Bulk Containers Go Lean

A major automotive brake supplier uses bulk containers to support 5S lean manufacturing.

As a supplier of brakes to Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and other major automakers, PBR Columbia South Carolina has long supported lean initiatives and cost-control measures. However, material handling operations had been predominantly manual for the past eight years. Workers spent approximately 10 hours per week maneuvering 9 x 13-inch totes containing brake components from staging areas to line operations. Totes were transported from one area of the plant to another by a series of air-powered conveyors, but employees moved the totes on and off the conveyors by hand.

After conducting in-depth research on its operations, PBR determined more time was spent hauling the containers than actually moving the brake components.

“We needed to find a faster, more effective way to achieve the end result of better workflow and less handling,” recalls Jack O’Neal, continuous improvement manager at PBR.

Bill Jordan, operations manager, O’Neal and Gary Emmert, another continuous improvement manager, analyzed the situation. The manufacturing process seemed simple: Create the brake components, ship them out for plating, receive the plated components back and deliver them line-side for assembly. While the empty bins were sent back through the manufacturing and assembly process, finished goods were packaged and shipped to customers.

Handling Overhaul
Based on previous success with reusable containers in other parts of the operation, the team decided to use customizable, collapsible bulk containers instead of totes. Durable sidewalls and strong bases protected the brake components as they made their way to production lines.

And, the bulk containers, unlike the totes they replaced, offered four-way lift truck access for safe, efficient transport. PBR designed custom, properly sized carts to transport the bulk containers throughout all areas of the operation. So, instead of manually moving totes onto and off of a conveyor system, employees used fork and hand trucks and custom carts to transport the bulk containers throughout the plant.

PBR went a step further, using the bulk containers to implement a kanban system. Now, a container serves as a trigger to track and signal the need for an item.

After using the bulk containers to deliver material to assembly-line finishing operations, the continuous improvement team determined that 32 x 30 x 25-inch bulk containers would be ideal for closed-loop shipping to PBR’s plating suppliers, as well.

So, the company began the two-year process of replacing its previous tote and conveyer system with the new container system. Overall goals were to improve material handling performance and productivity as well as build on 5S lean initiatives.

PBR helped plating suppliers adapt to the new system. “We sent bulk container training videos to the outsource loop in hopes of answering any usage questions, preventing product and/ or material damage and ensuring a smooth transition,” says Emmert.

Streamlined Production
After the overhaul of the handling process was complete, PBR noticed several benefits, including a cleaner workspace, fewer storage requirements and reduced injuries due to improved ergonomics.

The company was able to remove more than 100 outdated conveyor systems, freeing up facility space, reducing waste and eliminating the frequent maintenance associated with the conveying equipment. And, the bulk containers can be stacked when loaded or collapsed when empty, which further reduces storage requirements.

Ultimately, PBR was able to cut batch sizes in half, which dramatically improved workflow. As a bonus, fewer people handling the brake components throughout the production process helped improve product quality. Best of all, managers didn’t need to alter the fundamental floor layout because the user-friendly, standard designs of the bulk containers allowed for an immediate, smooth workflow transition.


Ken Torisky is marketing communications specialist at Buckhorn Inc., a Myers Industries Inc. company. Buckhorn supplies reusable plastic packaging systems to the manufacturing, distribution and food industries.

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