Technical innovation and quality products have always been at the core of Teknor Apex Company, an international custom compounder of advanced polymer materials. The Pawtucket, RI-based company started as a tire sales and recapping business in the early 1920s and has since transitioned its business several times to reflect economic changes and market demand.
Founded in 1924 as Apex Tire Company the business quickly transitioned from selling and recapping tires to mixing and supplying rubber compound to be used in shoe soles and wire insulation. Before long, the company also added garden hoses to its list of offerings and became the largest producer of consumer garden hoses. By the late 1940s, the company added vinyl materials in its offerings to be used in a wide range of applications from wire and cable to automotive, consumer, medical and industrial products.
The 1970s through to the Millennium brought a slew of changes and major growth. Teknor began opening additional plants in South Carolina, Vermont, and Kentucky, to name a few. Teknor Apex now has seven business units producing advanced polymer materials focused on vinyl, thermoplastic elastomers, engineered thermoplastics, bioplastics and colorants; manufacturing facilities in nine locations in the U.S. and three in Singapore, the United Kingdom and China; and 1,800 employees.
Things, however, have shifted for Teknor Apex since the two key drivers behind the company’s business are the housing and automotive industries. “The common comment in the plant was if GM sells a car, we will make something,” said Teknor Apex’s Rhode Island Plant Manager, Chris ReCasino. “But both of those markets were absolutely depressed last year.”
Because the two industries were struck a hard blow from automotive business nearly going bankrupt and the housing market crashing, Teknor recognized it had to take a hard look at its business.
Teknor’s senior management team realized years ago that productivity gains were falling below expectations and were seeking proven methods of continuous improvement. Management experimented with several methods, but the best one was Lean Manufacturing.
Executives recognized one of the major problems was a loss of productivity due to machine downtime. Downtime for manufacturers occurs when employees need to changeover the machine to manufacture a different product or to provide maintenance to the machine.
The goal was to increase productivity through reduced downtime and overall, reduce conversion costs. It was not, however, going to be an easy challenge.
“We recognized we needed some help to put it all together and be more active in the use of outside resources,” ReCasino said. “(Polaris MEP, formerly RIMES – Rhode Island Manufacturing Extension Services) was selected because it was a state-supported program and one of our sister operations had success using (Polaris) to introduce the principles of Lean Manufacturing into their plant operations.”
Polaris was able to provide consulting services to Teknor because of its partnership with the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. The EDC provided some of the necessary grant funding for Polaris services.
The Pawtucket steering team did its homework on what Polaris had to offer in Lean Manufacturing, a system which helps a company produce more with existing resources by eliminating non-value added activities. Lean Manufacturing also establishes a systematic approach to eliminating waste and creating flow. One piece of Lean Manufacturing is the 5S System, a basic systematic approach to improve workplace organization, standardization and safety.
“After visiting our sister operation and a few other operations that utilized these principles, we were very enthusiastic about implementing it, but we did not know what would fit and what would not fit,” ReCasino said. “We had to be more creative and look at things from a rudimentary point of view.”Teknor implemented the 5S system of sorting, setting in order, shining, standardizing, and sustaining.
Polaris’ consultant Don Nester and the Steering Team at Teknor put together four teams in just over a year in hopes of empowering employees to help get rid of non-value added waste and to create positive change. “(Polaris) was one of the facilitators at the team meetings and they helped us assess our early stages of success or failure during steering committee meetings,” ReCasino said. “They helped us create the hands off management idea and let the machine operators and hourly employees make suggestions.”
Hearing what employees have to say is essential to any success, according to ReCasino. “The guys on the floor know how the machines work and operate better than I or even better than maintenance guys do.”
One of the biggest changes after implementing Polaris’s system was in Teknor’s Maintenance Department. Before Polaris came in Teknor’s Maintenance Department was located nearly 500 feet away from its manufacturing operation facility. “We were a fairly large operation at one time and it made sense at the time,” ReCasino said. “But maintenance should be in the heart of manufacturing.”
After assessing its location and using a “spaghetti diagram” to study their work patterns, the Maintenance Team recommended to management a relocation of some of the key maintenance operations. Executives were informed that it took 15 minutes of walking time to get to the site that required maintenance. Getting to the parts required an additional 15 minute walk back to the shop for parts and tools.
“Fifteen minutes per call and everybody gets a call every day and that is 20 people multiplied by 15 minutes results in four to five hours per day and that is just to go see what the problem is,” ReCasino said.
Teknor moved the maintenance shop and put it in the middle of the factory floor. The average downtime in 2007 was 1332 hours. By 2008, it was 985 hours and this year the company’s downtime for maintenance is down to 788 hours. The decrease in downtime resulted in cost savings because an hour of machine downtime at Teknor is approximately $200 per hour.
Positive results did not end there. Teknor’s Thermal Plastic Elastomer (TPE) production line team wanted to reduce product line changeover times, which includes taking a machine down, taking it apart, removing elements, cleaning it out and reassembling elements in a new configuration for the next product.
The process, on average, takes between 16 and 20 hours, with a changeover occurring six or seven times per month, according to ReCasino. “If the average process was 18 hours, we brought it down to 14,” he said. “And with teamwork we had it down to 12 hours.” Line 44 now wants to get the number of hours spent in a changeover below 12.
Teknor implemented the same system with its Vinyl Mixing team, referred to as Line 8 team. The yield, however, was much lower on Line 8 because changeover time was less complicated. Still, changeover time decreased from four hours to 2.5 hours on average.
Polaris together with Teknor also found non-value added waste in the chemical laboratory. The Lab team needed to improve chemical handling and the lab’s inventory process because tests that would normally take 15 minutes to conduct took 30 minutes because 15 minutes were wasted searching for materials. “The lab came up with a nice system of readily identifying where materials are and how they are sorted,” ReCasino said. “It reduced the hunting.”
Results in the Teknor lab were significant, according to ReCasino. The Physical Testing lab experienced a 10 percent increase in productivity and a five percent reduction in sample turnaround time. The Pilot Plant lab experienced a three percent increase in productivity and a 12 percent reduction in sample turnaround time. “Similar results have been seen throughout the other sections of our Laboratory,” ReCasino said.
“They are all very professional people at (Polaris),” ReCasino said. “Don Nester is the most familiar with our business because he came from a chemical business so there was an immediate buy in. He has been the essential piece in making sure we are using the same tools and being consistent.”
– Chris ReCasino, Rhode Island Plant Manager