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September 27, 1998

9 Min Read
Innovation in a captive environment

Let's say you're the general manager for a medium-sized captive molding plant somewhere in the Midwest. Your 25 injection molding machines supply parts to 10 assembly plants throughout the world. These plants schedule assembly operations such that they barely know what parts they need tomorrow, much less a week from tomorrow. But when they need piece parts, they need them yesterday, and you're expected to do the gymnastics required to meet their needs.

What do you do? You might place a help wanted ad: "Two-brained, four-armed scheduler or planner needed, minimum requirements are 32 years of experience, Mensa membership, insomnia a plus." You might start thinking real hard about early retirement. Or you could do what ADC Telecommunications does: Let the operators worry about it.

ADC is that midwestern molding plant. A manufacturer of, you guessed it, telecommunications equipment, ADC is located in Shakopee, MN, a small suburb southwest of Minneapolis, and has been in business since 1935. The molding operations at ADC actually represent only a fraction of the production done in this sprawling 284,000-sq-ft facility. Known within the company as the Broadband Connectivity Group Manufacturing Facility, the plant has equipment inside that molds plastic, builds molds, bends and stamps sheetmetal, welds, and turns and cuts metal parts.

Parts rolling out the door are used to make patch panels for TV and cable broadcast, fiber optic panels, splice panels, fiber optic connectors, termination panels, blocks, housings, insulators, I/O repeaters, and other telecommunications equipment, the kind of stuff without which you can't make a phone call, check e-mail, surf the Internet, or watch Monday Night Football. Molded parts are medium to small in size, intricate, detailed, and usually made in relatively short runs, ranging from 5000 to 250,000 pieces.

Operator Control

The mindset in the 15,000-sq-ft molding area at ADC revolves around short lead times, quick mold change, fast setup, and efficient scheduling. "Our niche is quick turnaround," says Greg Hanninen, senior production engineer at ADC. Consider these facts:

  • An average of 50 different parts are produced daily.

    Average lot size is 10,000 pieces.500,000 total piece parts are produced every day.Average throughput time from order receipt to order shipped is about 20 hours.70 percent of ADC customers want parts in a week or less.Each press averages two setups per machine per day.

All of this means ADC molding operations have to be nimble and responsive to meet the dynamic needs of the assembly plants. About five years ago, ADC decided to try something different. Management thought, why not let the people who work with the machines and molds, who know what the machines' and molds' limits and capacities are, schedule the work? In other words, let the operators handle it.

So ADC divided the 26 Cincinnati Milacron presses into five work centers with an operator assigned to each. Then, ADC took the 700 or so molds and divvied them up among the operators. Finally, and most importantly, operators were given the power and responsibility to schedule their own jobs, manage their own material, and run their machines as efficiently as possible.

When people at an assembly plant need a part, they call the operator who "owns" it and tell him or her what they need, how many they need, and when they need it. The operator has full authority to manage his or her machines and tools to do the job. "We build our own schedules," says Mike Dodge, an operator. "I can plan different molds back-to-back that run the same material or whatever. They don't care, as long as we keep our assembly plants happy.

"It gives people more of a sense of ownership. A scheduler or a planner doesn't really know the machine or the part. We cut out a lot of the middle people who tend to inhibit communication." Gone is the finger-pointing that grows out of operations when an "us and them" mentality develops between operators and management. At ADC, the operators are the managers, and they take both the credit and the blame.

Naturally, there was some reluctance on the part of managers to relinquish the decision-making, but the arrangement has established itself as a part of the company culture. "They're not operators. They're manufacturing managers for their work center," says Tom Milbrandt, director of manufacturing. "There's very little they can't resolve themselves. Still, the most challenging thing for me is letting go--that blind trust."

Friendly Confines

If you're molding two different parts per day, per press, you need a physical environment that encourages quick tool and material changes. ADC did this by designing its molding section to be compact, efficient, and easy to use. First, when the plant was designed, it was done by the employees who work there.

"Unemployment in this area is something like 2 percent," says Hanninen, "so we try to create a pleasant working environment." The result is a modern, spacious, well-lit, clean building. Where you typically find walls, ADC put in glass, a whole wall of it in fact, thanks to employee suggestions. Natural light during the day gives the feel of molding outside.

