Working with metal is one of mankind’s earliest technological achievements, but that doesn’t mean we know everything there is to know about it. Take, for example, the case of Ohio and Pennsylvania-based Elyria/ Hodge Foundries Co., a company with more than 100 years of experience in the industry that recently undertook a massive change in the way it operates based on the concepts of lean manufacturing.
COO Greg Noethlich explains the operation is bringing new concepts to one of the oldest manufacturing industries as a way to distinguish itself in an increasingly tight marketplace.
“Faced with the external pressures of China and some of the other lower-cost manufacturers globally, we need to have a competitive advantage,” Noethlich says. “We believe it’s going to be on the operations side because we know it’s not going to be on the low labor rate side.”
Elyria/Hodge Foundries specializes in producing complex, grey and ductile iron castings for big-name customers in industries including renewable wind energy, power generation, infrastructure, agriculture and construction equipment. The company got started on this new path almost immediately upon making the decision that the operations strategy would bring a competitive advantage. “We deployed on a venture right after the first of 2009,” Noethlich explains. “With the right team of foundry expertise, lean manufacturing skills and information technology all partnering together, we will achieve breakthrough ideas and performance.”
The process started with the application of kaizen events, or continuous improvement workshops. Noethlich says a cross-function team of hourly and salaried workers examined bottlenecks in the plant’s production processes, keeping an eye out for time wasted on non-value-added activities. These employees looked for defects, overproduction, waiting time, excess motion, inventory and extra transportation.
Although lean manufacturing has its roots in the automobile industry, Noethlich says Elyria/Hodge Foundries have been able to successfully translate the concepts to the foundry environment. “They’re all going to apply, it just comes down to how you apply them, smart implementation is the key,” he says. “Cookie-cutter lean doesn’t work. Lean implementation is really three things: Fix the flow, eliminate the waste and engage the people. That approach applies to any industry, processing technique or customer base.”
“They’re really just tools of common-sense business practices,” says James Lawrence, vice president of advanced manufacturing systems.
Noethlich says some of the lean concepts the company has applied to its operations include one-piece flow and visual workplace management. In particular, visual workplace management has helped the company significantly because “at any one point, you can stand in the foundry and see how you’re performing,” he says. “Visual management is key to recognizing and correcting abnormalities that occur during your production process. It also ensures you have product flow through your plant.” The implementation of lean also has created a more aggressive and proactive atmosphere in the plant, as well as a more organized work space. “Part of what lean manufacturing tells you is, a place for everything and everything in its place,” Noethlich says.
Lawrence says that although it was difficult at first to get everyone thinking about lean, Elyria/Hodge Foundries were able to bring the entire plant around to that way of thinking. “Once you start to train personnel and educate them on the tools, you’re immediately going out to work on practical applications,” he says.
What helped was the fact that the company got the employees involved in implementing lean, not just management. “What becomes dynamic when you have several hundred people working on this is you start to go to bat for the best ideas,” Lawrence says.
Lean manufacturing already has delivered measurable results for Elyria/Hodge Foundries. Noethlich says the company has seen lead-time reductions, which in turn have increased customer satisfaction. Perhaps more significant is the impact lean has had on productivity, giving the company high single-digit improvement year over year in that area. “We’re doing that during an economic downturn,” Noethlich says.
Despite these improvements, Noethlich says the company is not done yet. “We’re in the beginning stages of it; we’re on a three- to five-year journey,” he says. Lawrence says the company has changed its way of thinking, saying that until 2009, there were many things about its production that were considered fixed.
Now, however, Elyria/Hodge Foundries considers all line items variables as it looks for creative ways to reduce waste and become more efficient. Noethlich says the company is in the process of re-evaluating everything about its processes in an effort to develop the most efficient foundry operation possible. “We’re leaving no stone unturned with those challenges,” Noethlich says.