Top Plant: Victaulic Forks facility: Connecting the pipes

When it comes to safety and manufacturing excellence, Victaulic is doing much more than connecting the dots.

By Jack Smith, Content Manager, CFE Media December 15, 2014

When pipe joint manufacturer Victaulic set out to enhance its safety program, the company didn’t realize its efforts would lead to an 87% reduction in OSHA recordable injuries over a seven-year period. Nor did it realize at the time those efforts in combination with notable best practices would culminate in prestigious OSHA recognition. And now, the Victaulic Forks facility in Easton, Pa., is a 2014 Plant Engineering Top Plant winner.

The company’s Forks facility is named for Forks Township, a northern suburb of Easton. The campus is home to Victaulic’s global headquarters and corporate office, as well as the manufacturing facility, which includes the ductile iron foundry, machine shop, and warehouse.

Victaulic invented the grooved-end pipe joining concept (see "Original invention"). The company makes mechanical couplings for joining pipes from ¾ in. to 12 ft in diameter. It also manufactures pipe fittings, such as tees and elbows, as well as butterfly and check valves.

Making ductile iron products

Manufacturing processes at Victaulic’s Forks facility are straightforward. First, induction furnaces melt scrap iron and the necessary additives at 2,800 F according to recipes determined by the company’s metallurgists. Next, the molten metal is poured into sand molds, which form parts that are machined and then assembled into Victaulic’s products.

"Other than the alloys we use, such as carbon, magnesium, and silicon we use recycled metal we purchase from scrap recovery services for each furnace charge," said plant manager Tim Martin. "We also re-melt 100% of the sprue from our castings and ductile iron turnings from our machine shop."

To ensure quality, Victaulic monitors incoming materials. "We test at every step of the process to ensure we have the proper nodularity, chemistry, and microstructure," said Martin. "We test incoming scrap, we test when the metal is molten, during pouring, and as we cast."

Martin said that everybody on this team has put forth great effort to make the Forks facility run as smoothly, efficiently, and safely as possible. "When we look back and see where we were, we have taken great strides and made major accomplishments in a lot of areas," said Martin. "I am most proud of our safety efforts. We have driven our injuries down significantly-we’re well below the industry standard. And we’re extremely proud we earned the OSHA VPP merit award."

Award-winning safety

After three years of preparation, Victaulic Operations at the Forks facility achieved OSHA Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) Merit designation in early 2014. VPP certification is evidence that a culture of continuous safety improvement exists because of strong employee engagement and ownership of production-related safety programs, procedures, and policies. Employees at every level of the organization are responsible for safety. They believe that all workplace injuries are avoidable and preventable. Victaulic’s employees have been proactively involved in identifying and eliminating workplace hazards, resulting in an 87% reduction in recordable injury rates over the past seven years.

"We get our employees involved in their own personal safety," said Bill D’Amico, global director of environmental health and safety at Victaulic. "The employees demonstrated their knowledge-not only onour programs, but all aspects of our health and safety management system. And for their efforts, we were recognized for quite a few best practices. We are very thrilled with the results."

Among the best practices that OSHA identified are management’s commitment to health and safety, the facilities excellence mapping (FEM) program, and the safety/5s housekeeping program. D’Amico said the OSHA evaluation team was impressed with the cleanliness of the facilities, which is a great point of pride for the Victaulic employees. "To us, pursuing VPP recognition was about taking credit for doing what we had already been doing," he said.

Victaulic’s journey toward a strong safety culture began in 2006 when the company hired Chris Misiak as the director of operations and Martin as the plant manager. Misiak and Martin emphasized safety by making it the first topic and focal point in every Victaulic Operations meeting, posting safety information and communications, and particularly stressing the importance of safety metrics. The culture throughout the organization began to change from accepting that accidents were part of the manufacturing environment to realizing that injuries are preventable through employee awareness.

D’Amico also credits Victaulic’s executive leadership for keeping the company’s safety initiatives moving forward. "They provided the resources to allow safety to succeed," he said. "They also provided capital resources to eliminate a lot of the safety hazards inherent in foundry operations."

The union did its part to drive safety throughout its workforce. D’Amico said the union membership wants a safe working environment and understands that creating a strong safety culture requires a team effort up and down the organizational chain.

In pursuit of facility excellence

Victaulic’s safety and health programs are tied closely to its Lean manufacturing initiatives, which support each other through FEM. "We implemented 5s inspections, and hazard identification and elimination efforts to improve our safety and our shop floor organization," Martin said. "We started our Lean initiative in 2002. The company has grown tremendously since then, making achieving our initiatives even more critical.

The four levels of FEM are qualification, bronze, silver, and gold. Upon achieving a performance excellence level, each facility must continue to improve to reach the next level. At the qualification level, Victaulic provides the Lean tools required to improve in areas such as teamwork, safety, standard workflow, Kanban, and quality.

