South Georgia Truss Manufacturer Improves Bottom Line with Georgia Tech Assistance

Lee Matthews, operations manager for Universal Forest Products, and Art Ford, south Georgia region manager for the Enterprise Innovation Institute, discuss lean issues in the Ashburn facility.

Assembling wooden roof trusses used in building construction can be a little like putting together a puzzle. Many different parts must first be cut to the right size and shape, then placed into the proper location on the truss.

Until recently, the flow of these parts had been a complicated and time-consuming process for workers at Universal Forest Products in Ashburn. After being cut, thousands of parts were first stored in a rack, then moved to a cart which held the components needed for a particular truss. At the end of each work day, the cart was moved to a storage location, then returned to the assembly location when work resumed the next day.

“We didn’t have a problem building the trusses – we build about 9,000 a week – but cutting all those components was challenging,” said Lee Matthews, operations manager for the Ashburn, Ga., facility. “I was running high in overtime, and we even went as far as putting on a small second shift. We needed a better flow.”

It was not uncommon to have as many as 16,000 pieces cut and stored, waiting for assembly. Now that number is zero – thanks to a continuous improvement initiative instituted by the company with help from the Enterprise Innovation Institute at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The improvement process began when management and front-line supervisors from the company completed lean training offered by the Enterprise Innovation Institute. The leadership group learned how to eliminate overproduction from traditional scheduling systems, produce products based on customer demand and utilize value stream mapping as a tool to guide implementation efforts. Value stream maps are diagrams used to analyze the flow of materials and information required to bring a product or service to a consumer.

Sam Darwin, a Georgia Tech lean specialist, led the initial sessions as part of Universal Forest Products’ corporate training effort that brought participants from around the country for two days of internal training and a lean overview. Since then, training sessions have been conducted in five other states in addition to five plants in Georgia. In total, Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute has led 32 projects for the company.

“The decision to partner with Georgia Tech was a simple one,” Matthews recalled. “We asked them to help us analyze where we could improve flow in regards to cutting the components for roof trusses.”

John Stephens and Jennifer Trapp-Lingenfelter, Georgia Tech lean specialists, visited the Ashburn facility and met with management to discuss the facility’s issues. They suggested developing a value stream map on the entire process of making roof trusses – from raw material all the way through the finished product.

“I realized we needed to look at the whole picture, not just the cutting operations,” noted Stephens. “This would help identify where the true bottlenecks were forming and why.”

To identify opportunities for improvement, the team working on the value stream map measured how far the individual truss components had to travel and then brainstormed ways to reduce that. Matthews admits he initially had his doubts.

“I’ve been in this business 21 years and worked with 15 plants all over the United States. I felt like I had pretty much seen it all – been there and done that,” he said. “John suggested that we work toward a one-piece flow system. I thought was he was crazy, but he asked me to try just one machine.”

After trying it once, Matthews was convinced to implement the idea on all of his presses. The Ashburn facility is now the only plant among all of Universal Forest Product’s 80 locations to have one-piece flow. The plant also implemented visual cues for scheduling the various components to be cut.

“Before implementing lean, I had to store a lot of small pieces. At any given time I had about $40,000 worth of work-in-process (WIP) on the yard. That $40,000 is now down to about $10,000,” Matthews said. “And for trusses we build for manufactured housing customers, we have zero WIP on the floor at the end of each day.”

The Ashburn plant has also seen a decrease in the amount of time it takes to schedule work orders. Before, it would take a production manager approximately two and a half hours each day to schedule the thousands of components needed; now it is done in a matter of minutes as a result of the visual cues. According to Matthews, this has also cut down on the number of mistakes made and improved product quality. In 2007, on-time delivery was 77.1 percent; thus far in 2008, it has increased to 84.1 percent.

“We have customers who are beginning their journey into lean manufacturing and have requested tours of our facility because of our success story,” Matthews noted. “This has had a very positive influence partnering and building relationships with our customers.”

Another area greatly impacted by the lean implementation was in safety. In addition to reducing forklift and banding exposure, employees no longer need to climb on tables to load overhead racks and they eliminated loading and unloading above shoulder height.

“Because we’ve removed so many non-value added steps, I’m ready to reduce my forklift fleet by three,” he said. “We’re also saving thousands of dollars a year because we implemented a point-of-use storage and we have reduced overtime in the truss area by 20 percent.”

In fact, the value stream map project proved to be so successful in the truss area that Matthews decided to conduct a similar project in the finger joint department at the beginning of 2008. Finger joints are made by making a set of complementary rectangular cuts in two pieces of wood, which are then glued. The finger-jointed boards that Universal Forest Products manufactures are used in mobile and modular homes and office modular buildings.

“My two production managers conducted the value stream map for the finger joint area, using a process similar to the one Georgia Tech had shown us,” Matthews said. “We wanted a wide representation of participants, so we included everyone from myself to production managers to supervisors to forklift drivers to folks who ran the rip and component saws. We want everyone to feel like they are a part of a team and that their voice matters.”

Most recently, Matthews asked lean specialists Trapp-Lingenfelter and Tara Barrett to return to Ashburn to conduct a value stream map for the sales and administration office. The group examined the order process for the plant, including order entry and pricing. Matthews also anticipates big benefits from the project.

“We developed a sales form that’s more consistent that can generate quotes and orders, so we’re not duplicating work. This will speed the process up, and allow our sales people to sell the product instead of doing paperwork,” he said.

As with many process improvement initiatives, the biggest challenge to completing the projects was achieving employee buy-in, especially with the office staff. Matthews says that while they could see the benefits of lean in manufacturing, they didn’t readily appreciate how it could benefit their jobs.

“Employees do not mind working smarter to make their jobs easier, safer and more productive. If we give the employees the tools, time and instruction they need, they will solve most of the problems we encounter day-to-day,” he said. “Georgia Tech was able to open everyone’s eyes to a different thought process that forced us to recognize the importance of eliminating non-value added activities. We are ecstatic about what the Georgia Tech team was able to do for us.”

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