Insulation Manufacturer Improves Business with Georgia Tech Assistance

Elliot Price, Deann Desai, Don Pital, Holly Grell-Lawe and Dennis Kelly, all Georgia Tech quality specialists, assisted Thermal Ceramics with re-tooling its quality management system.

Thermal Ceramics, an Augusta-based insulation manufacturer, has always been at the forefront of its industry. It is a world leader in the production of ceramic fiber products and insulating firebricks, as well as specialty insulation products. With more than 3,000 employees in more than 30 locations worldwide, Thermal Ceramics supplies customers in the petrochemical, chemical, automotive and power generation industries.

In the early 1990s, the Augusta, Ga. facility became ISO certified, meaning it was independently audited and certified to be in conformance with quality management standards maintained by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). However, by 2005 the system had begun to lose its relevance.

“In 2005, we recognized that our ISO system was the old version and it wasn’t functioning for us anymore. It was burdensome,” recalled Sherri Pettigrew, environmental health and safety/quality assurance manager for Thermal Ceramics. “We contacted Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute to see if it would help us revamp and streamline our ISO system to meet our current needs with our current level of staffing.”

Elliot Price, Deann Desai, Don Pital, Holly Grell-Lawe and Dennis Kelly, all Georgia Tech quality specialists, assisted Thermal Ceramics with re-tooling its quality management system. ISO 9001 is an international quality management system standard that presents fundamental management and quality assurance practices applicable to any organization. Companies that are ISO 9001 certified have a demonstrated baseline of managerial discipline and control, and they also have higher rates of customer satisfaction.

Throughout the process, the Georgia Tech team reviewed the company’s documentation, developed a system that had a more value-added process and identified training needs. Team members also conducted a gap audit, helped with the development of an implementation plan, assisted with initial internal audits and management review, conducted a pre-assessment audit and corrected any system issues prior to the registration audit.

“We threw out almost everything and started from the ground up,” Pettigrew said. “Then we decided we were going to be ISO 14001 certified, so Georgia Tech built that system from scratch for us as well.”

ISO 14001, the international specification for an environmental management system, helps organizations develop a process to reduce negative environmental impacts caused by their operations while also complying with applicable laws and regulations. Like ISO 9001, ISO 14001 focuses on the process rather than the end product. The Georgia Tech team helped Thermal Ceramics integrate the two standards into one, and served as the company’s internal auditors.

“Our employees thought of our ISO system as just a bunch of paper and manuals sitting on a shelf, and they didn’t understand the value. Truthfully, there really was no value in that old system,” Pettigrew noted. “The big hurdle that we overcame was getting people to understand that the new system was going to be helpful to them. We actually went from a burdensome paper system to something that’s online and totally electronic, so it’s easier to maintain.”

Pettigrew estimates that as a result of becoming ISO 9001 and 14001 certified, Thermal Ceramics was able to increase its sales by $6 million while saving $2 million in costs. The company, which employs a total of 450 people at its Augusta facility, was also able to add seven employees.

On the heels of its quality and environmental standards success, Thermal Ceramics also sought assistance from the Enterprise Innovation Institute in the area of lean management principles, a set of tools that helps organizations identify and steadily eliminate waste from their operations. Paul Todd, a Georgia Tech lean specialist, led an executive introduction to lean, a 5S overview and planning session and 5S training and implementation. 5S refers to five Japanese words: seiri (remove what is not needed and keep what is needed); seiton (place things in such a way that they can be easily reached whenever they are needed); seiso (keep things clean and polished); seiketsu (maintain cleanliness after cleaning); and shitsuke (sustain the improvements over time). In English, the steps become sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain.

“We were very aggressive with the lean implementation. We had four teams that represented each of the three manufacturing areas plus a warehouse/shipping group,” Pettigrew explained. “We did everything from painting the lines for hoppers and pallets to getting rid of the clutter to implementing visual cues and labeling. We did it all.”

Currently, Thermal Ceramics is conducting lean projects in the areas of energy reduction, downtime reduction, safety, increasing melting efficiency, and shipping error reduction. Weekly 5S meetings are also held to maintain the momentum.

In December 2007, the Augusta operation of Thermal Ceramics – which spans 58 acres and 10 buildings – sought Georgia Tech’s assistance in the high-impact area of energy management. As part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Industrial Assessment Center program, Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute can provide energy, waste and productivity assessment at no charge to small- and mid-sized manufacturers.

Mike Brown and Pierpaolo Baldisserotto, Georgia Tech energy specialists, visited the Thermal Ceramics plant to evaluate the company’s challenges, problems and solutions. They studied the facility’s energy consumption history and measured the major energy-consuming equipment. Along with several Georgia Tech co-op students, they produced a report that included a number of recommendations, including recovering fiber waste, recovering heat from the kiln exhaust, repairing air leaks and replacing desiccant air dryers with refrigerated dryers. The report estimates that Thermal Ceramics could save more than $1.8 million – 22 percent of the facility’s annual energy costs – by implementing its recommendations.

“Having Georgia Tech come in and assist us in these different areas has really worked for us,” said Pettigrew. “We’re better now than we have ever been.”

About Enterprise Innovation Institute:
The Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute helps companies, entrepreneurs, economic developers and communities improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation. It is one of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation.

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Writer: Nancy Fullbright