Georgia Tech Packages Workflow Improvements to Help Alcan Increase Sales and Employment

R.J. Reynolds is one of a number of consumer product manufacturers that increasingly rely on customized packaging to reach different market demographics. The trend heralds a significant increase in business for Alcan Packaging Co.’s Peachtree City, Ga., printing plant, which mainly produces packaging for R.J. Reynolds’ numerous cigarette brands. But to take advantage of the opportunity, Alcan management had to figure out how to tighten their processes, and for that, they turned to Georgia Tech.

Typically, Alcan’s rotogravure press operated long continuous runs of up to 20 hours per job, according to general manager Chris Turk. R.J. Reynolds’ new approach meant that while the aggregate number of cigarette packages would be about the same, the total would be divided among several shorter runs, one for each different wrapper design. So the first key issue to be tackled for increasing capacity was how to reduce the time-consuming press set-up required for each new print job.

“Strategically it wasn’t a cost-reduction initiative,” said Turk. “We were trying to get ahead of where our customers are going.” The number of SKUs – manufacturing parlance for individual items – ordered by customers has doubled and sometimes tripled in recent years, he added.

“If we were to move from a relatively simplistic supply chain to a highly complex supply chain, from a few items to a very high-mix manufacturing environment, one of the things we needed to look at was set-up time reduction,” Turk said.

He contacted an old acquaintance, Derek Woodham, West Georgia region manager for Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Woodham visited the Peachtree City plant to outline Georgia Tech’s services and learn about Alcan’s needs.

“They recognized that to grow the business they had to look at their processes in terms of turning jobs around faster and freeing up capacity in the finished goods storage area as well as material handling,” Woodham said. “We conducted a kaizen related to setup reduction, and they took that training and application and applied it to all their presses.”

Kaizen is a learn-by-doing technique involving all employees and managers for implementing lean manufacturing and continuous improvement. The methodology focuses on process and results, systemic thinking and objectivity.

The reduction in set-up time was so successful in getting jobs through the press quickly that the pre-press work for new jobs couldn’t be ready fast enough, creating a delay. At the other end of the press, finished work quickly accumulated, creating a bottleneck. Workflow efficiency then became Woodham’s next target.

Finished goods come off the press and are stacked on pallets, which are then taken to a stretch-wrapping machine before going to the shipping area. It’s a straightforward process in theory, but had become a bit disorganized in practice.

“We created flow lanes for the finished goods area so the forklift drivers put material into designated locations instead of having things stacked all over the place randomly, ” Woodham explained. The new organization included a process for moving pallets to the stretch-wrap area that resulted in a steady flow of work to the machine, he noted. Previously, the haphazard material flow would leave the machine underutilized for periods of time, but double- or triple-booked at other times.

“They had been thinking about buying another stretch wrap machine to handle the crunch times,” Woodham said, “but by evening out the material flow, a second machine was not necessary.”

The value to Alcan of these changes and increased capacity is substantial, since they enabled the company to more than double its R.J. Reynolds’ account.

Alcan already had a little more than 40 percent of R.J. Reynolds’ cigarette packaging business when the company acquired the rest of the multi-million-dollar contract, according to Turk. “So we had to figure out how to fit more business into our existing plant until we could build a new one,” he said. “If we hadn’t been able to do that, I think we would have been in deep trouble because the contractual arrangements and agreements were fairly rigorous in terms of what would happen if you couldn’t supply the product – and more than doubling your business transcends just asking people to work overtime.”

The new business also added 25 new jobs, bringing Alcan-Atlanta’s total to 180, Turk noted.

With 31,000 employees at 140 sites in 30 countries, Alcan Packaging is a major player in specialty packaging for the food and beverage, pharmaceutical and medical, beauty, and tobacco markets. A company that size has extensive continuous improvement expertise available in-house, so why work with Georgia Tech?

The services offered by through the Enterprise Innovation Institute are, in a word, convenient, according to Turk.

“With Georgia Tech, we can tap into their lean enterprise programs when we want to, in whatever way we want, with as many people or as few people as we want,” he explained. “To me that’s a great opportunity. I might not know today that in a month I’ll need to take advantage of something they have to offer, but when that time comes, they’ll be ready to help.”

Another advantage, Turk noted, is that Georgia Tech experts like Derek Woodham bring an outsider’s perspective to the task. People within the company culture tend to think alike regardless of whether they work at a printing plant in Georgia or a printing plant in the United Kingdom, he noted.

“I think our kaizens were successful, at least in part, because nobody came in here with a pre-set notion of the way it ought to be.”

Corporate programs tend toward a one-size-fits-all approach and can be time-consuming as well as logistically inconvenient if a certain training session is held in a distant location.

“For the kaizen we ran last summer with Georgia Tech,” Turk said, “they came in, four days later they left, and we were done.

“I don’t think we even used 10 percent of what’s available at Georgia Tech to help us achieve what we were able to achieve. That’s the exciting part because from our standpoint here at Alcan Atlanta, this was a huge, huge success story for us.”

For more information on lean enterprise services offered by the Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute, contact Derek Woodham (706-881-0535); E-mail: (email hidden; JavaScript is required) or Tim Israel (404-894-2272); E-mail: (email hidden; JavaScript is required).

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Writer: Gary Goettling

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