Monroe is Firth Rixson's Lean Leader

April 2, 2006
The emphasis on Lean Manufacturing at Firth Rixson Ltd.'s Rochester, NY, operation has earned it a leading position among suppliers of forgings to the global aerospace industry.

Firth Rixson Monroe’s specialty is producing seamless rings and components for bearings for aerospace application. However, it’s the development of a Lean Manufacturing culture throughout the Rochester, NY, operation that has positioned FRL Monroe as a leader in the worldwide aerospace bearings marketplace.

The division of Firth Rixson Ltd. developed a "lean" culture within its organization by implementing Lean Manufacturing principles, and that has paid off handsomely for the Monroe plant, as well as for the company.

FRL is a member of the Suppliers Excellence Alliance (SEA), a consortium of aerospace Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) dedicated to improving aerospace supply chains. The company’s efforts were honored when Michael Carr, general manager of Monroe was invited to become a board member of SEA. He was installed on the SEA board of directors at a recent meeting.

As Carr explains: "We were invited because we are considered to be a very ‘lean’ supplier, and the OEMs in the alliance are working to implement lean manufacturing throughout the supply base."

Importance of lean manufacturing

The "lean" journey began in 2000, when all of the employees were first trained in lean manufacturing principles. The need to embrace "lean" soon became evident as the industry slumped to record lows following the events of September 11, 2001.

Today, Mike Carr believes that the business falloff after 9/11 underscored the importance of lean manufacturing for the organization and its people. "We all realized we had to get better or the organization was not going to exist. It provided a real urgency to becoming a lean organization."

At Monroe, the management believes it is important for everyone in the facility to participate in lean manufacturing training. The facility is implementing refresher courses to make sure all employees are familiar with the concepts.

There are tangible results from the emphasis on lean. Engineering manager Marty Weiner reports, "As a result of working at being lean, we’ve gotten very fast in turnaround on an order. If we have the material in inventory, we can produce an order in three to four weeks". The reduction in lead time has been favorably recognized by the marketplace.

In its pursuit of lean manufacturing, the organization is working on continuing improvement. "We’re working to standardize operations," Weiner says. "We’re getting away from the process inconsistencies which were dependent on operator know-how. We’ve had a lot of success in this effort. We’ve had the buy-in from the shop floor by teaming the engineering department with the operators to develop standard work procedures.

"Our involvement in lean thinking has lead to continued growth in annual sales, plus an increase in inventory turns without adding to the head count," he concludes.

The payoff in inventory turns can be measured this way: in 2002, inventory turns averaged four turns. By 2005, they averaged 14 turns. Likewise, first-pass yields improved from 95.6% in 2002 to 98.1% in 2005. These improvements were accomplished while a significant number of new parts was being introduced into production.

When faced with production-related issues, the Monroe managers state that they rely on root-cause analysis rather than immediately focusing on human error. This approach produces better results and prevents re-occurrences of the same problem.

According to Mary Lindsay, Monroe’s human resources executive, when things go wrong, "We ask three questions: 1. What happened? 2. How do we fix it? 3. What can we do to keep it from happening again? We don’t blame the employee."

More effective communication

The need for good communication is heavily emphasized at FRL Monroe. Lindsay states, "Mike Carr points out to our employees that we want their ideas. This is part of our culture."

Until three years ago, all company engineers worked in the "front office" section of the complex. Then, the engineering staff made a literal move to improve communications — they relocated from the front office into work space out on the shop floor. Carr points out that "All our engineers now are out with the operations on the shop floor," and as a result, communications have greatly improved.

Weiner adds, "I can see the big ring-rolling mill from my office window."

And Mike Belmont, FRL Monroe’s operations manager, says, "Nobody is shy these days. Contact and a response among employees is very quick. We all have cell phones on the shop floor."

According to Belmont, "The evolution began with bar coding all our labor. PCs were located at every station. E-mail is available at each station. We followed up on that with cellular phone use."

Bonus incentive system

FRL is phasing in a bonus system throughout its organization, by which employee compensation is tied to profitability. Implementation began about two years ago.

