Built Lean from the Ground Up



People, lean processes and technology combine in HarbisonWalker International’s first new factory since 1978.

It’s not often that a manufacturer gets the opportunity to build a lean manufacturing facility from the ground up. Typically, lean is introduced into an existing plant and optimal layouts are constrained by any of several factors: inconveniently placed walls or immovable equipment, for example. Manufacturers then do the best they can, given their specific restrictions.

HarbisonWalker International now can now add its name to the small community of manufacturers that got the opportunity. And jumped on it.

Last week, the Pittsburgh-based producer of refractory products and services held a grand opening celebration for its new 120,000-square-foot greenfield monolithic refractories plant in South Point, Ohio. HWI broke ground on the $30 million investment in June 2017 and began shipping product earlier this year. A strong focus on lean manufacturing and supply chain principles went into its development, the company says.

For example:

  • The layout maximizes flow, with raw materials entering one end of the building and exiting the other.
  • A key raw materials supplier is located nearby, shortening the supply chain.
  • A production wheel approach to scheduling allows the plant to be more efficient with changeovers and clean-outs.
  • New packaging technologies provide better stacking capabilities and create more ergonomically friendly handling.
  • New production technologies allow for finer control and tolerances in this highly automated facility.

Not to be overlooked, is the people aspect, which is a conversation Douglas Hall enjoys having. Hall is HWI’s senior vice president, integrated supply chain, and during opening ceremonies Chairman and CEO Carol Jackson said his vision was behind the new manufacturing plant.

Asked to describe what he is most proud of with the new site, however, and Hall doesn’t point to technologies or processes. He talks about people. He talks about engagement and what the company is doing to develop engaged workers.

For example, workers at the South Point plant will be cross-trained and not simply on various pieces of equipment. They may be drawn from the production floor for a stint in an office area or in safety management, for example.

“We want to engage their minds,” the senior vice president says. We want them to want to be in manufacturing.

Hall is a strong proponent of the benefits of an engaged workforce, not hesitating to say engagement is the primary driver of improvement across the company.

And as for his expectations for this new plant? Better lead times, higher customer service levels and a more efficient plant with less downtime. That said, given his lean mindset, Hall already can envision means to lean the supply chain further.

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