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AK Steel, Rockport Works: IW Best Plants Profile 2006

Sept. 14, 2006
Automation Abounds At AK Steel: AK Steel's Rockport works touts itself as the most-productive flat-rolled steel finishing facility in the world.

AK Steel, Rockport Works, Rockport, Ind.

Employees: 272, union, United Auto Workers, Local 3044

Total Square Footage: 1.72 million

Primary products: Flat rolled carbon, stainless and electrical steels

Start-up: 1998

Achievements: Indiana OSHA VPP Star Safety recipient; TS 16969 certification; Ford Q1 certification; Four years without a lost-time accident; 98.6% first-pass yield; 99% of site's purchase orders are approved electronically.

Microsoft's Bill Gates once said, "The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency." For AK Steel, Rockport Works, Rockport, Ind., that sentiment holds true. The only difference is that automation isn't merely applied at Rockport Works, it is built into the facility.

IW's 2006 Best Plants

See the other winners of IW's 2006 Best Plants award and find out how they made the top ten.

Rockport Works -- nicknamed The Rock -- is equipped with 32 automated overhead cranes that roar to life via computer-generated schedules. Some of the cranes place 20-plus-ton steel coils atop 14 automated guided vehicles, which resemble small, driverless barges, to transport the steel coils to predetermined destinations in the 1.72-million-square-foot facility. The plant also has four automatic welders that join coils of steel together to ensure a continuous process. (Most cold mills are batch processes, AK Steel says.) The automatic welders then snap the weld to test the integrity of the connection.

The facility also has a hot-dip zinc coating line that utilizes an automated, closed-loop-coating weight-control system that applies a precise amount of zinc to the cold-rolled steel substrate via use of high-pressure air knives. The process eliminates overcoating by 10%, saving the factory money in the process. While automation makes for reliable work -- steel coils are placed in exact locations every time -- if there is a problem in programming, automation can produce a lot of waste.

"No matter how automated we get, we still need the expertise of our operators," says H.B. Kincaid, Rockport Works' general manager. "There are a lot of checks and re-checks. Verification is the key to success."

To verify the success, employees are perched in "pulpits" that sit high enough to look down on operations. The air-conditioned stations are filled with computers that monitor production processes and display the values of key process and product variables. Employees make any necessary adjustments to the operating equipment via the computer system to ensure process parameters are maintained within specified limits. Employees are empowered to stop operations if process control cannot be maintained or to investigate and determine the root cause of any quality or operational issues.

In the pulpit: Shane Hamilton, a production technician, monitors the closed-loop-coating weight-control system.

At The Rock, 13% of the workforce is dedicated to quality control. And with a 98.6% first-pass yield for all finished products and a customer reject rate of 460 ppm, the dedication to quality is worth it. "If you send the wrong steel -- or non-quality steel -- to a customer, there are serious ramifications," says Jess Elger, director of supply chain management.

In terms of employee relations at Rockport Works, it's difficult to mention without noting rough union negotiations at its sister plants. While AK Steel's Middletown, Ohio, plant is still in lockout, Rockport Works' UAW President Rick Ditto, says the atmosphere at Rockport is different.

"Our relationship with management is in a growing process. As we grow and evolve, we try to make that a better process," he says. "We've had our bumps in the road, but we've both given and taken along the way."

Web Exclusive Best Practices

All For One, One For All

AK Steel Corp.'s Rockport Works, Rockport, Ind., believes that all workers are created equal. So much so that the carbon and stainless steel finishing facility lists only one job class -- production technician -- to describe employees' job functions.

According to H.B. Kincaid, general manager of Rockport Works, "One job class allows us to be flexible in scheduling people; it keeps people fresh and up-to-date; and we don't have blunders."

Kincaid notes that employees cycle job duties every four to six hours, which alleviates monotony and ensures that fresh eyes are monitoring quality.

According to Rockport Works' IW Best Plants application, "The plant's objective is to maintain at least three trained and fully qualified individuals for each job function for every shift or crew. . . . Since there is only one job class throughout Rockport Works, flexibility and opportunity to conduct cross-training among the employees is greatly enhanced."

And according to employees, the ability to move around makes the 12-hour workday go faster.

For example, one worker in a quality-monitoring pulpit (air-conditioned rooms that sit above each operation) monitors weld integrity via a Quality Control Data System (QCDS). The QCDS is a computerized monitoring system that displays weld penetration, gap position and width, seam position, underfill and reinforcement. He and his co-workers switch duties every three to four hours to beat the boredom that may set in by staring at a computer screen all day.

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