It’s time to share

Posted on 4 Jan 2010 by The Manufacturer

The modern factory engineer is as likely to be devising a value stream map, or filming a production process to be intranet-cast to a Chinese sister factory, as he is operating a machine tool. Steve Burgess, continuous improvement project engineer at GKN Wheels, says knowledge-sharing between sites is crucial.

With six sites worldwide — where each one manufactures various types of product but using similar technologies — creating commonality and sharing best practice are vital elements in the continued development of GKN Wheels’ business.

Being part of GKN plc, the off-highway wheels business is able to tap into the knowledge and expertise of other group companies operating in the quality-driven automotive (GKN Driveline) and aerospace sectors (GKN Aerospace).

The central engineering source at GKN Wheels Telford is responsible for spearheading a number of initiatives designed to promote best practice and assist production managers in applying lean thinking and achieving performance and/or productivity gains.

At a time when the opportunity for capital investment is limited due to pressure on costs, the main focus for sharing best practice is how to get the best out of existing manufacturing systems.

Over the past year, the business has been concentrating on how to improve its approach to preventative maintenance, thus improving process continuity at the same time as eliminating unexpected repair costs and downtime.

Preventing downtime
The ‘maintenance roadmap’ was designed and developed to encompass all the production processes and equipment in use across each of the company’s manufacturing sites in the UK, Denmark, Italy, the US and China. Based on 22 preventative steps, the roadmap quantifies the need for spares and identifies specific areas where maintenance is needed to prevent or minimise the risk of process downtime.

Regular oil analysis is used to check that rim or disk production lines are running smoothly and thermal-imaging cameras help to identify potential ‘hot spots’ where motorised equipment is in constant use or at risk of overheating. In some instances, the analysis of each site’s maintenance requirements has led to capital investment in new equipment or parts. At GKN Wheels Italy, for example, specific issues relating to the plant’s electrical supply led to investment in new electrical cabinets to minimise the risk downtime caused by outages.

To get the most out of production processes, the central engineering source also gets involved in a variety of one-off productivity improvement projects. This can involve re-laying out a process area to achieve a more efficient product flow, line balancing or looking at new technologies. A recent development within GKN’s OffHighway division has led to one of GKN Axles’ production lines moving to GKN Wheels Italy. Following a re-mapping exercise it was found that it was possible to direct more product through the automated welding system, thus streamlining the process and bringing significant productivity benefits.

A global perspective
As well as running site-specific local events, global changeover events are organised regularly to share best practice by improving process flow. These events involve getting together a selected group of individuals from across the business to complete a quick changeover on a selected key piece of equipment. These events are not restricted to GKN Wheels and from time to time they are organised with representatives from other GKN divisions.

Practising changeovers helps to improve setup times, therefore reducing inventory and adding flexibility in production planning. In the US, a global changeover event recently took place to test how long it would take to set up and dismantle expander blocks which are used to stretch the metal part.

Each block was removed and set by hand, which contributed to significant downtime during process changeovers, which had been taking just under two hours. By using an automated device, which had been tried and tested at GKN Wheels Denmark, the event team established that it was possible to reduce the changeover time to just 14 minutes – a reduction of 87%.

In 2008, GKN Wheels became the first business owned by GKN plc to trial ‘SharePoint’ — a bespoke intranet that aims to drive continuous improvement across its global operations by facilitating information-sharing. According to Will Logsdail, IT/PCIL director at GKN Wheels, SharePoint has transformed the way that the business shares documents by providing an ‘ITsupported backbone’ to help engage collaborative teams and drive business improvements.

The intranet site’s content is controlled and managed by managers in all areas of the business, from finance and health and safety managers to the central engineering source and production.

One of the most popular areas of the site is the new video library, which has already accumulated approximately 100 mini-films of production lines and specific pieces of equipment in use. Creating a visual archive, which production managers and engineers can consult, has allowed companies to compare technologies and apply them locally. In particular, there have already been examples of sites adopting tried and tested handling aids for heavy steel parts, such as hooks and lifting devices.

Of course, another advantage of using video in this way is that it eradicates language barriers, which is particularly helpful when working with engineers in different parts of the world, especially in China where Mandarin is the first language.

Sharing is the key
The modern engineer has arguably never had a more critical or varied role to play in driving business performance and delivering value. For a central source engineer at GKN Wheels, this can mean initiating everything from a value stream mapping exercise; organising a global changeover event; assessing the need for capital investment to getting out a camcorder to film an updated process line.

For global manufacturing businesses, the ability to extend commonality at the same time as sponsoring improvements is crucial to driving business performance. Knowledge-sharing, both within GKN Wheels and with other GKN businesses, is the key.