Flexible Thinking

How Need, Innovation, Team Work & a Whole Bunch of Machining Centers Have Transformed TRW Tillsonburg Into a Model of Lean Manufacturing.

The Setting

TRW's Tillsonburg, Ontario, plant is part of the corporation's Chassis Systems business...which means that the approximately 430 people at the sites (there are two facilities that are considered a unit) produce upper and lower control arms, ball joints, stabilizer links, steering linkages, and suspension components for the Big Three, Nissan, and Honda (they ship to 32 assembly plants)...which means that there is an extensive amount of machining being conducted in the plant: some 43,000 parts are being produced each day, and while there are some stampings employed—and they do assembly and E-coat operations—TRW Tillsonburg is thought to machine more forged steel control arms than any other plant, anywhere.

"OK," you're thinking. "A plant that produces plenty of parts. So what?"

The what that makes TRW Tillsonburg notable consists of a couple of things. One is that the high-volume plant has, for reasons of competitiveness, standardized on machining centers (the last time they installed transfer lines was in 1987; machining centers hit the floor in '94). Second is that the plant—which is doing business for well-regarded models including those from Saturn, the DaimlerChrysler LH cars, and the Ford Explorer—has received quality awards for its work to such an extent that it is clear that Tillsonburg is at the top of its game (e.g., when we visited mid-year, the reject rate was 2.8 ppm; the target is 0...and Quality manager Rob Davies and his colleagues have determined that 50% of the ppm rejects are a result of things supplied to them, not problems resulting from within the walls of their plant).

The F-150's great market success lead to a near doubling of demand for control arms (sets for 662,000 vehicles to 1,124,000 vehicles) in three years, which TRW Tillsburg was able to accommodate with efficiency thanks to its organizational approach to lean production.

The Approach in Action

The whole approach at TRW Tillsonburg is to produce in a lean, efficient manner. "Lean" means, simply, with as little waste as possible. As in not wasting time. Not wasting resources. Not wasting money. One of the problems that they'd had with transfer lines, explains Jim Whitehead, Human Resources manager at the plant, is that when the last equipment was put in, for the Thunderbird and previous-generation Cougar, the vehicles didn't sell as well as had been anticipated. So the transfer line had a capacity that was never realized. That meant that there was a waste of resources, space, money, time, training...lots of things.

So, when new work was gained, Dan Verbuyst, Plant Operations manager, points out, they opted for machining centers: "One of the biggest advantages they offer is the ability to reutilize their capabilities." It is much less time-consuming—and less expensive—to change over a machining center from one part to another than it is to change a transfer machine. (There are approximately 50 machining centers at use in the plant, with the Makino A55+ being represented in the greatest numbers.) Terry Nancekivell, process engineer, adds that they are working to standardize on fixtures and tooling wherever they can, which further facilitates cost-effective changeover.

Continuous improvement is the name of the game. Consider the case of producing control arms for the Ford F-150 (4x2 and 4x4 models). Originally, in 1996, there was a demand for parts for 662,000 vehicles. They did it with four vertical twin spindle lathes, six horizontal machining centers, three bushing presses, and two dial assembly machines. The volume was increased to 937,000 vehicles in 1997.

Consider the situation with machining centers used in the part processing. There was originally one operator. Six machining centers organized into two cells. In 255 seconds, four pieces were produced. In order to help accommodate the production increase in '97, two more machining centers were added (four machines in two cells) and there was 1/2 operator added to achieve the increase. The cycle time remained the same.

In 1999, the contract calls for suspension components for 1,124,000 vehicles. So in the horizontal machining center area there are now one operator and four cells, each consisting of two machines. The cycle time has been decreased by 22% so that they are now able to obtain four parts in 200 seconds. They've worked the tooling so that instead of requiring three tools to machine the part, just two are necessary.

And there have been similar improvements in the other processes (i.e., turning, e-coat, bushing install, ball joint assembly, seal dial assembly) required to produce the parts.

Imagine what a less-efficient operation would have required in order to achieve this increase. Lots of new equipment and even new buildings come to mind—but given the speed of the ramp, it would be unlikely that a traditional approach would be able to meet the timing requirements.

The People

Equipment is one thing. But a company doesn't get lean by using machining centers. Efficiencies like that for the F-150 programs aren't gained simply by having better cutting tools.

The real issue behind the success that is being realized each and every day at Tillsonburg is a result of the people in the plant thinking. All of the people. (And it is worth noting that management started out on the floor, so they know very well what the real conditions are.)

In 1991, prior to the start of flexible manufacturing, self-directed work teams were formed in the plant; there are some 28 of these teams operating today. One of the initial areas of focus of the teams was total productive maintenance (TPM), which is carried out today. Prior to TPM, approximately 90% of the maintenance performed was done so on an emergency basis: something would break, and the fix would need to be expedited. Which is about four times as expensive as normal costs. That is clearly a waste of money. Things still break at Tillsonburg. But the emergency work is now down to 15%. Equipment effectiveness helps buy time (if the machines are running, then they are paying for themselves).

There are a series of other programs at Tillsonburg. There is a cost-effectiveness program that concentrates on such things as achieving improvements in labor and tooling costs (in 1997 they were able to get 2,561 ideas, of which 80% were completed, which translated into an annual savings of $2.8 million). There is on-going training and communications (Whitehead: "In a traditional system, the boss tells the people what to do. In a self-directed work team environment, the boss gives information on what needs to be done and supplies the tools, information and training needed to do it.") There are other activities, all aimed at being more effective.

The Consequences

All of this is a lot of work. Maintaining the status quo is always easier in the short run. It can be fatal in the long run. But the people at Tillsonburg understand that the world isn't standing still (e.g., future trends may mean that instead of steel control arms, they may be aluminum...or stampings...or hydroformings...or fiber-reinforced plastics) and that they have to do whatever it takes to at least keep pace, if not get ahead of the curve. Jim Whitehead puts it quite simply: "The more competitive we are, the better our ability to attract new work." So far, so good.