Top Plant: Spirax Sarco: Ahead full steam

As with all stories of creation, in the beginning, there was confusion. Then there was light. The Spirax Sarco plant in Blythewood, SC implemented a team-based manufacturing program with a name acronym: LIFE, or Little Improvements From Everyone. They worked to get employees to execute on that program.

By Jack Smith, Managing Editor December 15, 2007

As with all stories of creation, in the beginning, there was confusion. Then there was light.

The Spirax Sarco plant in Blythewood, SC implemented a team-based manufacturing program with a name acronym: LIFE, or Little Improvements From Everyone. They worked to get employees to execute on that program.

Dave Albert, Spirax Sarco’s quality manager, said it took about four months for the team concept to take hold. “I had an instructor in college that was very heavily team-oriented. He said, ‘You do your best job to get the right people in the right place and the right mind-set of people, and you push them into the tunnel. Then you go around to the other side to see whether they come out. Either they come out, or they don’t.’ I think four months was pretty quick,” Albert said.

“It was mayhem until they all sat down and said, ‘What do we have to do to put this right?’ And after about four months, the light bulb came on,” said Peter Moreton, Spirax Sarco’s vice president of manufacturing. “This is working now, because they learned then to solve their own problems — they solve their own problems now.

“They all had their goals, and they all had their boundaries,” Moreton said. “Boundaries are exceptionally important. If you don’t have boundaries, you don’t know when you’re going to cross them.”

The only thing missing at Spirax Sarco these days are the boundaries that tells them how much they can achieve. Spirax Sarco looks like many other plants: people, CNC machines, material handling equipment and finished products. However, a closer look reveals smiling faces, positive attitudes and methods for continually tracking product status, personnel and machine performance and filled orders.

Spirax Sarco provides steam control solutions for institutional and building services; and for discrete, batch and process industries. Its wide range of products includes steam traps, manifolds, control valves, actuators, flowmeters, boiler controls, level controls and positioners.

Moreton enthusiastically shows off strategically placed manufacturing cells, each starring an automated CNC machining center accompanied by an advanced material handling system. Separating them are clean, wide aisles devoid of clutter.

Product group leaders are eager to show off their accomplishments, almost with a competitive spirit. Each group leader is proud of his team. He knows where they started, where they are and where they’re headed.

Manufacturing is a team effort

Moreton understands what works, what’s effective and what teamwork and employee empowerment are about. Every manufacturing employee is on some kind of team. “Not only are they on a team within manufacturing, when we introduce a new product, there are teams created with manufacturing employees represented,” he said.

For example, the new product development team includes members from finance, product development, engineers, drafting and marketing. “We let the team pick the team leader,” said Moreton. “The team has ownership.”

The team investigates project viability, estimates costs and sales and proposes a budget. “And with that budget, they can spend what they like,” Moreton said. “What’s important is that with any team, they must know where their boundaries are. They itemize it; they justify it.”

Each product group consists of a cross-functional team. Teams hold daily production meetings, weekly continuous improvement meetings and weekly meetings to analyze customer returns. “Decision-making has been pushed down to the shop floor level, resulting in the involvement of all plant employees in our continuous improvement process,” Moreton said.

Product group teams were derived from Spirax Sarco’s LIFE program — an involvement that Moreton said allows focus on customer-driven product needs, which improves customer delivery and response times. The company came up with the “Little Improvements From Everyone” concept, in which every employee is encouraged to contribute something to the innovation process. LIFE enables supplier development improvement, new product introduction and continuous improvement processes.

Many of the CNC machining centers use tool life management programs that predict when tools require replacement. The time-based and wear-measurement-based software also has tool-break detection capabilities. The company’s industrial engineers work with suppliers to develop the specialty tooling.

Brian Girdauskas explained Spirax Sarco’s control valve assembly process. Girdauskas is the product group leader for controls. Using Kanban build stations, operators assemble control valve products, all of which will be tested using air or steam. “We went to air testing,” said Girdauskas. “We test for flow and shutoff, and we also do a body test. It’s all automated — it’s either pass or fail.”

Although there can be as many as 10,000 combinations, each control valve is built to order. Parts are made, machined and placed in stock. Products are then assembled to order from parts pulled from stock. “Orders for the day are Kanbaned at the workstations. Special-order products are handled separately,” Girdauskas said.

LIFE is all about continuous improvement

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. And measure they do. Spirax Sarco tracks as many as 19 KPIs, depending on the product and the department. One of its KPIs is “Number of DFT pieces per direct labor employee.” DFT stands for Demand Flow Technology, which is Spirax Sarco’s one-piece flow Lean manufacturing system. For example, in 2000, Spirax Sarco introduced a Lean manufacturing system that drastically shortened lead times, improved quality, reduced non-value added activities and tied production to actual customer demand. Production response time went from five weeks to two days. On-time shipments improved from 90% to 97%. Moreton said when Spirax Sarco implemented DFT; the first three lines went live in October 2000.

