Automotive blanker presses on
Production software helps Kasle Metal Processing weather slowdown, prepare for the future
Amidst the bad news associated with Ford Motor Co., good news is surfacing in Jeffersonville, Ind., home of Kasle Metal Processing. The company is using a software tool to ensure it is operating as efficiently as possible as it heads into one of its busiest months ever.
Amidst the news of Ford Motor Co.'s business downturn, good news is surfacing in Jeffersonville, Ind., home of Kasle Metal Processing (KMP).
KMP is the main supplier of Class A vehicle body blanks to Ford's Louisville (Ky.) Assembly Plant, the home of Ford Explorer® assembly, and the Kentucky Truck Plant, another Louisville facility where all Super Duty® full-sized trucks are built. Obviously, a dramatic spike in gas prices last year forced many consumers to rethink their interest in sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and large trucks. Whereas Ford once sold more than 400,000 Explorers a year, the company sold less than half of that in 2006. Sales also dipped for full-sized trucks, as many businesses postponed additional purchases to augment their fleets.
KMP company management eliminated a third shift and scaled back the number of employees to 50. The metal processor shut down for a week in July and for another week at the close of 2006.
Despite some of the difficulties, KMP is upbeat about the future. The last year was spent not so much on soul-searching, but on searching for efficiency. And using a software tool from AIM Analytical LLC that largely had been ignored, the company found that it is operating more efficiently than ever before.
Ford also happens to be introducing a redesigned Super Duty truck in 2007, and KMP is making inroads with an up-and-coming vehicle manufacturer, Toyota. Coming off the heels of a dramatic slowdown, the new year is shaping up to be an interesting one.
Declaration of Independence
The same statement can be used to describe KMP in general. Kasle Steel, a longtime supplier of steel products to the automotive industry, and Automatic Feed Co., a manufacturer of steel processing equipment, came together in 2003 and opened the Jeffersonville, Ind., facility in June 2004. The motivation was to offer Ford a closer supply base for vehicle blanks for its SUVs and trucks. The blanks previously came out of Kasle's Woodhaven, Mich., facility.
So this joint-venture company had its own controller and salesperson, much like a stand-alone company, not a division. KMP also offered expertise that truly was unmatched in the geographic area.
"We certainly set ourselves apart by being knowledgeable in and being experienced with Class A body panels and what it takes to screen, inspect, and produce the panels," said. Tom Woods, KMP's general manager, who has been with the company almost two years. "As you can imagine, the steel mill has a great interest in us. In fact, we actually work for the steel company even though we refer to Ford as a customer.
"It's a joint relationship," he continued. "We actually work for the mill and are paid by the mill, but we are close with our customer and know what their requirements and demands are. So we need to communicate those and ensure that the mill is in sync with what the customer wants."
The 130,000-square-foot facility has the equipment that helps KMP deliver those Class A body panels. The most unique aspects of its two lines are the huge presses—a 600-ton Verson press with a 186-inch bed on Line 1 and an 800-ton Verson press with a 204-in. bed on Line 2. Enprotech, Lansing, Mich., refurbished the press for Line 1.
The only other major difference between the two lines is the nine-roll straightener on Line 1 and a 19-roll leveler on Line 2 for the more sensitive jobs. Both lines have coil-changing stations, uncoilers, washers, and oilers before the presses and a conveyor and stacking system after blanking. Automatic Feed Co. reconditioned the coil processing equipment, which is more than 20 years old. Before the slowdown in late 2006, KMP used its equipment to produce 250,000 to 400,000 blanks per month, or 10,000 to 12,000 tons per month.
In addition to the inspecting techniques that ensure quality steel blanks are being shipped to its automaking customers, KMP also considers its ability to maintain a clean line, even with washing and lubricant application, and keep the line constantly running as keys to its success. Woods said it's one of the main reasons Steel Technologies Inc., Louisville, Ky., decided to jump into automotive blanking with the 2006 acquisition of the 50 percent Kasle interest in KMP.
Even before the change in ownership, however, KMP management realized it needed to diversify its customer base. Having its future tied so closely to one manufacturer did not make too much sense in light of the company's strategic growth initiatives.
That has led to work with GM, Springhill, Tenn., where the Saturn vehicles are manufactured. KMP supplies the blanks for exposed and unexposed portions of the VUE® hood and two versions of the right and left body sides for the ION®. KMP also has gotten its foot in the door with Toyota's Georgetown, Ky., facility.
Some Software Help
Old customer requirements, new customer desires, and concerns to expand the customer base—KMP needed to become more efficient toward the end of 2005. It found an underutilized tool in the company's AIM Analytical manufacturing software, and that discovery helped pave the way for a not-so-disastrous 2006.
