Top Plant: SEW Eurodrive: Growing a workforce

People make the difference at SEW Eurodrive’s Lyman, SC plant. Family environment, no layoffs, automation to do the heavy lifting and a management team that empowers its employees – it’s no wonder employees say it’s a great place to work. There must be something special about management; there must be something special about the employees.

By Jack Smith, Managing Editor December 15, 2007

People make the difference at SEW Eurodrive’s Lyman, SC plant. Family environment, no layoffs, automation to do the heavy lifting and a management team that empowers its employees — it’s no wonder employees say it’s a great place to work. There must be something special about management; there must be something special about the employees.

The plant’s 125 employees manufacture right-angle gear reducers, which are shipped to 63 SEW Eurodrive assembly facilities globally for finished products that are customized to order.

“It’s probably one of the best places I’ve worked,” said manufacturing supervisor Peggy Smith. “It’s more like a family. I’ve never worked for a company that cared so much for its employees. It’s a very good place to work.”

Hans Buehler agrees. “It’s a great company to work for,” said Buehler, 71, a 25-year employee at SEW Eurodrive. “They treat us well, and there’s no turnover. Those 25 years have been the best years of my life.”

Job satisfaction is one thing. But the passion of SEW’s employees is evident in the way they are eager to talk about the company’s accomplishments — their accomplishments; in the productivity the plant is experiencing; and even in the cleanliness of the shop floor.

Automation for the people

SEW has invested heavily in automation in recent years. Some companies that increase the level of automated processes do so to reduce headcount. Not so for SEW. “We normally don’t staff to what we think our peak is going to be,” said plant manager Carl Hinze. “We staff to less, and if things get busy, we’ll work overtime.”

Hinze said an increasing trend in overtime is an indicator to SEW that it’s time to take the next step in automation.

Instead of bringing in automation to eliminate people, Smith said SEW automated many processes to help the workers. “The robots make it easier for the workers to run the machines. The robots save the workers’ backs, hands and necks,” she said.

“The idea was never to displace personnel,” said Buehler. “The idea was always to do more with the same personnel we have.”

“Displacing people has never been our intent — never ever,” added Hinze. “One of the things that got us into automation was ergonomics to avoid repetitive motion injuries. We took the burden off the employee.”

Most processes are automated and involve robots and enclosed workstations.

“I don’t touch the parts nearly as much; the robots do all the loading and unloading,” said machine technician Melvin Story. “This system frees up my time, gives me the ability to get a better look at what’s going on in the machine and see areas where I can make improvement as far as machining, reducing cycle time and making more parts per shift. Every time we run a specific part, it’s my goal to produce at least one more per shift than we did on the previous run without sacrificing quality. Quality is essential.”

Continuously improving processes, quality

All production and plant engineering employees are members of SEW’s single operational team, which makes decisions on new technology, operational processes and plant priorities. Employees who will actually be using new equipment are integrally involved in solving problems and choosing new equipment.

Hinze learned early that it’s beneficial to get the employees involved. It used to be that management would decide which machines to purchase and get the employees’ opinions when they had the choices narrowed to a few. “Now, we’re buying systems, and these employees are involved because of their experience over the last 15 to 20 years. You can’t get their experience any place else,” Hinze said. “They are in here every day handling this job. They know what they need to make it better or more efficient. We rely on their input a lot.”

Because its employees work in a stable environment and recognize that new technology means new skills and professional opportunities, they embrace automation. SEW has built a culture based on employee empowerment, shared rewards and continuous improvement. Most employees make SEW Eurodrive a career choice.

That doesn’t mean people are complacent. They are always looking for improvement. “We were using three grinding machines to bore and grind faces; each grinding machine was doing another dimension on that gear,” Hinze said. “That was a very costly process. We bought a single lathe, replaced those three machines and our productivity jumped. We had three shifts doing this operation, but we went down to one shift — with one machine and no coolants. That machine probably cost $180,000, and it replaced $700,000 worth of machines.”

“It was the cheapest and largest jump in productivity that we ever made,” said Hinze.

