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Always Gaining Momentum

A rich heritage, flexible operations, tribal knowledge and an enormous product line are some of the reasons why this company excels in silicones.

Last year was a milestone. Not only did Momentive Performance Materials and Hexion Specialty Chemicals merge in October under the all-encompassing Momentive brand, but the company also celebrated 70 years of innovation. The facility in Waterford, NY is the oldest—breaking ground in 1945 and opening in 1947—and largest operation—with employment hovering around 1,000—within the company. Although the business’ headquarters are located in Columbus, OH, it is the Waterford facility that produces silicones.

Altogether, Momentive as a brand generates $7.5 billion a year and employs 10,000 associates globally with 117 production facilities scattered throughout the world. The company trades in just about every part of the globe with about 20,000 customers, so it enjoys a broad global reach on both the Momentive Performance Materials side, which is the legacy Momentive business, and the Momentive Specialty Chemicals side, which is the heritage Hexion business.

According to Momentive Global Marketing Communications Brand Manager Ed Farris, “What’s interesting is that there is no one customer that serves more than 3 percent of our total business. We look at that as a strength because if a relationship ends with a customer, then it really doesn’t have that great of an impact on our business. It also speaks to the depth and breadth of our product range. It’s the nature of the type of materials we sell, but still unique.”

The silicones operations are divided into five different businesses, which consist of solutions for more than 10,000 different applications: elastomers, silenes, engineered materials, urethane additives and specialty fluids.

Chem Ops & Finishing

“From a chemical plant perspective, Waterford is a huge facility,” says Nicki Collins, Momentive Chemical Operations Manager, “and it’s very deceptive how large and intricate we are. When you look at a normal chemical plant, most facilities keep 15 to 30 people and their location is standalone. We employ 1,000 people here, so it’s like having many different chemical plants clustered together. It does have its complications. You need a huge site-wide infrastructure to support this, be it pipe racks, underground sewers, utilities, cooling towers, steam, wastewater treatment—we have to provide all of that. It’s our own little chemical park.”

Operations staff typically work in three eight-hour shifts, although there are some 12-hour shifts on the weekends, in a 28-day rotation. This means an employee may work seven days, then take a day or two off, and so on, but each person cycles through various shifts—morning, noon and night. Silicone production is split into two divisions: chemical operations, basically manipulating chemicals and ingredients, and finishing, which incorporates those chemicals and ingredients to fashion a consumer end-product, from baby bottles to medical care products to coatings on lenses.

It is this product breadth and depth that justifies the need for massive amounts of equipment that dots the enormous plant. Collins says that the plant requires such various kinds of equipment because, “We feed into all these different markets, so we make everything from the consistency of rubber like Silly Putty to watery liquids and everything in between. Plus, we sell things in little thimbles all the way up to big tank wagons, which is why we have fluidized bed reactors, distillation columns, separation equipment, dome mixers, reactive distillation … You name it, we’ve got it.”

The commonality of all this equipment is that the process starts with something as simple as a chunk of silicone, which must be converted from a solid into a liquid. Regulatory compliance plays a part, too. A good portion of equipment is strictly installed for environment health and safety reasons, such as preventing chemical releases into the atmosphere. “While it does nothing to impact the quality of the finished product,” admits E. Joshua Spain, Finishing Operations Manager at Momentive, “It protects our employees, the environment and the community, and it keeps us in compliance with state and federal regulations.”

Momentive invests in instrumentation, process controls and automation to help keep track of and control movement at the plant. Each of the different products have different processing conditions that are a part of the manufacturing instructions. The systems are set up to maneuver through a particular grade wheel or cycle, and the operators know when to run the program. They know when to increase the temperature 10 degrees, drop the pressure 2 pounds, and start adding the “frou-frou dust.” (Some of the different catalysts Momentive puts in the reactors have a tremendous amount of impact for just one nanogram, so the staff often refer to it as frou-frou dust. It’s a highly technical term.)

Sometimes it is necessary to change the screws out on an extruder—because the viscosity of the sealant being processed has changed—or change the screw feeds, but most of the time, the systems are set up and designed to handle wide variations. “That’s what makes our products so special,” says Spain. “A little bit more filler, and the product becomes more solidified; less filler, and it’s less viscous. You mix and match these chemicals (in safe amounts, of course), and you end up with wildly different properties.”

