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L.B. Foster Creates a One-of-a-Kind Material Flow System

July 9, 2012
By constantly chipping away at costs, rail joint manufacturer has reduced its production costs by 67%.

In the never-ending quest to control costs and boost productivity, Bart Peterson, plant manager of L.B. Foster’s Pueblo, Colo., facility, has found that small, incremental process improvements can add up to big gains. “We aren’t necessarily looking for the home run every time,” he says. “We’re looking for base hits. We score that way.”

Walk the floor of the 56,000-square-foot plant—which makes insulated rail joints for Union Pacific, BNSF and other rail companies—and you’ll see more “base hits” than you would at a Colorado Rockies game.

At the rail-grinding station, a worker uses a handheld grinder to remove excess epoxy from the rail joints. The process requires the operator to go through some 20 grinding wheels a day. Thanks to an employee suggestion, the plant switched from a finishing flap wheel that costs $7.50 to an equally effective grinding wheel that costs just 25 cents—saving the plant nearly $27,000 a year.

“You just chip away at costs and you keep at it,” Peterson says.

A bit further upstream in the assembly process, workers use hand drills to remove plastic caps from bolt holes in the rail joints. The plastic caps prevent epoxy from filling the holes when the joints’ components are glued in place—and are a vast improvement over the previous method, in which workers had to remove the epoxy with a drill press.

“Now that we’ve switched to plastic caps, we do about six holes in 30 seconds,” adds Michael Smith, assistant plant manager. “So we’ve reduced that time, and we were able to put it in our one-piece-flow process. We don’t have to batch them and move them to another workstation and then bring them back like we did before.”

The plant buys the plastic caps from an online company, paying just pennies per cap. The seemingly small investment has yielded big savings not only in time but also in cost compared with the previous method.

Such small improvement ideas generated by Peterson and the 20 manufacturing employees at L.B. Foster Pueblo are adding up. Since 2007, the plant has cut its manufacturing costs per joint by 67%. During that same time period, the facility has reduced its man hours per joint by 63%.

Contrary to what Peterson says, though, the plant has hit at least one home run, says Steve Burgess, L.B. Foster’s director of continuous improvement. That home run is the plant’s one-piece-flow layout, which is enabled by a series of homemade conveyors, rollers, heaters, actuators and tools designed or modified by plant employees.

"The transportation system these guys built—the rail moving in one piece—doesn't exist anywhere else," Burgess says.

While Pittsburgh-based L.B. Foster has a corporate continuous-improvement program in place, you aren’t likely to hear Peterson and his team mention many lean buzzwords such as “kaizen event” and “value-stream mapping.” In fact, during a recent visit to the plant, most of the shop-floor employees admitted that they don’t know what lean is.

That’s just fine with Burgess.

“[Peterson] doesn’t necessarily know the true principles of lean—he just lives them, and so does his team,” Burgess says. “He’s naturally there. This plant has a special group of guys with a special leadership that has created this vortex of mind-blowing improvement.”

Josh Cable is senior editor of MH&L’s sister publication, IndustryWeek.