2003 IW Best Plant: Autoliv, Columbia City, Ind.

Taking The High Road Autoliv's Columbia City, Ind., steering-wheel plant navigates quality issues to become a world-class facility.

Autoliv Steering Wheel/Airbag Facility, Columbia City, Ind.

At a Glance

  • Plant: 120,000 square feet
  • Start-up: July 1998
  • Achievements:
    • QS 9000, ISO 14001, Ford Q1 Award, TS16949 certified, AWC 2002 Gold Safety Award (top performer, Autoliv North America);
    • 100% on-time delivery rate;
    • 173% increase in productivity;
    • 260% increase in plant-level profitability

The quality lab at Autoliv Columbia City sounds like a petting zoo full of sheep.

No, the plant doesn't house a bunch of farm animals. The sounds that fill the room come from steering-wheel wear testers. The automated testers use thin belts of cloth to continuously buff steering wheels to ensure paint integrity. The baaas that ensue are music to a shepherd's ear -- or in this case the laboratory technician's ear.

For Autoliv, which manufactures steering wheels and assembles driver and passenger airbags as well as inflatable curtains, quality is a major concern. When the plant opened in July 1998, it faced tremendous pressure from customers, tools that had only a two-day lifespan and needed to be air-chartered from France, and an untrained workforce.

"It was not a successful launch," says Kim Weinman, production controls manager and a 14-year veteran.

Indeed, the plant had a rocky start with many of its customers. According to a Ford spokesperson, three years ago quality and Autoliv weren't spoken in the same sentence. Today Columbia City is a Ford Q1 supplier. The turnaround happened in 5S fashion.

"We made a clean sweep of leadership," explains Mark Newton, plant manager. "Right or wrong, it had to be done. We needed to find the right people that had a team philosophy. We needed to coach and teach [employees], and we had to make several changes."

According to Newton, finding the right people was easy due in part to the local work ethic. Located 11 miles west of Fort Wayne, Columbia City is a rural farming community with a Norman Rockwell feel.

"The area is full of hard workers, which is why we located here," says Newton. "While it doesn't solve all of the issues, it helps."

Although personnel changes helped the plant achieve quality success -- customer reject rates on shipped products went from 1,015 ppm in 2000 to 24 ppm in 2003 -- customer focus, technology and lean initiatives guided the transformation.

Exemplifying this customer focus, once steering wheels are mated with an airbag and the required speed control, radio and in-car communication switches, they are quality tested and packed in sequence via real-time in-line vehicle sequencing (ILVS). Not only are they packed in sequence, they are produced through the cell in sequence.

The processes are driven by ILVS Man-IT computers (an automated data collection, lot traceability, error proofing, and product sequencing solution for the automotive industry), which pull wheels into the assembly cell at the start of the line in the order they need to be packed into the container. The practice reduces the amount of containers customers need on the assembly line from as many as 18 to two.

For Ford that means that it can build in order the Taurus/Sable program, which consists of 18 variations of steering wheels and air bag assemblies. The Columbia City plant sends the containers to the Atlanta and Chicago assembly plants.

"Our philosophy is to build in the same sequence that the customer will build in," explains Newton. "We were the first [steering-wheel manufacturer] to do ILVS, but it won't be long before others are doing it. We can't rest on our laurels. We need to continue to find new technologies and new ways of doing things."

A unique technology application at the Autoliv plant, steering wheels are reaction injection molded (RIM) using poly-urethane and can yield a one-piece steering wheel, which requires the plant to mold the cover and wheel together with the same polyurethane material. According to plant management, Autoliv is the only manufacturer in the world that uses this design.

While the process produces a lot of scrap (5%) compared with regular injection molding (regular injection molding has fewer variables that are easier to control. Additionally there is only a single material stream to worry about), the end product makes customers happy.

On the improvement front, plant managers realize the process for trimming steering wheels needs work. Currently employees hand trim the product by placing the steering wheel on a stand and trimming excess material off with an Exacto-knife. While the process seems difficult and time-consuming, "a good trimmer can do it in under a minute," says Theresa Ladd, back-up line coordinator in the molding department.

One improvement that has made life easier for Ladd and her colleagues is the implementation of steel molds. According to Ladd, the plant used to use nickel tools that needed a lot of repair.

"It was a battle keeping an eye on the repairs. Sometimes the [press] would be down for hours at a time."

With steel molds, downtime is virtually non-existent.

"Steel molds are wonderful," says back-up line coordinator Ellen Stewart. "They are more forgiving than nickel."

According to plant managers, with steel, workers are able to limit damage from tools being dropped on them. Nickel tools are a softer metal, so the damage could be repaired, but it causes problems on Class-A surfaces, thus slowing down production.

