2016 Top Plant: A focus on people and culture

While much of the U.S. automotive industry was struggling to survive the aftermath of the most recent recession, MFC Netform, the 2016 Plant Engineering Top Plant winner, held its own.

By Jack Smith, CFE Media December 12, 2016

Exceptional manufacturing companies are more than just production cells or CNC machines-they are people who form a can-do culture. Strategic management philosophies, customer focus and employee empowerment make MFC Netform in Shelby Township, Mich., the 2016 Plant Engineering Top Plant. MFC Netform was established in 2003 as a subsidiary of Metal Forming & Coining, a Tier 1 press-based cold forming company located in Maumee, Ohio.

MFC Netform manufactures metal components typically used in powertrain applications and supplies them to OEMs and Tier 1 automotive companies. Initially, consideration was given to adding these processes to the Maumee location. However the differences in all areas of production and support requirements created the need to establish a new facility.

These automotive components are made in high-volume, highly automated production cells, passing from machine to machine without manual interaction. "But the technology is a secondary tool," said Tim Cripsey, who led the start-up from day one and is executive vice president of MFC Netform. "What makes us successful is our people and how we trust our customer focus and our employee focus."

There are many traditional reasons why MFC Netform is a Top Plant: High technology processes, a strong customer focus, state-of-the-art operating system, strong manufacturing and maintenance activities and strategic product and process positioning. "There are only two real reasons in my opinion: The people and the culture," Cripsey said.

People make the difference

MFC Netform came up with a methodology unofficially called the Netform Way, which is more about attitude than a manufacturing approach. "It is how we approach our work and how we treat and work with other people," Cripsey said. "It’s what makes us go that bit further in everything we do, what makes us never satisfied with the status quo and makes us an improving, rather than stagnant, entity.

Making powertrain parts in Michigan

MFC Netform focuses on flowforming and machining. Flowforming is a cold metal forming process in which a preformed metal blank is pressed against a hardened mandrel using CNC equipment to ensure that part profiles and dimensions are accurate. Secondary processes include milling, broaching, turning, drilling, staking and deburring.

The Shelby Township facility is relatively new. It began operation in 2003, and added three major machining and forming lines in 2012. "The parts start in the cell as either a cold forging, hot forging or a stamping," Cripsey said. "Using cold formed preforms manufactured in the Maumee facility gives us an advantage over our competitors, as it is a unique process that has weight and strength advantages. That said, we are not tied to that process-we will use whatever preform makes the most technical and fiscal sense." "The parts pass, without being touched-apart from inspection-through the entire line. At the end of the line, the parts have been washed and deburred."

Typical cells have from five to 10 CNC, flowforming, or broaching, machines that produce several hundred thousand parts per year working three shifts. And it takes no more than two operators to run an entire cell. "Operators do setups, continuous improvement, equipment checks, load and unload parts and do visual inspections," said Cripsey. "We use robots extensively for part loading and unloading, or for holding parts for deburring. We also make sure our cells are not dedicated pieces of equipment. We have to remain flexible in terms of what we can make here."

Being involved in customers’ product designs prior to the first round of prototypes is a key strategy for MFC Netform. "We can sometimes redesign customers’ products from two pieces to one, from three pieces to two and in doing so, we can save them money and complexity in their product designs," Cripsey said. "A good supplier is involved early in the design process, because as soon as they test that one prototype as a two-piece, it’s too late for us to offer a one piece because they have already tested it. We will also suggest alternate solutions for customer problems-even ones that we do not offer. While customer’s find it unusual at first, it goes a long way to gaining their trust."

Customers sometimes have difficulty controlling inventories, which can create scheduling challenges. "Schedule leveling is used to smooth out customer demand and reduce changeovers," said Dan Januszek, general manager, Operations at the Shelby Township plant. "Most orders are received electronically from our customers using standard electronic document interchange (EDI) systems. Some orders are entered manually but are managed in the same way."

Managing operations

According to Januszek, productivity and efficiency at MFC Netform have increased over the past five years. He attributes the success of the plant’s operational performance to the philosophy of employee engagement in all areas of the business, continually looking for opportunities for process and business improvements and the use of the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. "The ERP system is the main factor behind our success," he said. "It promotes communication, control and integrates all departments, yet it does not force the company to work its way. We still control the business systems."

However, running a high-volume automotive component manufacturing facility does have its challenges. "The repetitive nature of the business can breed complacency, especially in the areas with manual involvement, such as visual inspection," said Januszek. "This can be overcome by auditing, training, job rotation and clearly-defined accountability for all areas of the business."

