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L.B. Foster Co. -- Pueblo, Colo.: IW Best Plants Profile 2011

Jan. 10, 2012
Sweating the Small Stuff: When it comes to continuous improvement, you don't have to swing for the fences to hit a home run.

LB Foster
Pueblo, Colo.

Employees: 23, nonunion

Total Square Footage: 56,000

Primary Product/Market: Insulated rail joints

Start-Up Date: 2006

Achievements: 99.68% first-pass yield for all finished products in 2010; 67% reduction in manufacturing costs per joint since 2007; 63% reduction in man-hours per joint since 2007; zero warranty claims since the plant's inception in 2006

If L.B. Foster's Pueblo, Colo., facility were a baseball player, it would be Ichiro Suzuki -- or Rod Carew.

IW's 2011 Best Plants

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In the never-ending quest to control costs and boost productivity, plant manager Bart Peterson has found that small, incremental process improvements can add up to big gains.

"We aren't necessarily looking for the home run every time," Peterson 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.

"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.

A simple equipment modification at the rail-grinding station is one example of how L.B. Foster Pueblo has cut costs through dozens of small improvements.

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.

"We would have to take all those [rail] bars and palletize them, set them next to a huge drill press and a guy would stand there and drill all day long," Peterson says of the previous method.

Using a drill press, it took 1 to 2 minutes to remove the epoxy from each hole, assistant plant manager Michael Smith adds.

"Now that we've switched to plastic caps, we do about six holes in 30 seconds," Smith says. "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."

Small Investment; Big Savings

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.

"Epoxy is not very friendly to keeping a drill bit sharp," Peterson says. "So we were going through hundreds of dollars' worth of drill bits a day."

Such small improvement ideas generated by Peterson and the 23 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, asserts Steve Burgess, L.B. Foster's director of continuous improvement. That 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 that these guys built -- the rail moving in one piece like this -- doesn't exist anywhere else in the world," 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 just created this vortex of mind-blowing improvement."

See Also:

L.B. Foster: Better for the Environment, Better for the Bottom Line

2012 IndustryWeek's Best Plants Conference: Meet the 2011 winners in Indianapolis April 23-25.

2012 IW Best Plants Competition: Download an application.

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