Bearing Necessities: IW Best Plants Profile - 2004

Rockwell Automation's Marion, N.C., mounted roller bearing plant creatively puts people, production processes and IT software to work with industry-leading results.

Rockwell Automation Roller Bearing Plant, Marion, N.C.

At a Glance

In the mountains of western North Carolina, just off Interstate 40 near the town of Marion, sits a 174,000-square-foot tool box full of world-class manufacturing practices. Formally, it's the Marion plant of Rockwell Automation's Power Systems Div., a place where they make nearly 3,000 mounted spherical and tapered roller bearings with shaft sizes ranging from 1 3_16 inches to 5 inches. These bearings go into such things as mining machinery, fans and other air-handling equipment, waste treatment equipment, forest products processing equipment, food processing machinery and metals processing equipment.

In name it's a lean plant. Indeed, on a day in late July several people were wearing "Power Lean" polo shirts. But actually it's a place where 102 employees put a whole box of tools to work without worrying what a production improvement technique is formally called or accepting the limits of a piece of software. The result: innovation (wireless and RF systems that allow material handlers, maintenance technicians and quality auditors real-time access to data from anywhere in the plant), industry-leading low costs (Rockwell declines to say just how low), quick delivery (as short as 24 hours) and exceptional quality (first-pass yields of 99.7% for all finished products) in a business that has surged the past few months. The plant, which essentially is a large-scale high-precision cast iron and steel machining and assembly facility, has added 10 production people to keep up with rising demand, particularly from metals processing and air-handling customers.

Walk around the plant and you'll see how more than a dozen production management tools -- including color-coded kanban cards, statistical inventory management, cross-training, value streaming, and electronic data interchange -- have been put to work.

"Having the lean toolbox as full as it is and as complete as it is essentially puts you in a position to where almost never does something come up that we don't have a tool to address," says plant manager Scott Fullbright. Having that toolbox plus the confidence and experience to use it "almost guarantees that you're not going to come up against something that you don't have a resource to address," he stresses.

The Marion plant makes mounted roller bearings under the Dodge Bearings brand, a brand with a logo that's particularly appropriate to the Marion plant with its circle of motion. Indeed, plant manager Fullbright will tell you that one of the practices that makes Marion unique, one of the things that gives it a competitive edge in the marketplace, is the circle of analysis and improvement that's always underway in the plant. This cycle begins with product data analysis, moves to describing the current value stream, then to charting the future flow of the value stream, proceeds to achieving the goals by taking tools from the toolbox and comes back to data analysis again. Along the way, product and process priorities get set and action timelines are established. Management and other employees are intellectually and emotionally involved, which reinforces the can-do culture of the plant. Says Fullbright of the people in the plant: "They're just good. . . . Everybody has access to all the books and the literature on all this stuff. But having the confidence and the experience to use it is what makes the difference."

In fact, very good people are exactly what you see when you leave the Marion plant's conference room, don safety glasses and head onto the amazingly clean production floor. It's here that people doing machining and those doing assembly -- with all but the newest hires cross-trained to do at least three jobs -- make as much of a difference as do the sophisticated machine tools. The production floor is organized into two areas. Immediately in front of you are the 16 manufacturing cells making the 351 products that account for 80% of the plant's total sales revenue. The output of these cells is always in stock. To the rear are the four BOD (build-on-demand) manufacturing cells, which turn out any of the 2,288 products that account for 20% of sales revenue. Every day, demand is communicated to the assembly line, and each item on the list is built and shipped that day. And, yes, the BOD assembly lines and employees readily handle lot sizes of one.

How well does BOD work? Fullbright relates the story of a customer of a customer -- the plant sells mainly through distributors -- in Houston who called at 4 p.m. on a Friday, seeking a replacement for a bearing that had just failed in an industrial air conditioning unit. The Marion plant produced the bearing, packaged it and shipped it ready for the Texas customer to install at 7 a.m. on Saturday -- just 15 hours after the call for help was received. "We're proud of that one," says Fullbright.

Why the 80/20 arrangement on the production floor? "It's really easy to lose track of what's important, particularly when you've got nearly 3,000 finished goods that you produce. And it's easy to let the exceptions dictate the process," notes Fullbright. The big downside to that, he says, is that exceptions drive up cost. "So by focusing on 80/20, it allows us to design our processes for the rules rather than the exceptions and to drive the cost to the lowest possible level that we can," he explains.

"When you try to do everything with the same tool, and the only tool you got is a hammer everything starts looking like a nail," Fullbright quips. "It's so obvious, but that is an amazingly frequent mistake that people make."

Out on the floor, day-to-day operations are carried out by management teams consisting of an engineer, a supervisor and a planner. From an office literally on the production floor, the teams have complete responsibility for material purchases, staffing levels, overtime, customer service and the maintenance of current production processes. Senior management uses a set of metrics, including order fill rates, stock percentages, plant productivity, inventory dollars, and customer complaints, to keep track of trends. "Basically, when we have an unfavorable trend in any of those metrics, it would require an upper management review of what's going on. It doesn't necessarily mean we would intervene and change their direction. We're going to look and see what's going on," says Fullbright.

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