Responsibility is Where You Find It

May 1, 2003
I was standing on the factory floor, a smooth-flowing stream of multicolored pallets and containers surrounded me. The place was the Allison Transmission

I was standing on the factory floor, a smooth-flowing stream of multicolored pallets and containers surrounded me. The place was the Allison Transmission plant (3.8 million square feet under a single roof) in Indianapolis. It was the first stop on the Advanced Manufacturing Media Tour, sponsored by The Indy Partnership. This not-for-profit organization provides an extensive array of business services, including economic incentives and marketing for a nine-county region in middle America.

I expected them to lead off the tour with a heavy-hitter and was not disappointed. As the flashy colors of the containers caught my eye, the words of my host caught my ear. I was talking with Ann Schneider, manager, industrial engineering, about the importance of reusables in focused work cells. She gave me all the expected answers about controlling inventory in lean manufacturing, etc. Then she said words to the effect that, along with improved housekeeping, reusables were a more environmentally responsible choice — less trash at the end of the product’s shipping cycle.

In truth, the blinding flash of inspiration did not hit me until the next day at stop number four on the tour, the Endress+Hauser manufacturing operations. The company manufactures highly sensitive gauges and other instruments, primarily for the process industry. Phil Tumey, operations manager, was finishing his presentation, talking about global responsibility. He ended with how the company was switching its transport packaging to 100 percent corrugated because it was a more environmentally responsible choice.

Whoa, there partner! You can’t have it both ways. Nobody’s right, if everybody’s wrong — as Buffalo Springfield said, back in the last century.

Both companies have adopted advanced manufacturing procedures that feature educated operators in focused work cells, minimal levels of inventory and high-degrees of employee empowerment. Both use proven kanban inventory replenishment systems. Both are successful.

Another similarity I noticed, (remember, we’re comparing transmissions for busses and tanks, with sensitive instruments) was a passion for cleanliness. As Schneider at Allison told me, “Attention to detail is the key, and concern for cleanliness is reflected in the quality of the final product.”

Across town at Endress+Hauser, Tumey said, “The work cell is like a kingdom for the employee who is responsible for quality and all activities within that cell — along with its cleanliness.”

At Allison, I watched transmissions weighing in excess of 300 pounds being loaded with mechanical manipulators into transport packaging that consisted of steel racks, lined with specially molded plastic inserts. These would protect the behemoth as it was shipped to become part of a school bus or military vehicle. Upstream from the shipping point, parts were being delivered as kits in molded trays in sequence to assemblers. Even further up stream, parts in bulk containers (blue for internally manufactured parts, black for purchased parts) were moved Just-In-Time to and from robotic work cells.

At Endress+Hauser, I watched the assembly of some sort of exotic instrument. The choreography of the process was worthy of the Broadway stage. The woman doing the work had not produced a defective product in six years! Numerous small parts were delivered into the work cell in small, multi-colored reusable containers. The containers were held in neatly stacked wire racks, the most frequently used at working levels to reduce bending and stretching. At the end of the multi-step assembly operation, the woman easily carried the finished instrument to a packaging workstation, selected a standardized corrugated carton from a rack, then filled the carton with a measured amount of kraft paper from Ranpak’s Padpak machine. Some of the finished instruments were too large or awkward to be easily handled for shipping from the work cell. These were moved on plastic pallets to a shipping area where corrugated containers were filled, using a Sealed Air Instapacker foam-in-place system. The entire packaging process was a blend of reusable and expendable material.

What does it mean? In the end, we can use the same reasoning for making choices, even if those choices are contradictory: Get the product to the customer undamaged, on time and in sequence. All of which goes to prove, to be right, someone else does not have to be wrong. Clyde E. Witt, executive editor [email protected]