Another challenge is the availability of qualified, motivated employees. "There is a shortage of skilled manufacturing personnel that leads to the need for programs for developing the skills from within, along with the associated training implications," Januszek said.

The company does encourage promotion from within. "We offer an employee referral bonus and train on the job as well as through development opportunities," said Januszek. "We are developing people from within. Opportunities are posted internally first before going outside the plant. There are many operators in development positions that allow them to show their capabilities while learning new skills. Many of the management and production personnel have been promoted up through the company over time. We have a program called ‘CAFÉ,’ which is a formal tracking program for operator development. CAFÉ reflects Cross Training, Attendance, Flexibility and Engagement"

An example of promoting from within is Derek Lapp. Lapp started as a CNC operator and continued to develop his skills within the company. In his words, "I came here as a traditional CNC operator, and was given the opportunity for growth. Now, in my role a senior technical operator, I am involved in a broader range of activities, such as implementing continuous improvement ideas, addressing cell production issues and learning the art/science of flowforming, which in turn leads to greater fiscal and personal rewards"

MFC Netform uses a pull system to order perishable tooling. A preset finished goods level is used to pull production from the manufacturing cells. "The manufacturing lines are designed based on single-piece flow," said Januszek. "There is a formal continuous improvement program in place. Operators are engaged in all activities within the company. Our customer supply model-varying at short notice with large fluctuations-means we need to keep 1 to 2 weeks’ safety stock. We use the safety stock level to pull production from the manufacturing cells at the required rate."

Cripsey said you are what you measure. The Shelby Township plant uses an OEE report from its ERP system for overall reporting and the supporting reports of scrap, downtime and root-cause issues. It also uses the ERP system’s labor reporting metrics to track labor efficiency. Best practices are shared through various levels of management review. Daily, weekly and monthly meetings communicate performance and corrective actions. A formal review of lessons learned occurs during regularly scheduled advanced quality planning meetings.

Teams are used for a variety of activities, such as operational reporting, continuous improvement, personnel development and training, system/department activity training and event planning. "Empowering people makes teams effective," said Cripsey. "However, teams still need direction. Every team needs to have a goal, and it needs to have rules of engagement. Teams are critical to the success of the company. Currently, our teams have two directions: product/work area teams and shift teams. Both have advantages. Teams drive continuous improvement in all areas and are assigned ownership of activities/assets and areas."

Focusing on Lean

MFC Netform has daily plant-wide standup meetings. A standup meeting is an informal 15-minute meeting where office personnel, shift leaders and key operators review production issues and improvements that would help address these issues. The company continually looks for ways to minimize waste and has instituted waste-elimination training programs.

It also has a formalized continuous improvement program that is operator-based with management involvement and support. Cell-based production continuous improvement teams have been in place for several years. This has recently been augmented by a formal, tracked continuous improvement program that has varying points for problem identification, solution generation, approval and implementation.

Continuous flow is used for all part production. Between-machine part quantities, which are typically high to aid production numbers, are continually re-evaluated to determine if there are opportunities to lower them to improve quality. Operators are respected and involved in all aspects of the company, from production to the social committee to continuous improvements. "Customer satisfaction is key in all we do-from product design to problem response. Customer is king, or a close second after the employees," Cripsey said.

Areas of the plant are selected for focused Kaizen reviews. All areas of the plant are involved, and the events are pre-organized by the plant manager and his support staff. The events are pre-planned so that longer term activities can still be carried out at the same time. Activities include cleaning, repairing, painting, process improvements, maintenance and so on. "At MFC Netform, a Kaizen event is a broad-based company-wide activity that not only addresses the issues in a cell but also reminds nonproduction personnel why we come to work," Cripsey said.

Embracing technology

MFC Netform relies heavily on its ERP system to run not only its Lean-based manufacturing operations, but every aspect of the business. It stands to reason that technology is fully embraced at the company. "We have a high level of automation," said Cripsey. "Operator work is focused on value-added activities, as opposed to material handling, hence the widespread use of robots. However, the automation we purchase is flexible to allow reuse of the equipment on subsequent programs should there be an unforeseen early end to a part’s production."

"The high use of wireless technologies stems from the organization’s younger, progressive workforce," said Jeff Schroeder, information systems manager at MFC Netform. "Most employees are extremely comfortable with technology in their personal lives. As a result, they come to work as an employee with the same high expectations of technology as they would as a consumer."

