Thermo Fisher Scientific: IW Best Plants Profile 2008

Dec. 12, 2008
Empowering the Workforce: Employee engagement leads the way at Thermo Fisher Scientific's Marietta, Ohio, operations.

Thermo Fisher Scientific, Marietta, Ohio

Employees: 458, non-union

Total Square Footage: 130,300

Primary Product/market: laboratory equipment for medical applications

Start-up: 1950

Achievements: plant-level profitability increased 45% over the past three years; achieved more than 1.5 million man hours without any days-away-from-work injuries; one of American Red Cross' preferred suppliers

When new employees at the Thermo Fisher Scientific plant in Marietta, Ohio, have work-related questions, they can always consult with a member of the facility's "Tree of Knowledge." The "tree" is actually a bulletin board that features pictures of employees who have worked at the plant for decades, a remarkably common scene at the laboratory equipment manufacturing facility located in this historic Ohio River town.

Mark Zimmer is one of these veterans. A welder at the facility for 22 years, Zimmer arrived as a former union employee at a nuclear power plant and never looked back. "I took a pay cut to come here," he says, while leading a tour of the welding area. Why? Zimmer says part of the reason is the sense of ownership the company provides for its workers. "They've given us opportunities to re-lay out our own areas," he explains.

Indeed, employees are the main drivers of excellence at this 58-year-old plant where the company makes freezers used to store biological samples, microbiological incubators for applications such as in vitro fertilization and biological safety cabinets (BSC), which allow lab workers to safely handle contaminants.

In 2007 alone, the plant saved $1.9 million from its employee-driven Practical Process Improvement (PPI) program. The efficiencies gained through employee suggestions helped Thermo Fisher Scientific's Marietta plant produce $4 million more product than it did in 2006 with $100,000 less labor.

During this time, 227 PPI project teams participated in improvement projects, with more than 90% of full-time employees working on at least one event. Every employee is trained on the PPI process so they know how to manage meetings or produce charts, says Louis Urschel, the plant's director of quality. "Our focus on continuous improvement is bringing everybody up," Urschel explains.

Employee empowerment is visible from the moment a visitor steps on the plant floor. Workers lead plant tours and seem eager to share how knowledgeable they are about their jobs and accomplishments. For instance, on the BSC Simplicity line, production assembler Josh Davis explains how he was part of a team that conducted a PPI event to reduce unnecessary steps that hurt efficiency. One improvement was the addition of a subassembly area where smaller parts are produced. Now, workers building the main unit don't have to stop what they're doing to assemble these small components. The cell also was reconfigured so it's no longer clustered in a circle, and a device that braces the cabinets while they're being assembled was added to eliminate the need for another worker to hold down the unit during assembly, Davis says. Daily build quantity increased fivefold as a result of the changes.

Back at the welding area where the company welds the seams for the steel chambers of its water-jacketed CO2 incubators, Zimmer points out how he's working with an engineer to develop the ideal cell layout to accommodate a new spot welder. Past team efforts in the welding area led to a two-thirds reduction of work-in-process inventory. Skids of material were removed from aisles, which eliminated 15 to 20 minutes of moving pallets, and a tugger route was established to deliver parts when needed as the line moved to just-in-time production.

As Zimmer wraps up his tour presentation with plant managers standing in the distance, he turns toward his guest and asks, "Well, what else can I tell you?"

Spoken like a truly engaged worker.

Web Exclusive Best Practices

Keys to Success

Five-step improvement process yields results for Thermo Fisher

Each operations area at the Thermo Fisher Scientific plant in Marietta, Ohio, participates in a continuous-improvement program that measures performance on a set of 10 best practices related to the laboratory equipment maker's lean manufacturing strategy. The teams comprise production workers and managers.

Though they vary based on department, the manufacturing area's Lean Keys include:

  • safety and health
  • quality
  • flow manufacturing
  • housekeeping and organization
  • maintaining tools and equipment
  • set-up reduction
  • level loading
  • use of time
  • employee flexibility and development
  • employee involvement teams

The Keys are tailored for each work cell and are measured on five levels of progress, with level one representing the "current state" and level five signifying "world-class" performance. Employees in the cells meet regularly to develop strategies for obtaining the next level. A description of each level is displayed within the individual work cells.

Once the participating work cell thinks it's ready to proceed to the next level, the team can request an audit. If they pass, they move to the next level. When they reach the next level, a star is added to the Keys Board to recognize the accomplishment and the work cell is acknowledged during a monthly Key Business Metric meeting, says Richard Miller, regulatory compliance manager.

For Doug McAtee, a welder in the fabrication area, the Keys are more than an opportunity to improve performance. "These Keys have opened the doors for me as an operator -- and operator managers," says McAtee, who has been with the plant for 28 years. "It's really broken down a wall between us."

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