Chasing The Sun

March 7, 2007
Manufacturers have the ability to run 24/7 operations all over the globe. The question: How do they do it successfully?

Operating in a global economy presents triumphs and challenges for manufacturers -- often in the same breath.

Manufacturers can follow the sunrise to develop, design, engineer and manufacture products while utilizing all 168 hours in a week. When the workday ends for a manufacturer in the United States, the workday is just starting for folks in China. The challenge: How do you successfully turn over work, ensure far-flung employees are on the same page, and keep it all under your hat in terms of proprietary information?

For many manufacturers, taking advantage of all 168 hours in a workweek is second nature.

Obviously, 24/7 manufacturing is nothing new in the traditional sense of running three shifts. The twist is running three shifts on three different continents. While some may say old-line manufacturing is pass and three shifts in the same plant is brutal -- there is much to learn from these companies. As Alan H. McCoy, vice president of government and public relations at AK Steel Corp., notes, his company has over 100 years of practice managing every single hour of the week.

Two 12-hour shifts at AK Steel ensure success.

AK Steel's Rockport Works facility, located in Rockport, Ind., is a carbon and stainless steel finishing facility that runs two 12-hour shifts. The plant runs at full capacity, boasting high-90% to 100% availability. The plant has scheduled outages that result from a planned switch in product mix in addition to maintenance outages.

According to McCoy, the company spends a lot of time and focus on maintenance practices because it correlates directly with machine uptime and productivity and profitability.

"We approach it like a science with state-of-the-art diagnostic tools," says McCoy. "Our livelihood depends on squeezing every little squeal out of the pig."

McCoy notes that many operations at Rockport are hot handoff. "We don't stop the process just because of the shift change. The crew comes in and typically there is a little bit of overlap to make sure your relief is there and ready to go before you can leave."

Global Tools For Global Manufacturing

According to Martin Conner, a partner within Accenture's supply chain practice, global 24/7 manufacturing is essentially the same concept -- just taken to an enormous scale.

"You extend those handoffs to different functions and to different people who speak different languages," says Conner.

The key to success is defining all the promises you are making, including commitments to productivity, cost, investment budgets and total amount spent on the project.

"If you have a 24/7 product development process where you are trying to do design for manufacture with manufacturing plants on three continents and design centers in four countries, the goal you have for them isn't to optimize their function in their country, it's to achieve the cost investment, time and performance targets for that product," explains Conner.

You also have to meet a consensus on what tools you are going to use because global projects work better with global tools.

"It's hard enough to hand off from one person to another at the end of the shift, but if you are working in Excel spreadsheets on your own desktop it becomes increasingly difficult to do that," says Conner.

Designating appropriate enablement tools, whether they are manufacturing process management tools, common design tools or even more importantly global change tools, is the first step to achieving 24/7 success.

Indeed, what usually gets you in trouble is when somebody changes something and forgets to tell anyone else, Conner notes.

Managing Change Across Multiple Time Zones

RollEase's Joseph A. Cannaverde touts the benefits of 24/7 manufacturing.

For RollEase Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based manufacturer of manual operating systems for soft and hard window coverings, engaging in global 24/7 manufacturing initially was driven by cost.

The 80-employee company has an engineer in China who works on design changes while the Connecticut workers are fast asleep.

"We get stuff back from our engineer and we check it during the day and give it back to him when we leave at night, which is the beginning of his workday," explains Joseph A. Cannaverde, project manager with RollEase. "We come in the next morning and we have a finished drawing. When we walk out the door we are not stopping work."

To ensure consistency, RollEase uses PTC's Pro/Engineer 3-D product design tool in tandem with its Windchill PDMLink on Demand product -- a content and process management software solution that requires only a Web browser to access.

The PTC solutions were initially brought on board because RollEase needed to eliminate delays and rework caused by using the wrong versions of designs.

According to PTC, RollEase reduced cycle time between prototypes from 12 weeks to four weeks.

"The biggest part was making sure we had the right data, then he [the engineer in China] had to get access to our formats," says Cannaverde. "He is on the Windchill system now, so he will be able to pull up our data right from the on-demand system and we won't have to do this e-mail stuff anymore. It really helps us."

Accenture's Conner stresses the importance of change management that RollEase is moving toward. However, he warns that companies shouldn't eliminate all interaction.

"Much of the progress in 24/7 manufacturing is still manual," says Conner. "It's a phone call or a meeting at the end of the day. It's an e-mail summary at the end of the day. You want your global teams to know each other. But it's easy when you are changing 20 things a day to forget something. So trying to manage change in e-mail traffic quickly becomes impossible -- especially when there is a change to the change to the change."

Conner's example: A PC manufacturer executed a change for its product. While the package changed, the manufacturer in China didn't actually change the product.

"So there was three weeks' worth of production where the package didn't match the contents," says Conner. "It turned out to be that it had a drive in it that it wasn't supposed to. It cost the company $50 a PC. What if it was something that was supposed to be there and wasn't? Now it's a product recall."

This gets really important when you talk about quality and safety certification. If the safety and the quality teams are not working in the same change-control system that the engineers are working in, then it's possible that you can change and release a product and actually have tested a different product, according to Conner.

Maintaining Control

While communication is the foundation, maintaining control is the vision for long-term success. Part of the control is making sure your far-flung employees won't double-cross you.

For RollEase, their engineer in China is actually an employee of the company.

According to Cannaverde, one of the major concerns RollEase had was how does the company keep things proprietary? Part of the company's solution is to only give off-campus employees certain projects to work on at a time. Also, the data system that RollEase uses enables Cannaverde to grant access to only certain areas of the database.

"We have control over what goes out," explains Cannaverde. "Before I was hired, we had an agent in China who took our designs and gave it to a local vendor to get it made cheaper, and we never heard from him again."

Fortunately, the Chinese company didn't get the product right. "But we have to be careful this time around," says Cannaverde.

Accenture's Conner suggests that manufacturers think about what information they are giving third-party vendors. What information will they be generating and do you personally need to continue to own that information?

"What you don't want to do is give off responsibility for your products and then realize that you don't know what's in your product any more, and you don't have a good idea of what it ought to cost," says Conner. "You also have to ask yourself, 'How do I not lose control of operations?' In answering those questions you actually make your mainstream operations more efficient, too."

Conner also suggests that manufacturers shouldn't outsource jobs they are not excellent at, and they should be able to take back control if proprietary issues, natural disasters, or even better tax opportunities arise in another country.

"How would I articulate this process to someone else, how would I give it to them, how would I know they are doing it well? In answering those questions you learn interesting things about your own company. Going through the exercise of imagining a global 24/7 operation will expose those things for you," says Conner.

For most manufacturers, leaving the office at 5 o'clock and feeling you are truly done with work isn't as easy as it sounds.

"My wife yells at me for working too many hours," says RollEase's Cannaverde. "But for most people, you can leave work if you have detailed instructions."

Seemingly, that's one of the major differences between following the sun and running a plant 24 hours per day.

For AK Steel's McCoy, "If you want to be able to clock out and shut your brain off until the next time you clock in, you'd better find another line of work."

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