On the floor: Putting focus on continuous improvement

A series of incremental improvements is the secret to a plant’s success.


RIDGID plant manager Ronan Lynch with a few of the motors manufactured onsite at RIDGID's Elyria, OH, facility. What began as a wrench manufacturing plant has evolved into a diversified manufacturing facility. Courtesy: RIDGIDThe hum and spitting of CNC machines are everywhere on the plant floor at the RIDGID plant in Elyria, OH. A former auto manufacturing plant, the 500,000 sq-ft facility has been home to RIDGID since the 1940s, churning out its signature line of hand tools, including the RIDGID pipe wrench, a standard among plumbers for generations.

It’s hard to evolve a pipe wrench, although RIDGID strives to do just that with new designs and new product lines. Among those is its SeeSnake digital inspection camera, which is a past Plant Engineering Product of the Year winner.

Where the manufacturing plant has reached for improvement is in its operational area. The company has eight worldwide manufacturing sites, including four in the U.S. In Elyria, the effort involves finding those incremental improvements that make the operation more productive and the company more profitable.

A maintenance “journey”

Running hundreds of machines in three shifts leaves little time for maintenance, but maintenance was found to be a critical productivity issue for the plant. The management team has moved about 90 of the most critical CNC machines onto a regular preventive maintenance schedule.

“We’re on a maintenance journey,” said facilities manager Larry Gallis. The operators are doing more online maintenance, the company has combined the electrical and mechanical maintenance department into one team, and the machines’ maintenance records are reviewed and managed to keep an eye on trending that could shut down a line. They’ve also started using thermal imaging cameras to proactively diagnose and avoid electrical issues.

A separate strategy to complete all operations in an engineered work-cell has had the additional benefit of putting operators more closely in touch and in tune with the machines they operate.

They have contracted with outside firms to do predictive machine condition monitoring based on lubrication and hydraulic oil analysis. There is also a greater emphasis on machine analysis and calibration. Newer equipment on the floor has the PM maintenance scheduling built in, which automatically creates a work schedule for maintenance.

Tracking energy

“About a year ago, we attended a seminar that really opened our eyes,” said Gallis. “Now we’re tracking energy consumption and looking at different programs.”

RIDGID has renegotiated electrical and natural gas contracts with outside suppliers, and created an internal energy policy. The plant has undergone several upgrades that have been both cosmetic and energy-efficient, such as replacing broken fiberglass window panels, upgrading insulation, and installing more energy-efficient lighting. They have added glass block windows on the south side of the plant for improved energy efficiency. In the middle of a northwest Ohio winter, these actions dramatically reduce natural gas expense.

The company found that the move from fluorescent to T-5 lighting has brightened up both the plant and the bottom line. While the wattage use is down from 400 W to 224 W with the T-5s, the lighting has helped workers spot defects on the paint line more easily. The return on investment with the T-5s has been less than a year—and that doesn’t count the rebates from utilities for the energy-efficient bulbs.

The plant is taking efforts to become a more sustainable plant. They have reduced scrap by almost half in the last six years. Their engineering efforts, once focused just on making a given part, are now focused on the full system of the manufacturing process to improve operational efficiency.

Training and workforce development

By reducing scrap and developing a culture of safety and reliability within the facility, RIDGID has improved its operational efficiency and delivered both better productivity and better profits for the company. Courtesy: RIDGIDRIDGID has standardized work instructions, including visual step-by-step workbooks available on the floor. This has helped streamline training and provide a visual refresher for operating procedures.

RIDGID has maintained close ties with the local community college to attract new recruits, and the recent upturn in work has allowed the company to bring back some employees laid off during the recession.

The company has also worked to better empower employees to innovate and help grow the operation. One employee created a tooling “road show” to help create greater awareness of the plant’s tool room. This portable cart provides a station that can travel throughout the facility to bring knowledge right to the line workers.

“We’re really trying to drive employee involvement,” said plant manager Ronan Lynch. “We want to give them a sense of ownership.”

Safety Bingo

In trying to stress the message of safety to employees, the company has promoted safety through traditional educational programs and through such interactive games as Safety Bingo. “We also use nontraditional approaches to move employees from the mind-set of being mandated to work safely toward the mind-set of wanting to work safely,” said Lynch.

Workplace layout, OSHA compliance, lockout/tagout, ergonomics, and other programs have become employee-centered approaches to workplace safety, rather than just a top-down mandate. “At RIDGID, we expect employees to want to work safely and empower them with the training and skills to do so,” said Lynch.

“We try to show the goals clearly for the plant, and for the employees,” said Lynch. In an effort to create a plant-floor safety emphasis, safety team members are rotated into the role, giving a wider base of safety sense, knowledge, and responsibility.

Looking to the future

Feeding a network of several thousand distributors keeps things busy. While RIDGID was affected by the 2009 recession, manufacturing activity is still coming back to higher levels.

“We’ve seen a modest surge in growth,” said Lynch. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty. We’re trying to keep a steady stream of production.”

The balance is to keep enough stock on hand to allow quick shipping when an order is placed, but not so much stock on hand so as to tie up unsold capital.

“We have a disciplined approach to sales and operations planning, and we put the relevant information out to our employees. Employees understand the process, and there’s a great connection between sales and marketing and the production and manufacturing operations,” said Lynch.

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