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Building Better Brakes

Here's how a "museum of manufacturing" is one of the most productive manufacturing plants on the planet.

Although MIT is probably the school most associated with the idea of "lean manufacturing" because two out of the three authors of The Machine That Changed the World were associated with the university (James P. Womack and Daniel Roos), the third author, Daniel T. Jones, is with the Cardiff School of Business in Wales, an outfit that continues to be one of the primary proponents of lean.

One of the studies that the school did was of the major worldwide brake manufacturing companies. "We did very well," says David Saylor of Kelsey-Hayes, VarityKelsey-Hayes, Light Vehicle Braking Systems. Saylor is plant manager at the company's 187,000-ft2 plant in Jackson, Michigan, where they are producing brakes for a variety of customers, including Chrysler (their biggest customer, as the plant produces calipers for vehicles ranging from the Intrepid to the Prowler, from the minivan to the Neon), Ford, GM, Tower Automotive, Dana, and American Axle. Brakes produced in Jackson go to sites in North America, South America, Europe, and even China. They produce approximately 14,000 calipers per day. 10,000 wheel cylinders. 2,500 rear drums and hats. In addition, they also machine 4,000 rear wheel ABS valve bodies.

About that "We did very well"—to which he added, "Since then we've done a lot of work internally to improve on that." The plant scored at the top of the chart.

Dave Saylor, plant manager at the highly productive VarityKelsey-Hayes plan in Jackson, MI. Speaking of equipment, he remarks, "'Up-to-date' is irrelevant. What matters is that equipment be flexible. We've learned that lesson long and hard.

If you visit the Jackson Plant, you'll see what Saylor describes as "a museum of manufacturing."

They've got it all. There are fixed-head and CNC dial machines. Synchronous and nonsynchronous transfer lines. Stand-alone CNC machines. There are even "good old fashioned drill presses," as Saylor puts it.

In the assembly areas there are two "long, massive, 1970-era mass production lines." There is a line with pallets and DC motors that power the pallets around a track. There is an assembly cell where pallets float on a ball-bearing table.

"By cherry-picking the best approach, we've had some success," he remarks with consistent understatement.

Green-field sites aren't the only places that can excel.

Don't think for a minute that any of this is willy-nilly. It does, however, fly in the face of expectations.

Referencing the study, for example, Saylor says that although some people might have anticipated that there would be some carefully orchestrated, consistent methodology, "There's been no lock-step dogma followed here in terms of how we're going to manufacture, no, `Single-piece flow is the only way to go' or `Only a high-volume, massive continuous-flow process.' It's whatever's best."

Although heterogeneity may reign on the plant floor, Saylor—like the corporation over all—subscribes to the economic value-added (EVA) methodology. So when he is assessing things, he looks at units per man hour, units per hour per million dollars invested, units per square foot, and capital charge per unit.

"Each time an increment of capacity comes in," Saylor says, "I benchmark to determine where we are internally for that type of commodity, whether it is a twin-pot caliper, single-pot, or whatever. Then I drive the manufacturing engineering people to make sure that equipment specifications allow improvement in all of those measures if at all possible."

The corporation has a centralized Advanced Manufacturing Engineering organization. It is in Livonia, MI, in metro Detroit, which is an hour or so away from Jackson. While in the past equipment procurement was done by the plant, it was centralized a few years ago so there could be more homogeneity among the corporation's facilities around the world, not only in terms of machinery, but with regard to sharing best practices.

"One thing of done here that works reasonably well," he notes, "is what I call `Donut Diplomacy.'" Meaning, he buys donuts. And so the launch meetings for the projects occur not in Livonia, but in the plant in Jackson. The various managers, engineers, and plant people get together. "Here is where it is all happening. If there is a floor-space issue, then it is just a matter of walking out on the floor and pacing it off. If there is a doubt about a financial aspect, then I can come in and help. Every resource is here."

He adds, "It's healthy. And it works."

Once, about 25 years ago, the Jackson site was actually a division. There were some 2,000 people. Then through the 70s and 80s there was consolidation. Two plants became one. The number of people working there now is approximately 250. When Saylor came to the plant, the workforce consisted of people with either 27 years or more seniority or three years and less. The split was 85/15. "This has forced us to do a lot of training," he says. Now the split is on the order of 55/45.

"Every month I lose three people. That's 100 years of experience walking out the door. This is tough, but we've had to manage it."

Evidently, they have. In an excellent manner.