance, quality problems, waiting for steel, and coil changes between changeovers. "Currently we are working on standardizing coil changes, and I believe we can reduce coil change downtime by half," Kennedy said.

Figure 2
To keep employees involved, all business metrics are posted on the shop floor so everyone understands where the company is going, why some changes are happening, why they're important, and what's coming in the future.

By studying constraints associated with a 600-ton press, an operator met his part count quota of 5,000 in the first 3-1/2 hours of his shift. The lean team studied product flow and how a completed product is taken out of the press area. As a result, a diverter has been added as the part exits the press (see Figure 1). The capital expense was minimal, because the diverter was constructed by the maintenance department. Now the operator can switch from a full container to an empty one while the press is running. The press now doesn't have to be stopped until a lift truck can haul the full container away. The offline container triggers a red light, so a lift truck driver instantly knows when a container is full and an empty one is needed. It's these quick wins that help motivate the shop floor to create better processes, commented Kennedy.

Attention now is focused on reducing lift truck miles. The team studied the overall paths taken and recommended moving a weigh scale closer to the press area to minimize mileage and free up drivers for other tasks.

Improving Part Design. The stamper manufactures approximately 700 different parts in annual quantities of more than 600 million pieces and is planning to add more capacity.

As steel prices continue to climb, all manufacturing engineers are challenged to perform a review of existing parts and the tooling that produces them to take the waste out. Efforts have been undertaken to standardize products, commonize fasteners used in assemblies, and retool parts to reduce material waste. These efforts have generated more than $1 million in cost savings to customers in 2005.

This part redesign and consolidation process generated a value-added fastener product catalog. Customers now may select from an assortment of common parts that are already in production. "Offering standard fastener assemblies to our customers lets them take advantage of economies of scale and save money," Stewart said.

Reorganizing the Front Office. Because waste exists in administrative functions too, front-office departments such as engineering, estimating, quality, and program management use process flow maps to identify bottlenecks and connections with other departments. "We had meetings to address broken connections, issues with communication, and paper trails that go around in circles," Stewart said. "The results have had a huge impact on the flow of information through these departments."

Stewart admits the front-office lean efforts are a work-in-progress and the company is still identifying disconnects that need to be addressed. "As the company grows, this lean endeavor is critical," Stewart said. "It's given us an opportunity to see where the issues are as new business comes in, and the tools to fix problems."

Lean Changes

A component of lean is not being afraid to experiment and make mistakes because you learn from them. "Because we're creating a dialogue with as many affected people as possible, we aren't making mistakes some companies make," Kennedy said. "We always have three or four different ideas to try, so if one doesn't work, we discard it and focus on another idea."

To keep employees involved, all business metrics are posted on the shop floor so everyone understands where the company is going, why some changes are happening, why they're important, and what's coming in the future (seeFigure 2).

Instead of reporting only what happened 30 days ago, the stamper posts current metrics so everyone can see what needs to be adjusted for improvement next month. According to Stewart, "We lament that our lean journey isn't further along, but when you review our progress, we are a much stronger and tighter company."

Alpha Stamping Co., 33375 Glendale Ave., Livonia, MI 48150, 734-466-8832, fax 734-425-1297, rkennedy@alphastamping.com, www.alphastamping.com

Lean Learning Center, 40028 Grand River, Suite 300, Novi, MI 48375, 248-478-1480, fax 248-478-1589, info@leanlearningcenter.com, www.leanlearningcenter.com

The Pawley Institute at Oakland University, 238E Elliott Hall, Rochester, MI 48309, 248-370-2685, www2.oakland.edu/pawleyinstitute

Kathleen McLaughlin

Kathleen McLaughlin

Contributing Writer

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STAMPING Journal is the only industrial publication dedicated solely to serving the needs of the metal stamping market. In 1987 the American Metal Stamping Association broadened its horizons and renamed itself and its publication, known then as Metal Stamping.

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