Schroeder said that deploying wireless network technology has yielded numerous practical benefits. "It makes the plant as a workspace more agile and flexible," he said. "Users can access services and applications when and where they want them. For example, an engineer can comfortably program automation without opening an electrical panel or setting foot inside a robot cage. Wireless technology has not just made employees more mobile. It has transformed the way machinery and other seemingly stationary resources are thought of. For example, one employee designed a complete mobile workstation to facilitate tool changes entirely inside a machine. The workstation effectively physically deploys all resources needed to perform a tool change to its point of use. It has made substantial impacts to planned scrap and downtime."

Beyond networking, wireless plays a large role in inspection. "Every handheld gage in the plant is wirelessly connected to a cloud-based quality management system," Schroeder said. "Measurement results from the gages are automatically logged in the system. Beyond the benefits of a wire-free workspace, this wireless connectivity eliminates data entry and makes inspection massively productive. In many cases, inspection times have been reduced by as much as 70%."

Maintaining uptime

The maintenance department also relies heavily on technology. "We use preventive maintenance throughout our plant," said Rob Herston, manufacturing engineer, maintenance manager. "However, on critical equipment, we have integrated our predictive maintenance directly into our computerized maintenance management system (CMMS), which is part of the ERP suite. Predictive tasks performed by our techs are input directly into the ERP, which automatically generates trend reports that are sent to management for review. The ERP is also used for preventive maintenance activities (for both operator and maintenance techs), spares control, downtime trending/tracking, work request generation and tracking."

Key items are monitored for predictive trends to allow for planned downtime prior to failure or process interruption, rather than reactive unplanned repairs. Lead (proactive) measurements and machine integration for remote monitoring are key aspects of the company’s long-term maintenance strategy.

Maintenance is a companywide responsibility, according to Herston. Operators know their machines-and the way they typically run-better than anyone in the company. An operator is the first line of defense when it comes to noticing a potential failure. At that point, maintenance can perform the needed corrective maintenance to stop or prevent the failure. Operators and maintenance both perform preventive maintenance tasks best suited for their skill sets.

"Preventive and predictive maintenance are highly encouraged by our management team," said Herston. "They understand that, to maintain elevated uptime, we must invest a significant amount of resources, both monetarily and with personnel/staff. A robust training program is needed for each operator and piece of equipment to ensure that the preventive activities are performed to the standards of the maintenance department."

MFC Netform actively seeks ways to minimize its use of energy. Reducing energy consumption is part of our departmental strategy because it can free up funds for needed repairs and also relieve stress on critical equipment," Herston said. "A good example is compressed air. By reducing the amount of wasted compressed air-either by repairing leaks or changing how we use air knives/blow-offs-we know the variable drive compressors will not run as hard, reducing the amount of power we use. We also can avoid/delay capital expenditure through addressing these issues."

Herston added that the plant lighting was changed to reduce the amount of energy consumed. In addition, employees are controlling overhead doors to keep the climate in the facility stable, thus saving energy.

The maintenance department follows the same culture as the rest of the company. "We believe in promoting from within," Herston said. "We identify employees with a certain drive and skillset and challenge them to advance their skills and careers. We recently brought on two junior maintenance techs. This was an internal hire from production personnel, which allows us to develop current production employees into skilled trades. These techs are being trained by our senior techs and will eventually move into full-time maintenance tech positions."

MFC Netform strives for a safe work environment. To ensure employees remain safe, the plant’s actions include:

  • Providing mandatory lock-out/tag-out and safety training as part of its employee orientation process
  • Holding biweekly cross-functional safety meetings, which include employees from all levels of the organization
  • Requiring that all tasks/activities maintain appropriate training records; workers cannot operate machinery without proper credentials
  • Focusing on ergonomics and risk management
  • Conducting weekly layered process audits with representatives from maintenance, operations, plant engineering and quality
  • Completely sealing and interlocking machines with controls. If machines are opened, machines automatically shut down.

A culture of safety is an expectation at the Shelby Township facility. The smallest of injuries are reported and tracked. By continuously being prudent about small issues, big issues are avoided.

Januszek said that equipment maintenance presents the biggest safety challenge. Because each repair is unique, safety protocols don’t always address stress-and strain-related risks. He said that the plant approaches safety aggressively by sending the message that production never trumps safety. Safety issues are dealt with immediately and have absolute priority over anything else.

Looking ahead

Challenges will continue to arise for MFC Netform. From the successful implementation of technology that may be semi-obsolete by the time it is released, all the way to developing work force personnel with the will and knowledge to repair machines, those challenges will be ongoing. However, the ability to solve customers’ problems with solutions from both MFC Netform and the MFC Maumee facilities provides for a bright future for both locations.Re

gardless of how much technology changes, the people and the culture will remain the focus at MFC Netform.

-Jack Smith, content manager, CFE Media, jsmith@cfemedia.com.