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November 1, 2001

5 Min Read
Inside one molder's lean think tank


Figure 1. ATS, Cascade Engineering's lean think tank, houses 11 presses up to 1000 tons, mostly from Milacron and Husky, many of which are in single-piece flow cells. Take a good look at the layout. Lean efficiencies will trigger an entirely new plant design.

Some injection molders are navigating through this economic storm by trimming their sails—cutting off unprofitable relationships with some customers, and trying to be the best at what they do for their best customers. Some have embraced the principles of lean thinking as a means of establishing a sustainable organization that will survive any downturn and thrive over the long term. 

Take Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, MI, for instance. Privately held and 60 percent automotive, its sales are $200 million today. Its goal is to achieve sales of $1 billion by 2010. For more than a year now, Cascade has dedicated 1 percent of its entire workforce of about 1100 to eliminate waste through the implementation of lean principles, and to assess the impact of lean thinking on company metrics. 

"There is no place for waste in manufacturing," says Fred P. Keller, chairman and ceo. "We must work extremely hard to get activities that consume resources but add no value out of our systems. The economic downturn creates a sense of urgency, but it is not as bad as it could be now that we are focusing on perfecting the operations side of our business. We are becoming superb in our core competencies. Lean thinking is energizing all of us, empowering us all beyond our wildest dreams." 

Michael W. Valz, Cascade's president and coo, fully agrees, adding, "You can't sell around poor performance. Lean thinking—doing things right and doing the right things—has become a given in automotive. The other markets we service are starting to get it, too." 


Figure 2. Transparency at ATS puts everything in plain view, including operator assignments and Five S procedures. Everyone can immediately understand the status of any production cell at a glance without wasting any time.

Five S Neatness Counts 
The company's Automotive Trim Solutions (ATS) division is its proving ground for lean thinking (Figure 1). ATS is a joint venture between Cascade (80 percent), which manages and runs the two facilities, and Starlite (20 percent), a custom molder based in Osaka, Japan. All told, ATS represents 100,000 sq ft of space and more than $40 million in total sales. 

"We like to think that we are the site that sets the example," says David Gedritis, plant manager for the ATS site in Grand Rapids. Gedritis and his colleague, Brian J. Walquist, senior manufacturing engineer, point to evidence of their lean transformation all around the shop floor—especially in what they call their "model cells." The interaction of many of the lean practices developed in kaizen (continuous improvement) events at ATS are evident, such as Five S organization. 

Seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke are the five Japanese words that represent each step in this organization. Each word describes a key element necessary to create a workplace suited to visual control and lean production. 

Visual control (also known as "transparency" in lean-speak) is putting all the tools, parts, production activities, and indicators of a production system's performance in plain view (Figure 2). This allows everyone at ATS to see immediately the status of a system. Visual control also helps support another lean activity at ATS—Total Productive Maintenance (TPM). 

TPM ensures that every machine in a production process is always able to perform its task, so there is never any interruption in production. Detailed visual control checklists with clearly assigned responsibilities for carrying out routine TPM procedures are at every cell. And everything imaginable in every cell is clearly labeled so there is never any guesswork. 


Figure 3. ATS employees are inspired to come up with their own solutions, helping to ensure that everything required for efficient part production is nearby. The yellow device at the left of the blender is a $20 vacuum cleaner mounted just where it is needed to clean up any loose pellets.


Figure 4. Everything on every machine in ATS cells is labeled to promote visual control and to mistake-proof its total productive maintenance efforts.

A Sustainable Corporate Culture 
TPM makes single-piece flow possible at ATS. Traditional batch-and-queue mass production involves the manufacture of large lots of parts, followed by batches of these parts waiting in line before going on to the next step in the process of producing a completed part. Single-piece flow is a different approach. 

Single-piece flow involves a manufacturing cell that produces a complete product. Cells are designed so that products proceed through various stages of completion without wasteful interruptions, backflows, or scrap—one complete product at a time. All of the processes, including the press, robot, welder, heat sealer, assembly station, and whatever else is required to produce a completed part, are in place in the Model Cells at ATS (Figure 3). 

The cells are driven by three teams and each team has a leader. Though the supervisor assigns the shop-floor people to the teams and oversees their activities, the teams themselves assume total responsibility for daily production (Figure 4). Bonuses are paid for successes in areas like cost of quality reductions and continuous improvement. ATS has the lowest employee turnover of any entity in the Cascade group. 

Keller says this approach inspires the sense of belonging, commitment, and ownership that sustains the corporate culture he believes is absolutely necessary for Cascade to survive and to thrive over the long term. Valz admits the company is nowhere near corporate-wide lean perfection, but he is not worried. 

"This is truly a journey," comments Valz. "You are never done." Gedritis adds, "As we become lean, process capability issues rise to the surface that we have to think through. But I think better every day." 

Contact information
Cascade Engineering
Grand Rapids, MI
Michael W. Valz
(616) 975-4800

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