Using safety, quality and productivity as guiding principles, SEW’s innovation process is based on the concept that employees own the process and the solutions to problems. Consequently, employees generate ideas as often as managers.

The Lyman plant has more than doubled its production in seven years with just a 6% increase in staffing. In 2006, it produced 224,000 gear sets and 220,000 housings. The plant expects to produce more than 300,000 gear sets and housings by the end of 2007 with the same number of employees.

To achieve this, continuous improvement is a hallmark. At the Lyman facility, the employees are constantly searching for ways to improve operations by adapting what they learn to specific operational needs. Employees use Statistical Process Control, ISO guidelines for continuous improvement and common sense. “We have supervisor meetings every two weeks to bring everybody onboard with what’s going on with projects and with the purchases of new equipment,” Hinze said. “Everything else is day-to-day, one-on-one with the employees.”

Taking care of the environment

Whether oil, packaging or metal shavings, SEW recycles everything from its manufacturing processes; nothing goes down the drain or into a landfill. From water-soluble paints to dry-cutting of gears to using water instead of oil or solvents, the company searches for ways to eliminate potential pollutants from its processes and the plant environment.

The process for heat-treating the parts uses only air, natural gas and nitrogen. Most manufacturing processes are done in enclosed systems that have oil and mist collectors. Most machining operations are performed by hard turning instead of grinding. Water used to remove cleaning compounds is evaporated. Part of the consideration process for new equipment purchases involves reducing waste and pollutants.

Minimizing downtime

The maintenance/plant engineering organization includes 13 people reporting to assistant plant manager Chuck Chandler and the preventive maintenance supervisor. SEW recently added another person to the preventive maintenance team to improve uptime. The objective is to keep the plant running at optimal efficiency. Consequently, plant engineering is involved with decisions on new equipment purchases. “When we go to purchase a major piece of equipment, we have maintenance involved in it,” said Chandler. “Maintenance has a lot of impact on the purchase or the type of equipment we get.”

SEW maintains records on downtime, SPC capability for quality and out-of-tolerance rates. It monitors work orders closely to determine maintenance and equipment replacement schedules. Employee departments meet frequently to discuss issues and determine priorities for plant engineering support.

The plant engineering staff is trained on new equipment maintenance procedures as part of the installation process. Spare parts are maintained for each machine. Preventive maintenance is based on tracking records of failure rates and work orders. Downtime for maintenance is scheduled after work hours, on weekends or holidays, if possible.

Growing a workforce

SEW believes in growing its own workforce. The company supports apprenticeships for high school graduates. Many employees are hired out of the student programs that the company supports. “Some guys who have been here for years didn’t have any metal-working experience when they came here. A lot of them came right out of school, so we trained them. I’d say 75% of the people here came as part time, summer interns or co-op,” said Hinze. “We call it Grow your own Workforce.

“We went to a technical college years ago, partnered with them and interviewed students. We selected certain students who would work for us for 20 hours and go to school for 20 hours. We paid for the education,” Hinze said. “We have grown our own workforce.”

SEW Eurodrive looks for initiative in potential employees. Hiring students who participate in internships, co-op and apprenticeship programs allows managers to observe work ethics and behaviors they want to cultivate in their employees. Hinze looks for “the ones who are taking notes and paying attention and asking what they can do next. Those are the ones who will survive. Those are the ones we end up hiring.”

Those who are hired come into a unique culture. “People talk about employee involvement — this is what we do. It’s the culture of our organization. Everyone is involved in everything — community, work, improvements, productivity,” Hinze said. “I have never worked at a place like this before. In my wildest dreams, I never thought a place like this existed. It’s a culture that’s been nurtured by the owner of the company. You can’t put your finger on any one thing — it’s everything together.”

SEW Eurodrive

Lyman, SC

By the numbers:

Plant Size: 270,000 square feet

Number of employees: 250

Number of shifts: three

Product produced: Helical bevel drives — right-angle gear reducers

Plant opened: 1983

Plant history:

The U.S. headquarters of SEW Eurodrive has been located in Lyman, SC since 1983. The complex houses a major manufacturing plant and the Southeast Region Assembly Center.