Chasing perfection

The QO circuit breaker is one of those inventions that stood the test of time. It’s pretty much the same product that Ed Dessert created 50 years ago in Square D’s Cedar Rapids, IA, plant. Over the years, it’s been tweaked and cloned and expanded, but the basic function hasn’t changed.

By Bob Vavra, Editor December 1, 2006

The QO circuit breaker is one of those inventions that stood the test of time. It’s pretty much the same product that Ed Dessert created 50 years ago in Square D’s Cedar Rapids, IA, plant. Over the years, it’s been tweaked and cloned and expanded, but the basic function hasn’t changed.

It is one of those perfect products — simple, straightforward and remarkably reliable.

The same can be said for the way it is made today. Tens of thousands of circuit breakers roar through the Square D assembly plant in Lincoln, NE, each day. In a symphony of automation and managed process, the one-pole and two-pole models go from 24 unassembled parts to a single unit that fits into the palm of your hand.

So how do you improve on perfection?

That is the daily challenge at Square D in Lincoln. The QO circuit breaker is Square D’s premier product, and while circuit breakers may be a commodity, time, materials, safety and people are not. They are the factors driving Square D Lincoln to excellence today, and they are studied relentlessly to find ways to deliver greater excellence tomorrow.

“We’ve got Manufacturing Excellence teams that concentrate on different areas — assembly, stamping, plating — that generate ideas in each area,” said plant manager Jamie McDonald. “Through the manufacturing information systems, we’re able to have data-driven discussions, so that when we’re applying resources, we are going to get the best benefit we can.”

McDonald and his team at Lincoln challenge each of the more than 300 employees — especially the shop floor workers — to look for ways to make the plant run better and more efficiently, to operate safer and to cut costs. For example, Safety Barrier Logs throughout the plant allow anyone to write down their concerns or to suggest improvements. Part of that process is to make sure every suggestion is studied and that the employee is consulted and receives a direct response on the suggestion.

“We constantly engage our workforce,” McDonald said. “If they perceive something is unsafe, or see a potential risk, we want to take a look at it.”

The automated assembly process helped drive high productivity gains. The strip manufacturing process joins the 24 pieces — from the red fault indicator to the copper wire to the resin/glass polymer that becomes the QO’s tough shell — in a straight line process that conveys the parts through the various forms, welds and adjustments along the line.

It is a roller-coaster of belts and motion systems that brings the pieces together. Only five of the 24 parts aren’t formed in Lincoln. The stamping machines turn winding strips of tin and copper into precision pieces that come together throughout the assembly process.

“We didn’t just arrive here. It’s been an evolution,” said McDonald. “Automation took the individual work stations and made them obsolete. Through internal and external training, the same operators who used to build at individual work stations now keep multiple machines running as circuit breakers whiz by them. Technology was the trick. Now we’re looking at the most effective ways to use that. We continue to fine-tune.”

Identifying savings

It might be simple enough to just keep the equipment running and the QOs flying out the door. McDonald’s staff is always chasing the next possibility to drive more capacity at Square D Lincoln, to cut costs, to manage materials and reduce waste.

Among recent initiatives:

  • By lowering compressed air system pressure from 100 psi to 85 psi, bringing in a dedicated compressor for high-volume needs and minimizing line leaks, the plant’s Air Audit Program expects to save $43,000 a year through increased air efficiency

  • A change from metal halide and mercury vapor bulbs to fluorescent T8 fixtures will cut energy by 1.4 million Kwh, or $61,000 a year in the plant

  • The plating/waste treatment department was creating more than 58,000 cfm of negative air pressure. A study of the plant found this was putting additional pressure on heating and cooling energy elsewhere in the plant. Variable frequency drives on exhaust fans and automatic doors between departments is expected to help balance the negative pressure throughout the plant and drive additional cost savings

  • Plastic packaging has replaced cardboard for high-volume customers of the QO. The plastic packaging is returned, cutting cardboard waste

  • The plant has an aggressive hazardous waste program that meets the ISO 14001 standard. Among other initiatives, the plant recycles metal blades from utility knives, solvent from grease used in the two-pole breakers and cell phones.

    • Those kinds of cost savings have allowed Square D Lincoln to have the resources to expand operations in the face of cyclical pressures. If the housing market continues to slide, demand may be reduced. If the global economy continues to grow, there could be additional cost pressures. The other Square D facility making the QO is in Tijuana, Mexico. An efficient operation gives McDonald a compelling case to bring expanded production to Lincoln when Square D looks to increase manufacturing.

      “We’re always looking at ways to drive more volume,” McDonald said. “We work hard to make the sales team’s job easy. We’ve got a new floor plan we’re looking at, and as products change, we want to position the Lincoln operation to compete for those products. We’ve got capacity that we can put into other existing breaker products.

      “It doesn’t do us any good to create capacity if we can’t fill it with something,” he added. “If we can create capacity, we can add more SKUs.”

