October 7, 2009
Glastender, a food service products manufacturer, takes bold moves and expands during this historic economic downturn.
Driving much of Glastender's manufacturing and business strategy is, of all things, liquor licensing. Seriously.
The Saginaw, Mich., manufacturer of high-end commercial food service products sells to restaurants, and in a world where drink orders drive profits, a liquor license makes all the difference. Once a restaurant applies and finally receives its license, owners do everything they can to open the doors as quickly as possible (see Figure 1). It's wait, wait, wait—then hurry up.
This explains Glastender's gutsy moves of late, including a major investment in fabrication automation. At the same time the company culture fosters a unique approach to the workday during which everyone, from top-level managers and supervisors to machine operators and technicians, is accountable. Performance is measured by the only question that matters in any business: Are we making money?
Seventeen years ago, a lot at Glastender was "a chaotic mess. There were no standards, time studies, scheduling processes—nothing."
So remarked Mark Norris, vice president of operations and a 17-year company veteran. He's seen the organization's business philosophy transform into what managers call "process-based leadership," an approach that works together with open-book management. Financial statements are shared weekly, and metrics are broken down to floor-level teams, showing each team's contributions. Some teams contribute positively for a week, some negatively. That negative contribution triggers a business focus team to identify the issue and define a timeline for corrective action.
Teams that consistently do well aren't treated any differently from teams that may falter once in a while. Managers don't want to create that kind of competitive environment. Everyone's in it together, and not just those on the manufacturing floor. Sales and administration, accounting, purchasing, quality, engineering—everyone plays a part. If business conditions rise to a certain level, everyone gets a share of the profit.
Shop floor workers are grouped into nine teams, and how these teams are defined matters. They're not divided by processes: welding, bending, finishing, and so on. Instead, they're largely defined by product line: mug frosters, refrigeration, glass washers, coolers, and so on. Every team member carries specific products from the cutting cells, through deburring, bending, welding, finishing, assembly, and then out the door.
Why organize teams by product and not fabrication process? Norris' thinking goes like this: A "welding department" would tackle ways to make welding more efficient. That's all well and good, but designing a product and process to eliminate welding altogether would drive lead-times down even further. Employees at Glastender did just that, in fact. Exterior welds on some products have been eliminated completely.
The system works because the company's data mining software reveals what happened where, and when. "We can pull up companywide on-time delivery as well as a team's on-time delivery," Norris explained.
Data may reveal that the cooler team had 10 products to ship yesterday, yet they shipped only five. "I can look across different data collection points and see that we may have missed those shipments because of a hang-up in welding. That's reportable in every morning meeting we have."
Norris emphasized that such tracking isn't meant to create a "big brother" atmosphere, but just to increase accountability and identify problem points. It's not about who failed, but instead how workers can prevent a problem from recurring. If the problem never happens again, everybody benefits. The fewer delays there are on the floor, the more money the company can make and distribute to its employees.
A decade ago, the manufacturing lead-time was between six and eight weeks, Norris said. Last year it was between 15 and 16 days. Today it's down to six or seven days, and Norris and other company employees want to reduce that even more. "My ultimate goal right now is to punch or cut, weld, bend, deburr, and assemble within a matter of two days, with nothing ever going on a shelf," Norris said.
For the past six years, the shop's manufacturing teams have improved processes first by making changes that didn't involve major capital investments: shop and machine organization, part flow, and the like.
"We set our sights on being the best we could," Norris recalled, "and we had very good manual systems in place that were going in the JIT direction we wanted to go, and we practiced and practiced to eke out as much as we could. But at some point we knew we needed to go a step farther into the technology."
Turns out, the company went many, many steps farther. The shop floor is a gleaming example of just how far automation can take metal fabrication (see Figure 2, Figure 3, and Figure 4), and it all starts with the order. The sales order and data for an engineered-to-order product are put into the materials resource planning (MRP) system, which breaks it down into bill of materials (BOMs). About 80 percent of the material at Glastender is stainless steel, the remaining being a mix of galvanized steel, aluminum, and other metals. Typical stainless thickness is about 20 gauge, and galvanized steel goes up to about 14 gauge.