Spirax Sarco does not have a large quality control department. Quality checks are made throughout the manufacturing process. The people on the floor understand that quality is up to them. Manufacturing associates are responsible for their own quality, and are held accountable. Each person checks his or her own work as well as the work from the previous operation. Spirax Sarco’s first time-pass yield rate is currently 3.9 process sigma on the Six-Sigma scale. “We went from 2.6 to 3.9 in 12 months,” Albert said.

In 2005, 5S was applied across the manufacturing plant as part of the LIFE program. Task teams were formed to sort, shine, simplify, standardize and sustain an efficient and continuously improving workplace environment. Girdauskas said Lean manufacturing helps the company maintain low inventories, just-in-time delivery of its products and a lot of potential for waste. “Lean methods also promote continuous improvement because you have to look at things very quickly, very closely and react to those situations. Another good thing about Lean manufacturing is that it does not allow faulty products to get out of the plant,” he said.

Energy and the environment

Energy efficiency and environmental responsibility go hand in hand. From recycling and reclaiming to preventive maintenance to investing in energy efficient and environmentally responsible equipment, Spirax Sarco sets the example for best practices.

The company recycles nearly everything from cardboard to condensate to coolant. “We recycle cardboard. We recycle all our chips. We actually sort all the chips out into stainless steel, steel, cast iron and general turnings,” Girdauskas said.

The coolant used in the machining processes as a cutting lubricant and rust inhibitor is run through a machine that filters out the particulate matter, then pumped back into the plant. Spirax Sarco realizes savings by avoiding hazardous material disposal costs. “We have found that the cost of the coolant is minor compared to the cost of the waste disposal,” Girdauskas said. “The investment in a coolant recycling system was a natural: very quick payback — about nine months.”

Spirax Sarco uses a high-pressure boiler to test and set manufactured or repaired relief valves. “We use traps, control valves and pumps to recycle the condensate from our high-pressure boiler,” said Girdauskas. “Because of the chemicals we use, we recycle the condensate so we don’t have to dump it down the drain. It saves chemical costs, and energy cost to reheat cold water.”

A water curtain in the spray booth traps the water-based paint overspray and carries it into a tank. The water is recycled, filtered and pumped through a continuous loop. “There’s very little active waste,” Girdauskas said. “Every few months they pump the tank out. The residue is actually non-hazardous. We just scoop it up and throw it away. It doesn’t require special handling.”

Many of Spirax Sarco’s products are designed to reduce energy consumption. “We use many of our products in our processes to reduce the amount of energy we use,” Girdauskas said. “We have actually gotten away from using steam, for example, to test products. Testing some of these products with air will give you the same results, while significantly reducing your energy consumption.”

The company’s most recent energy use reduction project was to re-lamp the plant and install electronic ballasts. “We used high-efficiency T5 fluorescent lighting, replacing 400-W metal halide lights,” said Tom Knight, facility and maintenance manager. “The T5 lamps use about 53% of the energy the metal halides were using. So we got about a 47% savings per fixture.”

There were other paybacks as well: better lighting and a tax credit. “Actually, the lumen output is about a 21-lumen increase,” Knight said. “They’re high-intensity lights, and their reflectors are configured to give you a broader spectrum that’s more evenly blended. It’s more consistent and the color rendering is a little bit cooler.

“The payback without the EPAct tax credit was 4.67 years. But with the maximum allowable tax credit, we should begin to realize some real savings in about 18 months,” Knight added.

Another energy efficient project involved replacing aging air compressors. Spirax Sarco had two 75 hp and one 150 hp units that were about 12 years old. “We replaced those three units with two 125 hp units. Our payback on this is a little under four years,” Knight said. “But we were able to remove 50 hp of energy consumption right off the bat. Most of the time, one 125 hp compressor will keep up with the entire plant.”

Maintenance teamwork

The team theme works for product development and manufacturing at Spirax Sarco. And it works for maintenance as well. “One of the things we have done — and I’ve insisted on this for years — is include the operators in the PM activities,” Knight said. “And recently, we’ve taken a step to putting the operators in charge of the PMs. They are ultimately responsible for the machine — and who better to ensure that what needs to get done gets done, is the guy who is there every day.”

Spirax Sarco

Blythewood, SC

By the numbers:

Plant Size: 103,500 square feet

Number of employees: 194

Number of shifts: two

Products produced: Steam traps, manifolds, control valves, actuators, flowmeters, boiler controls, level controls, positioners and other steam control and system solutions

Plant opened: 1998

Plant history:

Spirax Sarco moved into the Blythewood facility in April 1998, and the first products came off the assembly line in July 1998.

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