      The next generation

      People don’t get a job at Square D Lincoln; they build a career. The average tenure at Square D Lincoln is 28 years, remarkable for a facility that first opened in 1971. There are second-generation workers already on site, and the third generation is on its way. With a large number of workers nearing retirement age, the challenge now is to reach out to existing employees to capture as much of that experience as possible while preparing the next wave of workers to manage the evolving technology on the plant floor.

      “A big issue for us is how do you grow your business? As we grow, we’re learning how to recruit people again,” said McDonald. “We’re hiring for higher-skilled workers. Obviously, automation is a key to our success. That requires higher-skilled workers. Beyond that, we want those who do have the skills to fit in with the team, to help us solve problems.”

      That’s an easier task in a town that is both the state capital and home to a major university. (In contrast to Square D’s traditional blue and yellow, there is some red splashed throughout the plant in honor of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.) Still, Square D developed a new strategy to become more visible in this community of 225,000 and with university students.

      There’s also a strong relationship with Southeast Community College. “They have two-year technical skills programs,” McDonald said. “They offer excellent training. When we need people, there’s a ready source.”

      McDonald said the best recruiters for Square D are his employees. “We want to be regarded as a choice employer in the area,” he said. “Our employees are where we’ve gotten a lot of our new employees.”

      Once hired, employees go through an extensive training through the company, in conjunction with IBEW Local 2366. Nebraska is a right-to-work state, so not all employees must join the union, but a Skilled Trades Training Committee made up of management and union evaluate employee progress along the way.

      Safety is a fundamental at Square D Lincoln, as it is at all Schneider Electric facilities. In the last seven years, the Square D Lincoln facility has seen its medical incident rate drop from 18.2 in 2000 to 3.2 in 2006, and the OSHA incident rate has fallen 75% since 2003. The facility spends more than $500,000 annually on employee training.

      In all areas of Square D Lincoln, the key word is value. There is the value of the employee, first and foremost. There is the value created by an automated process that drives efficiency. And there is value in the simple, elegant design of the QO circuit breaker, still keeping homes and businesses safe after 50 years.

      “If you’re not adding value,” McDonald noted, “you’re wasting resources.”

      Square D

      Lincoln, Nebraska

      By the numbers:

      Square footage: 266,000 sq., ft.

      Number of employees: 366

      Number of shifts: 3

      Product produced: Circuit breakers

      Plant opened: 1971

      Union representation: IBEW Local 2366

      Plant history :

      The QO circuit breaker was first built in Detroit, hence the Square D logo. It has since been built in Cedar Rapids, IA before moving to Lincoln in 1971.

      Breaker, breaker– the QO line expands, evolves over 50 years

      The evolution of the QO miniature circuit breaker is one of those stories of American invention. Trial and error, and ultimately success, in creating the original QO in 1955 was really just the first step in an evolving process over the next 50 years.

      Ed Dessert began developing the QO circuit breaker in early 1953 in collaboration with Square D chief engineer Harry Stanback and draftsman Bill Woods in Square D’s Detroit facility. “It wasn’t an easy process,” Dessert recalled, adding that every part had to be fabricated by company model makers. “It had to pass 10,000 on-off operations and the contacts had to be able to withstand extreme wear. We developed our own techniques and experimented with different kinds of materials.”

      The original QO was a quick-opening, single-pole breaker with a 15—50-A rating, contained in a novel new

      When a new expressway near Detroit forced Square D to move, they picked up the QO and took it to Cedar Rapids, IA, where it was built until moving to Lincoln, NE, in 1971.

      By 1956, a two-pole version was released, with a three-pole model following a year later. In 1958, the Qwik-Trip feature was introduced to the single-pole version; an extra magnetic loop was added internally that caused the circuit breaker to trip much faster when a short-circuit occurs. Before the decade concluded, Square D introduced its tandem circuit breaker, which provided two breakers in the space that would be normally occupied by a single breaker.

      In 1968, another industry first was added to the QO breaker: the Visi-Trip Indicator, a clear window with a red flag that displays when a breaker is tripped, making it easier for a homeowner to locate the affected circuit.

      In 1972, Square D released the first ground fault circuit interrupter in a miniature circuit breaker format. It was designed to protect the homeowner from shock or electrocution, and initially it was required on bathroom circuits, but requirements have since expanded to include kitchens, basements, garages and outdoor circuits. Today, GFCI protection is commonplace in residences.

      The latest phase of QO development is a line of arc-fault circuit breakers, called Arc-D-tect. Dessert isn’t surprised there are so many iterations of the QO available today, including plug-on, bolt-on, key-operated, switch neutral, arc-fault, ground-fault and high-intensity discharge versions, along with many accessories, such as shunt trips, auxiliary switches, alarm switches, subfeed lugs and additional products with interrupting ratings of 22, 42 and 65 kA.

      “Anything you bring on the market you’re going to expand on, and the QO expanded in all directions,” Dessert said. “Oftentimes, the marketing department wanted higher ampere ratings and sometimes they wanted to see if it would do a higher voltage rating, or they had to have another version for some reason. We built breakers for many different applications.”

      Source: Square D archives; edited by Bob Vavra