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True Artisanship

Quality, as many of us have learned over time, doesn’t come easy, and in EagleBurgmann’s case, true quality requires a proactive approach to defect reduction.

By Anna Wells, Executive Editor, IMPO

“We firmly believe that quality is when the customer returns, and not the product.”

Don Hoover doesn’t just say these words. He, and the Houston-based EagleBurgmann team he works with, stands behind them. But quality, as many of us have learned over time, doesn’t come easy, and in EagleBurgmann’s case, true quality requires a proactive approach to defect reduction.

Getting Ahead of the Defect

EagleBurgmann is a global company that specializes in the manufacture of mechanical seals, systems, packing, and expansion joints. Its Houston facilities house manufacturing, engineering, and testing, serving as an epicenter for specialized part production and, by default, quality control issues.

The strategy to reduce defects built the framework for EagleBurgmann’s latest quality improvement initiative for its machinists: The Manufacturing Artisan Program.

In this case, EagleBurgmann was trying to address the type of quality control scenarios rooted in a reactive method sometimes used to identify product defects within its machined parts. A certified machinist program existed, but it was not being sustained once the employee became certified. “There wouldn’t really be any way of testing them to make sure that they were qualified to do the job, or of tracking them along the way,” says Hoover, quality manager. Because of the existing system, most nonconformance issues were being discovered at the quality inspection phase, making for lots of unnecessary scrap and re-work.

“We decided we wanted to be able to have the machinists perform their own inspections,” says Hoover. “If they perform their own inspection, then they can make adjustments to the machines and eventually they’re putting out good product.”

So the Manufacturing Artisan Program was born. The program is designed to advance parts manufacturing to a level of artisanship, where workers can take pride in the parts they produce. Its objective is to recognize those machinists (artisans) who can demonstrate the skills necessary to professionally machine seal components. Any metal parts in an assembled seal are covered under this program, including flanges, drive collars, sleeves, and setting plates.

The program also grants those closest to the process -- the machinists -- the responsibility to pinpoint defects within the parts they are producing. Anything the machinists find and report does not reflect negatively on them or their certification “status.” The issue is when the machinist allows a nonconforming part to pass through his or her hands and onto the next stage. If a non-machinist (such as the inspection stage personnel) notices a problem in a part, the machinist’s artisan program certification will be marked. “They’re not allowed to have more than three instances where they’re tagged by inspection for nonconformance,” says Hoover. “If inspection identifies three nonconformances, it takes them out of the certification program. They then start their program again.”

Beyond starting the program over, the machinist is not subject to discipline. However, Hoover says, “We’d start to think, ‘What kind of training do we need to help this person to get into this program?’” At this point, Hoover would try to determine root cause by asking the following questions:

  • How are they using the gauges? Do they need help with gauging?
  •  Is it something with the machine, and does maintenance need to take a look?

High Tech Solutions

In addition to assessing part quality, Hoover and his team have also been able to use the program to pinpoint defects in the process. Using reliability studies, they were oftentimes able to determine whether the machinist in question was having a problem with a particular blueprint or tool, and if it could be addressed. Some were simple fixes, and some required a big investment on EagleBurgmann’s part. When the team determined that employees using non-ratcheting micrometers had more nonconformance issues, they decided to order all new micrometers.

EagleBurgmann also utilized IT solutions to help streamline the program and track its effectiveness. Instead of using paper methods, the company wrote code into its business systems specifically for the artisan program.

“We re-vamped the whole business system for our non-conforming materials,” says Hoover. “It sends an e-mail to engineering to tell them there is a non-conformance in inspection. It sends an e-mail to purchasing -- if it’s a purchased part -- to let them know if engineering decided whether it was return to vendor, scrap, or re-work. Right away, purchasing knows that they need to do something, whereas before we relied on somebody else walking up and telling them.”

The addition of cause and defect codes to the business system has also led to more long-term abilities to assess where each problem originates and how it’s being addressed. Use of this helped the team to even identify some issues with the engineering department as well, says Hoover.

“Now we can run a report that will lay out all of our cause codes, so we know if it was a machine, or a gauge, or if it was something that was missed on the print. We actually did have four or five issues this year that were related to engineering. Those are now things that we can capture in our report just by looking at the causal defect codes.”

Employee Engagement

Change is almost never easy, but Hoover has been impressed thus far by the vigor with which the machinists have embraced the program. Perhaps this stems from the fact that the program uses nonconformance as a tool to improve employee skill sets, rather than resulting in punishment for mistakes.

In addition, “I think this was a source of pride for a lot of these guys,” says Andy Martin, communications and public relations manager for the Houston Brookriver facility. “There’s a lot to be said for somebody’s personal stamp.”

Perhaps this sense of pride, along with the added incentive of cash bonuses for artisans who earn and maintain their certification for six months, are the reason that the facility boasts that 19 out of 20 machinists are certified. That said, it's also important to remember what the program does for the company overall, which is to utilize the existing skills of those closest to the process -- the machinists who develop each specific part.

“It allows our machinists to take full responsibility for the parts they are making. They are proud of the parts they make and it allows them to be more conscious when machining these parts. They know that they are responsible for their efforts,” says Rick Sadler, manufacturing supervisor. “We all want to do a good job. This program allows us to do our jobs that much better.”