Second, ADC fulfilled a long-time dream of Hanninen's to have a basement for material handling. Down a flight of stairs from the molding area is a basement, also naturally lit, full of hoppers, dryers, conveyors, granulators, and raw material. ADC has two dryers for every press. This allows one material to be dried and prepped while the other is running. "So when we switch out a mold, there's an A-B switch, and we can just flip to the new material," says Hanninen. No waiting. Operators communicate with material handlers via two-way radios to order material.

Holes in the floor leading from the molding level to the basement allow Conair sprue pickers upstairs to drop runners and sprues down into waiting granulators. Conair equipment does most of the drying and material handling. Nissui, Conair, and Ball & Jewell do most of the grinding. All of the grinding and drying noise associated with a typical plant is kept in the basement. Combined with the fact that ADC runs all electrics (except for two seldom-used hydraulics), you can actually speak at normal volumes on the molding floor. "We designed the building around the presses, not the other way around," says Hanninen.

Back upstairs, because there are no material containers, dryers, or granulators, presses are snuggled together, making nice use of the space. Mold changes, says Dodge, usually take 20 to 25 minutes. Molds that used to look like octopi because of the myriad water lines now use manifold hookups with four to eight water lines for quick disconnect. Jiffy ejector knockouts also save ADC time.

When it came to setups, ADC got creative. Attached to every press is a fiber optic link that leads to a server in the basement. On this server is custom-written, Windows-based software that stores setup data for every mold ADC uses. Each mold is assessed to determine the best cushion, recovery time, fill time, transfer position, and pack and hold time.

When the mold is qualified and acceptable parts are generated, the setup data is downloaded to the server. When that mold runs again, on any machine in the plant, the operator finds the setup, uploads it to the press, and starts running. Every operator has his or her own workstation to access setups, schedule jobs, and manage material needs.

Quick Tooling

The tooling section of the plant supports all operations with two wire EDMs, two sinker EDMs, three high-speed CNC mills, and an SLA system. The department is managed by Tom Bahe and employs 38 toolmakers and five tool designers who work over two shifts.

The equipment is divided into work cells to support different manufacturing operations. About 60 percent of the molding tools are farmed out, but in-house toolmaking is used generally to produce tools that are not on a strict timeline. In a pinch, the toolmakers will gear up to produce emergency molds. This happened recently at ADC, and the moldmakers turned around a single-cavity tool within one week.

The SLA system, a product of 3-D Systems, runs 24 hours a day and is an important part of ADC's product development process. Because time-to-market is so critical to ADC, when a niche or product potential is identified, the company will design the part in steel first, just to get the product quickly out the door. "Technology is changing so fast, you have to be able to get products out quickly or be swallowed up," says Bahe.


Encouraged by the success that came from giving operators more control, the company is about to throw even more responsibility their way. Mike Beaver, quality engineer, is in the midst of a small QA renaissance. There are two types of parts at ADC, those that are almost never out of spec and those that are more sensitive and fall out of spec more readily. After some training, Beaver is going to have the operators inspect parts themselves at the press, where they will be particularly alert for sensitive parts and will know how to cope with them dimensionally.

This should do two things: Out-of-spec parts will be caught sooner, and quality control employees will focus more on how the process is performing. "Our quality people would move from a mode of parts verification to process verification," says Beaver. Operators are learning the procedures and how to use quality inspection equipment. "It adds responsibility for each operator, but it's something they want to do," he says.

On the testing side, ADC has an impressive array of equipment designed to put its products through the stresses found in the real world. Much of the equipment ADC produces eventually sits outside, in boxes on street corners, on top of telephone poles, and attached to buildings and houses. The company even has an earthquake room. It contains an oscillating vibrator to simulate everything from a ride on a semi-truck to a good-sized earthquake. ADC is particularly proud of a phone unit in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake that continued to pass phone signals until a roof collapsed on it. "Until it got squished," says Hanninen.

Parting Thoughts

ADC passed $1 billion in sales in 1997. The molding department is growing 30 percent annually, three new Cincinnati Roboshots will arrive this month, and there's room for almost twice the current number of presses.

Contact information
ADC Telecommunications
Shakopee, MN
Greg Hanninen
Phone: (800) 366-3891
Fax: (612) 403-8558
Website: .www.adc.com

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