Tucked away in Stafford, Texas, just south and west of Houston, is a small manufacturing and technology company that has spent the last 35 years providing state-of-the-art connection gear and high-tech solutions for the subsea oil and gas industry. National Coupling Co. (NCC) has three main product lines: metal seal hydraulic couplings, hydraulic valves and chemical injection systems. These products are used in various areas of subsea oil and gas development throughout the world.
Manufacturing couplings, valves and other components for use in subsea applications on oil and natural gas extraction systems requires exacting production because when something breaks, it’s expensive to repair.
“For a failure in 5,000-foot water depth, it is several days to pull a piece of equipment, and with rig rates from $300,000 to $1 million a day, you can do the math,” Operations Manager Lee Currier cautions.
The components made at NCC provide durable connections, control vital functions, and keep oil flowing in larger systems manufactured by OEMs like Cameron, FMC Corp., GE Oil and Gas, Aker Solutions, National Oilwell Varco and others. These larger systems in turn are sold to oil and gas operators, such as Shell, Exxon, Chevron and Total.
“We’re a small piece of the equipment used in a subsea field development,” Currier points out. “A failure is extremely costly, and it is not an option. As subsea oil and gas fields continue to be developed in greater water depths, the only option is to be right the first time. The design requirements for products to operate in these environments have continued to become more complex, and as an OEM supplier, NCC must meet the challenges and continue to offer products at a competitive price.”
Industry sources predict a growth from 75 to 100 percent in worldwide capital investments in the subsea oil and gas market over the next four years. The regions with the largest expected field development and growth are Africa, the Mediterranean, Brazil, Asia Pacific and the Middle East, they say.
“We don’t make anything you can’t pick up,” says Daniel DiAngelo, enterprise resource planning and operations analyst.
“We’re not making the big stuff – we make the small critical pieces that connect everything together.”
As an OEM supplier, NCC engineers, manufactures and provides its products with “cradle-to-grave” traceability. A documentation pack for a single coupling can contain as many as 30 pages. Currently, more than 3,000 different products are offered in ETO, MTO, ATO and MTS business models. All aspects of the company are united through a fully integrated enterprise resource planning system and a company philosophy utilizing Lean, Six Sigma and visual management techniques.
A majority of the company’s products are made of Nitronic 50 HS, a high-strength nickel alloy. “We are one of the largest consumers of Nitronic material in the bar sizes up to 3-inch diameter,” Currier notes. Other materials processed at NCC are Inconel 625 and 718, Super duplex 2507, Stellite 6B, 316L stainless steel, and ToughMet 3 AT 110. One of NCC’s core competencies is to machine high tolerance parts in what most companies consider difficult-to-machine materials.
All You Need
NCC’s lean manufacturing method relies on providing the employees all the tools they need at their work centers. The company focuses on visual management and point-of-use tooling and information.
The operation has made investments in every machine center to provide all the tools necessary to produce a high variety of products at high velocity through a single primary manufacturing line.
The manufacturing area is 44,000 square feet and operates on a single shift. The facility also has 15,000 square feet of offices, and the addition of 38,000 square feet of manufacturing space is underway.
Small-batch, high-variety production is an everyday requirement to support NCC’s customers. The company’s products are designed and packaged per customer specifications so no main components are kept in stock. This requires a high level of flexibility in the company’s manufacturing operations and planning to be able to meet customer demands.
Significant effort is spent to engineer products’ geometries and the processes to support their manufacture. To enable quick changeovers that are necessary in a high variety manufacturing operation, NCC finds it to be essential to reduce setup times and perform as many operations off-line as possible before the material is presented to the machining center.
All program creation and editing is done off-line with the use of Esprit computer-aided manufacturing software and delivered to the machine centers via a wireless digital numerical control system.
This enables revision control of computer numerical control (CNC) programs when engineering drawings are revised while still having programs available at the machines as required.
In conjunction with having CNC programs available and ready, all work holding and cutting tooling is available at the point of use. Every work station is equipped with a tool box, a networked computer with data collection and the necessary tooling to perform any work that could be scheduled against the work station. This enables each operator to work multiple machines while being able to perform quick part changeovers and log all operations while they occur.
As the complexity of NCC’s products continues to grow, the company strives to control costs by utilizing the latest technology.
The use of statistical process control techniques and the latest machine tools have enabled NCC to capture a second and third shift on a few multi-spindle, multi-turret machine centers in a “lights-out” environment, where equipment runs automatically without human intervention, the company says. This equipment helps NCC to keep costs down by minimizing increases in direct labor expenditures.
NCC says it prizes its labor pool as its highest-value asset.
“It is the objective of NCC to invest in the development of our staff and partner with our equipment suppliers,” Currier emphasizes.
“In the past few years, NCC has had several highly successful projects with our key equipment suppliers, and it enabled our staff to gain the knowledge to program and operate highly complex machining centers, such as Swiss machining, mill-turn centers and multi-spindle and multi-turret robotic centers.”
Planning and Information
NCC’s production floor is configured as a pull system. The work is released at the front of the line and managed via a series of Kanban signals on the manufacturing floor.
Because every part is engineered in the company’s enterprise resource planning system, NCC is able to utilize the overall scheduling module to initiate production. Once the work is released to the floor, visual management is utilized. When something goes awry – as things often do in a manufacturing shop – because employees work in a visual management system, they don’t have to look at a spread sheet to see the problem – it is visible on the floor.
The operators and floor leads all have the equipment and knowledge to relieve the pressure by redeploying resources.
“Every minute of every action is collected on the floor in real time,” Currier stresses.
“It gives us the ability to provide live metrics of performance and empower our employees to see what our goals are, what they’re achieving and stimulate them through those live metrics,” Currier continues.
“Everyone knows when we’re doing well and when we’re not doing well.”
NCC’s system of live metrics helps keep communication about job progress up-to-date, the company explains. Live “production boards” are installed on machining centers and throughout the plant to keep everyone updated on the latest developments with projects.
When priorities change, they can be reflected instantly throughout the plant.
“We regularly are requested to move up deliveries and our planning team has the ability through our production boards to seamlessly re-prioritize the work schedules,” Currier says. “New revisions are instantly available to all the machinists.
“‘I didn’t know that was hot’ is a rare sentence in our plant,” Currier adds. “Flexibility in our manufacturing operations and collection of data throughout the process enable our team to respond to customer inquiries and make the correct decision on how to support them quickly and efficiently.”
National Coupling’s objective as a manufacturer of critical components for subsea oil and gas equipment is to continually improve its processes and products.
The company says it is always looking to incorporate the latest technology available in the manufacturing world, partner with its key equipment suppliers to expand its knowledge in machining, and provide excellent venues for educating its most valuable resource – its employees.
Utilizing Lean Six Sigma as its main guiding principle throughout its operations, National Coupling stresses that it will continue to concentrate on improving its processes while at the same time focusing on providing only the highest-quality products to its customers.