The BOM information is sent into software from Hamilton, Ohio-based Salvagnini that automatically nests blanks for all the parts on an order—and nothing else. Actual customer demand drives manufacturing, not a master schedule based on a forecast.
"If I punch or laser-cut a part, I need it right away," Norris said.
Instead of programmers spending hours manually nesting parts, software automatically nests and sends files to Salvagnini punching and laser cutting machines based on priorities and due dates. An extensive storage and retrieval system, just installed this summer, issues the material to various machines based on capacity constraints. If one laser cutting center is overscheduled, the system automatically sends metal to another machine.
The blanks are cut and offloaded, and workers take them to a Steelmaster deburring and graining machine. There the blanks are sent under a series of oscillating brushes and emerge deburred with uniform, straight-line grains.
After this the parts flow to a bending area consisting of two Salvagnini panel benders with robotic attendants and eight Cincinnati press brakes. The panel benders handle the larger parts, while press brake operators bend small components. Parts then flow to the robotic and manual welding cells, as needed, and then to finishing and assembly.
For certain products, the final finishing took some significant operator time and effort, that is, until recently.
"If you hang over a bar and look at the guy washing glasses in three- or four-compartment sinks, we make those," Norris said.
These stainless steel sinks must be finished before assembly, and until recently operators, using manual disk grinders, spent 30 to 40 minutes per bowl. "We ran into extensive labor and ergonomic issues here," Norris said, "so we pursued an automated machine."
"I think that even they [Autopulit] surprised themselves, producing this machine that allows us to do what we do," Norris said.
"The machine eliminated many labor-hours in grinding these sinks and getting them prepared [for assembly and shipment]," recalled Tony McCue, president of AM Machinery Sales. He added that the system is programmed by teaching-in paths for the grinding heads, after which the system saves the program. Instead of spending hours of manual grinding time, operators now call up the pretaught program for the sink at hand, and run it. "The machine also has compensation capabilities for any variations there might be from one sink to the next," McCue added.
The challenge for this application involved getting into the nooks and crannies of these sinks to achieve a No. 4 finish, a National Sanitation Foundation requirement. The dual-head machine has a table that moves in five axes. The part is moved in the X, Y, and Z directions so the grinding heads can reach all necessary surfaces. Now it takes a third of the time to finish these complex components, Norris said.
Glastender has been a virtual growth machine over the past few years. Having long-term relationships with the likes of T.G.I. Friday's®, Applebee's®, and Outback Steakhouse™ Glastender products can be seen the world over.
"If you place an order, they can tell you where it is at any moment of any day," AM Machinery's McCue said. "They have it down to a science. They used to have millions of dollars' [worth] of inventory that they just don't have to keep anymore. They've virtually eliminated inventory, and the product is completed and going onto a truck within days. It's just phenomenal."
Like most, Glastender hasn't weathered the downturn unscathed. The 200-plus-employee company laid off some workers this year to adjust for a 25 percent drop in demand. Also, employees have yet to benefit from the bonus program launched last year because of the drop in sales.
Glastender currently has more than 185,500 square feet at its sprawling Saginaw campus. The manufacturing facility, with signs of recent building expansion and an ever-expanding collection of new manufacturing technology, hasn't marched in lockstep with economic trends. This, Norris said, wasn't entirely intentional. Both the building and equipment investment began before the economy went downhill. "It got to a point where it was like a freight train. You really couldn't stop it. And we felt it was the right thing to do."
Regardless, he said, in the long run, Glastender's aggressive moves likely will pay big dividends once the economy shifts into a higher gear.
Norris summed it up this way: "It's a matter of coming out of [this down economy] strong, and having the capability to satisfy your customer needs in the shortest amount of time."
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