While some productivity may be sacrificed to support employee training, the company’s Lean manufacturing results show that the cost of not training employees is higher. "Teaching is the foundation for Victaulic’s Lean program," said Dina Manoway, director of business practices. "When we began our Lean journey, we focused on ‘pull’ for the first 2 1/2 years to get our finished goods and components set up. Then we started with the other Lean tools: total productive maintenance, mistake proofing, problem solving, setup reduction, standard workflow, baseline, 5s, and workplace organization. Since we implemented Lean, we have reduced our setup time more than 68%."

The next step was lead-time reduction. "At first the low-hanging-fruit is pretty obvious," Manoway said. "Then, at some point, there was no more apparent low-hanging-fruit. But we knew we still had a lot of waste in our processes. That’s when we created our facilities mapping excellence program."

In a Lean manufacturing environment, it is critical to teach the people doing the work how to use the tools that will empower them to make changes. "That’s where the teamwork comes in," said Manoway. "It’s about the people who do the work and management working together as a unit. Employee empowerment and job ownership can go a long way."

Managing energy usage, costs

In addition to the company’s successes in safety and Lean, Victaulic also excels in managing its energy use. Electricity accounts for the majority of the company’s energy usage, most of which is consumed by its three induction furnaces. When possible, the furnaces are used at off-peak times when electrical demand is lower. The company also participates in a program through its electrical power provider that involves voluntary shutdowns during peak load hours. Another of Victaulic’s energy management strategies is to lock in lower electricity rates by purchasing blocks in advance. In addition, the company is replacing lighting throughout the Forks plant with energy-efficient lamps and fixtures.

Victaulic is managing other energy areas effectively as well. Gas, water, and compressed air account for the balance of the company’s energy consumption. A new rotary compressor was installed, as well as an intelligent monitoring system that trims compressor usage to maximize efficiency. Victaulic performs frequent inspections to ensure any leaks are repaired quickly and compressed air is not wasted.

Victaulic recently replaced its scrap preheating system, which improved the performance of the melt furnace system. In addition, the company replaced four core machines with a different type of core machine that uses no natural gas.

ABCs of equipment maintenance

The maintenance strategy at the Forks facility is based primarily on preventive methods. Victaulic adopted an "ABC priority system," which is defined as:

  • A is the highest maintenance priority; operations would shut down completely if the "A" equipment failed.
  • B is the second highest maintenance priority. Operations can continue to function, but at a greatly reduced level.
  • C is the lowest maintenance priority level. Failure of this equipment would have minimal impact on production. 

The ABC priority system helps Victaulic keep its equipment running efficiently and reliably. Except for regularly scheduled maintenance, the equipment is either running or available. Also, the company deals with the problem of aging equipment by monitoring cost of production vs. cost of replacement to determine when to invest in new equipment. Thanks to the ABC system, Victaulic has stayed on-or below-budget, while reducing downtime, which so far is down 18% from 2013.

Moving forward

The next step for Victaulic’s Forks facility is to keep working on continuous improvement. "The way we continuously improve is by using Lean principles to evaluate every facet of our organization," said Misiak. "We compare ourselves to the best industries in the world. We’ve set standards, processes, and have procedures in place. We hold ourselves accountable, measuring all the things we think are most important to run a very effective business. It’s an everyday process."

Martin agrees: "Overall, it’s a combination of all the people here working together as a team, to make that happen."

Across global operations, Victaulic is committed the continual improvement to the company’s organization, processes, and policies and procedures for the design, manufacture, and distribution of Victaulic products and services.

It’s amazing how far employee empowerment and employee ownership can go.

Original invention 

Grooved end pipe joining-or the "grooved" concept, as it is known today-was born in 1919 when Ernest Tribe, a British Royal Engineers Lieutenant and Dr. Henry Selby Hele-Shaw, a renowned engineer, finalized a patent application for the invention of the grooved mechanical coupling, filed on April 4, 1919. They introduced the first mechanical pipe joint to successfully use a mechanical coupling combined with grooved pipe ends to join piping systems.

Originally called "victory joint," they renamed their product the Victaulic pipe joint-which combined the words "VICTory" and "hydraulic" and The Victaulic Company, Limited was born. In 1922, the company began licensing patent and trademark rights it had acquired in other countries to permit the manufacture and marketing of products around the world under the Victaulic name. In 1925, Victaulic Co. of America was founded by Frederick H. Bedford, Jr. and James H. Hayes in New York City.

The Victaulic coupling quickly gained acceptance in a growing range of industries. The groove is roll formed, cast, or machined into the end (circumscribing) of the pipe or fitting. A gasket encompassed by the coupling housing is wrapped around the two grooved pipe ends. The key sections of the coupling housing engage the grooves. By tightening the bolts on the coupling housing, the housing compresses the gasket, applying pressure to both ends of the pipe and sealing the joint with the gasket.

– Jack Smith, Content Manager, CFE Media, 

See other Top Plant stories below.