Another benefit to steel molds is the elimination of hand cleaning. The Columbia City plant uses a portable cleaning unit with dry ice beads, similar to a bead blaster. The ice beads, which are not abrasive to the steel tooling, remove all the old mold release to eliminate any cosmetic/quality problems. The dry ice flashes off quickly enough not to cause any drop in temperature on the tooling surface. The process takes the place of chemical cleaning, which according to plant management, took longer and did not work as well.

In addition to new tools, the Autoliv Production System has also been a big factor in the plant's success. The APS is modeled after the Toyota Production System.

"Toyota [worked] with Autoliv early on [at] our Utah facilities in the late 1990s to mentor us in their proven methods of manufacturing," says Newton.

The collaboration helped Columbia City achieve a visual workplace. It also enables managers to walk the plant and spot problems right away. Indeed, Newton describes a meeting with a Toyota representative. Newton and the representative, who are both short men, were touring the Columbia City plant when the representative yelled at Newton: "Never, never build high. Has to be visual. Need to see." He was referring to the height of the steering-wheel racks.

One of the areas that Autoliv is constantly working on is its employment practices. While the current turnover rate remains somewhat high at 14%, much improvement has been made from the 24% the plant was logging in 2000.

The company admits that during the ramp-up it "threw people at the problem" in terms of satisfying customer demand. Now Columbia City is more selective on new hires, emphasizes training and demands teamwork. It also concentrates on making the plant a fun place to work.

It's not unusual to see Kaptain Kaizen, dressed in a red smock and mask, running around the plant shaking hands with employees who have successfully completed a kaizen event. Last year the plant completed 32 kaizen events (including shop floor events, 5S events and TPM events) that resulted in $990,000 in savings. Additionally, plant manager Newton (aka Mighty Mark) has been known to don a costume as well.

Teams are also a big part of the culture and success at Columbia City. The plant has 38 natural work teams that not only contribute manpower but brainpower in the form of suggestions. Team suggestions, which average 5.7 per employee per year, range from painting scrap racks red to streamlining workstations to standardizing work by providing visual sequencing maps at workstations. The total economic contribution for suggestions was $1.42 million in 2002.

To show its appreciation for employee suggestions, the Columbia City plant rewards the teams with gifts for achieving specified levels of suggestions implemented. The practice of asking employees how to make the operations run smoother is a natural morale and team booster. According to Newton, when employees feel empowered to make a change, they take ownership in the company.

"There is freedom within fences. We tell [employees] what we want, and they decide how to make that happen," says Newton.

Web-Exclusive Best Practices

By Traci Purdum Benchmarking contact: Mark Newton, plant manager, [email protected], 219/244-4941, ext. 101

Taking Teams Further Team-based activities accentuate the environment at Autoliv Steering Wheel Facility. In addition to work teams, the Columbia City plant encourages its employees to participate in social teams. For example, S.T.R.I.P. (Spare Tire Reduction Incentive Program), a team-based weight-loss program held after the December holidays, consists of four- to five-person teams that form on a voluntary basis.

Each team chooses a funny name -- The Natural Born Losers, Scrap Reduction Team, The Tools Sheds, etc. -- and weighs in as a team. The entire team is weighed at the same time on the company's dock scale to reduce embarrassment. Each team's progress is tracked and posted on a weekly basis to encourage competition, and add to the fun.

Winning team members receive $100, but all participants walk away with movie passes.

"Most participants enter the contest to lose weight and have fun," says Ed Peters, manager, human resources. "Winning a prize is secondary."

Additionally, the plant's employees put together a cookbook, "Look what's cooking at AWC."

Teams submitted recipes and a cook-off was held to pick the best recipe. Recipes include Poke-Yoke Potato Soup and 5S Oreo Cake. The winning recipes: Taffy Apple Pizza by the M&M's, Meatloaf by Improvements in Progress and Pam's Peach Pie by the WINstars.

Team Certification Program Autoliv North America is dedicated to accomplishing goals and objectives through employee involvement teams. In order to attain that goal, Autoliv Columbia City has implemented a Team Certification Program, which has four levels of advancement: Level 1: Becoming A Team; Level 2: Assuming Accountability; Level 3: Performing As A Team; Level 4: High Performance Work Teams.

To be certain that the program is successful, the plant provides training for all teams and new employees. Additionally, each stage of the certification program has measurable outcomes and levels of achievement.

Additionally, Team Certification Program books are provided. The book contains a detailed description of each level of advancement. All descriptions include a team goal, champion's role and coach's role, as well as certification requirements and team training requirements. To ensure that employees are constantly thinking about the certification program, Team Certification Program posters are placed throughout the plant. The posters are a condensed version of the book.

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