IHS Chemical Week


Lean manufacturing paying off for specialty chemical makers


Implementing lean manufacturing practices at chemical facilities should be simple, and it’s the “smart thing to do,” says Bill Seaton, vice president of US operations for Sigma-Aldrich, who spoke to more than 100 chemical manufacturers at a conference earlier this summer in Pittsburgh. But despite the success stories, he said implementing lean fails more than 75% percent of the time.

Lean manufacturing will only be as successful up to the level it’s supported. The effort not only needs the backing of management and employees, but there has to be willingness to change wasteful cultures and get rid of the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude, which isn’t as easy as it seems. But the end result is well worth the effort.

And what company doesn’t want to remove waste? From improving visual job management with proper labeling of parts and equipment, to establishing planning and scheduling in quality control and maintenance that optimizes equipment use and process flow—from redesigning a work cell for improved work flow, to value stream mapping, where you walk the path a product takes through your facility to expose wasteful steps—these are all great examples of improvements that can be made through the lean process. 

By incorporating lean, chemical companies can become more efficient and save millions of dollars, greatly improving their bottom lines. Seaton shared example after example of ways implementing these efforts saved one company $1.2 million/month. But, again, it all comes down to buying into the idea and streamlining processes to make facilities more efficient.

With 45-95% of the work we do considered waste, according to Seaton, it’s essential that changes are made in every area of an organization—from the manufacturing floor to the R&D lab to the sales process and beyond—all in the interest of improving productivity. And it’s not just limited to operations, it also goes to recruitment and retention of employees.

Based on feedback from our members, Emerald Performance Materials (Cuyahoga Falls, OH) wholeheartedly agrees with Seaton’s assessment that it takes support from the top and employee engagement to make a LEAN program work. “Having the right leadership in place and embedding this into the culture of the organization are all critical for the program to be successful,” says Doug Jackson, manufacturing director for Emerald specialties group, which embarked on a structured process to accelerate continuous improvement and incorporate lean manufacturing processes in its operations in 2012.

While Emerald’s program is relatively new, Jackson says the initial results have been positive, and they expect improved performance and increase operational efficiencies to support the company’s overall sustainability goal to reduce energy consumption and waste.

According to Jackson, Emerald demonstrated its commitment to lean by adding key resources and hiring an operations manager with a well-documented and successful background in continuous improvement practices and implementations to lead the endeavor. Continuous improvement coordinators were provided for each process area, and supervisory personnel received training in coaching, mentoring and professional leadership to support a strong continuous improvement effort. Emerald’s initial path included training sessions that introduced lean, the 5S process—sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain—and Kaizen, activities that continually improve all functions and involves all employees. Jackson said the Emerald staff began to build confidence with the tools, which was followed by more complex challenges using cross-functional teams that employed a range of problem-solving tools.

Communication of results and reward and recognition programs helped Emerald highlight the process and reinforce desired behaviors, Jackson says. Emerald has several rewards in place, including the “waste warrior,” which rewards employees who put forth effort within their normal positions to reduce waste and provide an opportunity to infuse some fun and competition in the workplace.

Socma member Cambrex is utilizing a different lean tool, lean six sigma, in its manufacturing and development processes to enhance and continuously improve quality, design, productivity, safety and project management. Lean six sigma is a managerial concept combining lean and six sigma that results in the elimination of seven kinds of wastes—transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over-processing and defects.

Since 2004, Cambrex has employed several six sigma coordinators, called “black belts,” who implement improvements through the lean manufacturing program. This allows the company to deliver efficient, high-quality, cost-competitive products with less time to market for their clients. But more importantly, Cambrex recognizes the benefits of a team approach to improvements.

By using lean six sigma, the Cambrex chemical development team has made significant progress in reducing inconsistent and long cycle times, while improving the quality and yield of the final product on an in-house chemical manufacturing process. And in the past 9 years, the company has improved more than 50 processes using lean six sigma at all their facilities globally.

It’s exciting to hear success stories from our members regarding their efforts to eliminate waste and enhance their manufacturing processes. These lean practices can and will make a difference for specialty chemical makers and all manufacturers facing increased competition. And I believe it can greatly enhance a company’s chances to survive and thrive in our global economy. 

Feel free to share what your company is doing to “go lean.”

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