The system creates opportunities for employees to earn bonuses. "We have successfully rolled out bonus plans at four locations, with outstanding results," Carr states. "Implementing a bonus plan across the remaining 11 facilities is a key ingredient in our plan to educate, motivate, and reward employees."

The introduction of a bonus system is an approach that management feels will align the work force with the company’s business objectives. It reportedly is already working well in the four U.S. operations. The full implementation of a bonus pay plan throughout the organization is expected to establish a reward structure that gives employees strong, positive incentives to make necessary changes.

Belmont observes that he has worked in other bonus systems over his 20 years of experience. In most of those instances, he believes the "carrots" (rewards) were not within reach and the systems did not work out.

"Our long-term employees have seen the attempts in the past, and the failures in the past," Belmont says. "We knew we needed to convince them, because they had the most to offer."

The current system appears to be working. There is buy-in to the system, according to Carr and Belmont.

There is another very important facet to the FRL program: cross-training is offered to hourly employees. This is offered with the theme: "Versatility is value." Employees appreciate that they are valuable assets.

According to Belmont, "During annual review, we review the knowledge and know-how of the employees. It is a key to their promotion."

Forging cell

The newest production system at FRL Monroe is a manufacturing cell with three forge furnaces, a 1,500-ton United flattening press (with mechanical and control upgrading); a SMS RICA200 vertical mill; and a rail-mounted Andromat AM2000 manipulator. The SMS RICA200 mill and the manipulator were new purchases for the cell.

The SMS RICA200 mill can produce rings ranging in size from 6 to 40 in. in outside diameter (OD), with face heights of 1.63-18 in. The mill can produce rings up to 1,500 lb in steel alloys, 600 lb in nickel-base alloys, or 800 lb in titanium-base alloys.

Currently, the cell is being served by a 2,000-ton Bliss press for producing forged pre-forms for the RICA200. A 3,000-ton Lake Erie press is being installed to complete the RICA200 cell.

The operator of the Andromat performs all necessary forging operations from the cab of the manipulator. The operator has the ability to operate all supporting forge furnaces, the 1,500-ton United press, and program all necessary operations for the RICA200. As described in Forging (January/February 2002, p. 29), all control actions for the the Andromat AM2000 are performed by the operator using only one hand, so, in effect, the master arm functions like an extension of the operator’s arm.

Operating the manipulator has been easy for the crew to learn, and it has made the cell very efficient. According to Belmont, the manipulator has worked out very well. "We’ve gone from a five-person crew to essentially one person," he explains.

Other operations

The plant uses two other ring-rolling mills, a 125/100 Wagner mill and a 35/22 Mitsubishi mill. Nearby furnaces are used for preheating cut mults.

The 125/100 Wagner mill produces rings ranging from 12 to 72 in. OD. The 125/100 mill rolls rings weighing up to 1,500 lb in steel alloy, 600 lb in Ni-base alloy, and 800 lb Ti-base alloy. This mill is supported by a 750-ton expander, which can size rings up to 60 in. ID. Like the RICA200 mill, the 125/100 ring mill obtains the forged pre-forms from the 2,000-ton Bliss press.

The 35/22 Mitsubishi mill produces small rings, ranging in OD from 4 to 14 in. This mill produces rings weighing up to 35 lb of steel alloy, 20 lb Ni-base alloy, and 30 lb of Ti-base alloy. The forged pre-forms are supplied by a 1,500-ton Bliss press.

FRL Monroe’s sawing department consists of five saws: three band saws, all of which are automated with regard to feeds, speeds, and piece length, and two abrasive saws. All the saws are equipped with a weigh scale to control input weight.

A heat-treating department is operated around the clock, seven days a week. It includes four pit furnaces of two different sizes, two box furnaces, one equipped with oil quenching, and another with water quenching, plus a car bottom furnace that can be used for solution heat treating

FRL Monroe maintains a small conditioning area that operates on a limited basis, relating to the transition from hammered pre-forms to pressed pre-forms that utilize dedicated tools.

Finally, the plant’s preventative maintenance program is designed to ensure that all operators perform preventative maintenance procedures on a daily basis.