Actually, the software had been installed since the KMP plant first opened, but it was not fully utilized because the first year the plant basically was dedicated to getting the equipment running and doing what was necessary to ship blanks to customers. KMP's early managers may not have completely bought into the belief that the company could continually improve its performance, leading the software's measurement capabilities to be ignored, according to Robert Hamilton, KMP's operations manager.
"Certainly, you have to have the right culture. You have to have the attitude that you want to work and you want to look at these tools," he said.
Hamilton, who has been with KMP slightly less than two years, embraced the software upon his arrival.
"We raised the awareness of the system and what it was going to do for us and what our expectations were. And we held people accountable to that," Hamilton said.
The software—first installed at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana in Princeton, Ind.—has become a real-time window into operations and a prime motivator for continual improvement. Here are some examples:
Visibility into the shop floor. What you see on the screen—whether on the shop floor monitor or on a front-office latptop—is what is happening on the shop floor. A graphic reproduction of the lines, accessible through browsers such as Internet Explorer and Netscape, shows the viewer what part is running and how the line is running. Any number of operating specifications—such as uptime, gross strokes per hour, and total efficiency—can be programmed to be part of the main view screen.
The software is patched into the controls operating the two lines. Although the equipment is not new, the software still is able to extract 90 percent of the information it needs from the controls to prepare the real-time view and in-depth reports.
Woods said this real-time view gives KMP management a true sense of what is happening on the shop floor. Automated data collection ensures accurate reporting of production details and removes mistakes that can occur from manual reporting.
For those who like to take their work home with them, there's an added benefit.
"I can sit in my chair at home and watch what is happening," Woods said.
Quality improvement. The software includes fault monitoring. For example, you can click on the downtime for a job and find out what the reason code was. With that in hand, operations management can go to shift supervisors to get the story and correct the problem.
"So management is able to show the shop floor that we are watching what's going on," Woods said. "And that tends to motivate them."
"A lot of times they will call me because they know that we know what's going on," Hamilton added.
The software also keeps track of every button that was ever pushed in connection with a specific job. If the line operator can't remember the sequence of events that led to a quality problem, the software can recall the sequence automatically.
Production improvement. When you know the true situation, you can improve the situation much more easily, according to Hamilton.
"What I do on a daily basis is I come in and look at what we did the night before. I start to look at what happened," he said.
"You can go into AIM into the production reports and see exactly what the downtime was and all the issues and start working on what you are going to do to prevent those downtime issues in the future."
As an example, Hamilton looked at his laptop during the interview for this story. He noticed Line 1 running at 114 percent efficiency and Line 2 at 104 percent, both good performances.
"The tool is out there, and if you don't use it to coach, you don't get the improvement," Woods said.
KMP saw quite an improvement in 2006. At the beginning of the year, it was running three shifts and producing approximately 10,000 tons per month. By the middle of 2006, with improvements in line efficiency, KMP was processing the same volume with two shifts.
Employee engagement. The production reports aren't for manager's eyes only. They are posted regularly on a board on the shop floor for everyone to see.
"We get a competition going with that," Hamilton said. "If a particular shift finds that one line can outrun them, they'll try to outperform the other. We see a lot of that, and we do reward them for their efforts."
Again, the competition appears to be paying off. KMP posted a 37 percent uptime in October 2005, but improved that to 50 percent uptime only one year later. Hamilton said that some nights KMP's second shift has hit 70 percent uptime. And this occurred at the end of 2006, when KMP had to endure more changeovers as inventories built up at customers' plants and job orders were not as large as earlier in the year.
More intelligent quoting. KMP can look up months' worth of data to see what the average quote was for a part or a similar part, which gives the front office a more accurate idea for a bid. Several months down the line, management can go back and compare the quote to the actual outcome.
"Especially as we look at quotes for simpler jobs, we need to beat out the competition," Woods said. "Our costs are our costs, but what can we do in terms of efficiency to get more per hour so that our quote sticks out as the best in the marketplace?"
Time to Get Busy
"I think AIM played a crucial role in keeping the facility open for business as it lost some of the Ford orders," said Todd Hernandez, AIM Analytical's vice president, product development.
Woods agreed that improving efficiency was the key to the plant's survival.
"In tough times you have to be able to show a return. And we certainly have been ratcheting down in terms of cost controls, but at the same time you have to look real hard at how efficiently you are using your labor and how efficiently you are using your equipment," Woods said. "It's been a tool that's necessary for us to have, especially in this tough year that we have had from a volume perspective.
"If we had the volume we had in 2005, we would have been untouchable in terms of success," Woods added.
KMP will have its chance to prove just that. March 2007 was expected to be a record month for the company—processing more than 15,000 tons of steel in that one month. The new F-250 and F-350 Super Duty trucks from Ford are hitting the streets, and pent-up demand is expected to make the vehicles hot commodities.
Luckily, KMP managers won't have to wait for end-of-month reports to see how they are doing. The answer will be right before their eyes.
The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.