When entrepreneurs Sherrie Ford and Steve Hollis purchased an Athens manufacturing facility previously owned by the Swiss conglomerate ABB six years ago, one of their first items of business was to realign the company’s mission. Founded in 1958 by Westinghouse, the 400-employee company now known as Power Partners continues to manufacture the pole-type distribution transformers that help bring electric power to homes and businesses throughout the world, but with an innovative business angle.
“Our mission is no longer just to make the best transformers on the market, but also to not be put out of work ever. We can make anything as long as we’re able to keep the employment base,” stated Ford, chairman and executive vice president of culture. “Adding a breakthrough technology product that addresses global warming fulfills our ‘reinventing manufacturing’ promise to the work culture, a step toward securing at least these 400 manufacturing jobs, and creating a role model for others to consider.”
In 2007, Power Partners expanded its product line to manufacture solar water heater systems, which use solar energy to heat water and can provide up to 85 percent of the energy needed to produce domestic hot water. Systems are composed of solar thermal collectors, a fluid system that moves heat from the collector to the point of usage. According to commercial operations manager Scott Childs, Power Partners is initially marketing the systems to utility companies and dealers.
“The solar water heater system is going to provide hot water mainly in the summer, when electricity is most valuable to a utility, and the system will use more electricity in the winter when there is plenty of electrical capacity,” he noted. “We think that situation will marry well with our product, in addition to the utilities’ increased focus on green.”
In addition to the distribution transformers and the solar water heater systems, Power Partners has the exclusive North American rights to begin manufacturing adsorption chillers, a product that can substantially reduce operating costs by converting waste heat into cool air. Ford says she is excited about the new product’s potential.
“When combined with other technologies, adsorption chillers create about as low an impact on the environment as you can get. This is really going to revolutionize the way architects and construction firms think about their designs,” Ford said.
With all of the focus on manufacturing environmentally responsible products, it made sense for Power Partners to examine its own manufacturing processes. After working on projects in lean manufacturing and quality standards with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, Ford contacted the organization again to conduct an energy assessment.
In July 2008, Bob Hitch, a project manager with the Enterprise Innovation Institute, evaluated Power Partners’ process heating systems – annealing, welding, drying and painting – for potential energy-saving opportunities, an estimated energy savings of 30 percent. As a result of the recommendations, Power Partners is replacing its water-cooled bearings with high-temperature graphite bearings. Earlier assessment of the general facility energy usage by Hitch and the Power Partners engineers led to the update of lighting in the plant to T5 and T8 high-efficiency units, and replacement of outdated air compressors.
“By changing the bearings and the lighting and the compressors, we have saved an estimated $600,000 easily,” said Mike Stonecipher, vice president for technical services. “Those are realized savings and we now have a whole philosophy and set of tools to move us forward.”
Power Partners also participated in a November 2008 project for the Green Supplier Network, a partnership between the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership. In addition to Hitch, the project was facilitated by Bill Ritsch of the Enterprise Innovation Institute and Dan Loudermilk of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Pollution Prevention Assistance Division. The work was sponsored by Power Partners’ customer, Pepco Holdings, Inc.
“The primary objective of this three-day project was to identify opportunities for reductions of waste energy, material and inventories by creating a value stream map, which is a diagram used to analyze the flow of materials and information required to bring a product to a consumer,” recalled Hitch. “A team of key players was chosen, and this group was effective in seeing beyond the current processes by proposing a future state map that included some impressive gains in productivity, material usage and environmental reductions.”
The improvement ideas included operating the paint line during one shift only, creating a single point of contact for ordering tanks, rearranging the tank wall inventory to minimize travel, reconfiguring conveyors to improve material flow, minimizing repair stations by combining repairs where possible, and re-using the waste water from the paint area. However, Stonecipher says that the most significant improvement was completing a “green” value stream map for all plant processes.
“As part of lean manufacturing, we were familiar with the value process map. But what we had not done was look at it in terms of the environment. That was the first time we had taken a process map of a section of the factory and done it in accordance to our waste streams,” he said. “Now when we do a process map, that’s a standard part of it. From a lean and practice standpoint, lean green is a new tool that’s been brought to the equation.”
Power Partners realized other benefits as a result of the Green Supplier Network Project. Tank inventory was reduced by 34 percent, total supply chain lead time for tanks went from more than 17 days to less than a week, water usage was reduced by 10,000 gallons per day, quality improved and productivity increased. Stonecipher notes that while not all of the results were measurable, they were all beneficial.
Power Partners, which was recognized in 2007 as the seventh largest woman-owned business in America as certified by the Washington, D.C.-based Women’s Enterprise Business National Council, plans to use Georgia Tech’s assistance in the future to focus on pumps and motors, as well as ways to capture waste heat and re-use it so it can install its own adsorption chiller.
“We are people who are continually looking for creativity and innovation, and doing things that are not business as usual,” said Ford.
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Writer: Nancy Fullbright