Right next to the sealant process is a batch reactor that makes adhesive materials for 3M or Avery Dennison. Momentive makes 50 different types of adhesive in the same kettle, so every time it runs a batch, it requires two days of processing followed by extensive cleaning operations. Turnarounds and changeovers can be quite different depending on the chemistry and the process. On the other hand, the company has other systems completely dedicated to one or two products. According to Spain, the company still has plenty of things to work on in order to improve material yield and efficiency, as well as the time it takes to turn over equipment.

Collins jokes, “It’s not widely published—I don’t think they have very many textbooks on how to make silicones. If you look at a refinery or most chemical processes even, you usually open a book to find a standard process with all of the equations.”

Such a textbook doesn’t exist for the silicone business. Momentive must have exemplary standard operating practices, because right now the company is one of few with a firm grasp on the subject. The process is a highly leveraged technology, including how and when to add chemicals; at what temperature and pressure the process is running; and what kind of practical equipment to use. Collins adds, “Very specific manufacturing instructions are critical, because one misstep and you end up with a new product.”

According to John Scharf, Momentive Americas Communications Leader, the company also requires the ability to communicate with each location, not just this free-standing site in NY. He says, “We’re a part of this global family of Momentive where we’re helping out and picking up slack” for other locations. For example, part of the global family resides in Japan and, luckily, no employee was injured in the earthquake and tsunami that rocked the nation on March 11, 2011. The plant didn’t suffer much damage—a couple of minor things—but the team did have to cope with issues related to sporadic electricity.

“We have a lot of fun here,” adds Collins. “We’re a tight-knit family, and we joke around a bit every now and then and have a good time, but when the rubber hits the road, these guys are all about making it happen, and making it happen safely.”

A Productive Bunch

A while back, a couple of consultants came into Momentive and said, for a $2 million fee, they could help the company cut energy costs significantly. The consultants didn’t sit well with Collins who, after the pitch, went to her team and asked the group to save the $2 million for another day, letting the “in-house brainiacs” come up with a solution.

“We had all of the measurements and we had the guys who knew how to program in [Microsoft] Excel,” recalls Collins. “We set up correlations and a dashboard, and we now know when we’re out of whack."

Momentive has about 10 employees focused on variable cost productivity (VCP). Most of the VCP team are certified Six Sigma black belts who take problems head-on, and try to create and maintain great yield improvement projects. “We have a strong VCP team on-site that uses a lot of Six Sigma tools to try to maximize workflow productivity and efficiency, and streamline operations,” adds Collins. “It’s really hard to call anything we do here uber-streamlined, however, when you understand the intricacies of how we go back and forth with things, it is amazing that it works as well as it does.”

Momentive's yields this year have been “phenomenal” as a result of the work that the VCP team has done, specifically dropping catalyst usage, and improving utilization. “This year, we’re working on utilities, so we’ve been kind of walking down the cost lines,” says Collins. “The [VCP] guys are embedded in the process areas, too, so it’s not a standalone separated project in which they are in some lofty tower, cranking through statistics. They are on the floor with the guys, and they have been engineers at Momentive for 20 years.”

Process improvements are further supported by productivity summits. Back in November 2010, the Waterford site sent 10 people to China where they met with representatives from operations spanning the globe. With a lot of data gathering in preparation for the meeting, the group started looking at chemical operations efficiency, utilities, transportation, etc. The group did a lot of brainstorming and shared best practices process knowledge. The company puts on the summit once a year globally, and each team returns to its facility with many great ideas to implement and push through.

“We just had a local productivity summit about a month ago [at the Waterford site],” recalls Collins. “We did one for the Americas, and there definitely was a baseline of information collected. You find that the simplest of things can lead to improvements.” At the most recent meeting, Collins was involved in a discussion about chemical operations (otherwise known as chem ops), her passion. She learned that the Germany site only runs at 5 PPM of a particular substance in its product, while she was running at 1,000 PPM. Recognizing that achieving 5 PPM costs a huge amount of money, a simple change to the purity that the column is operated at led to savings.

“It didn’t take infrastructure and it didn’t take investment,” says Collins. “It was understanding the end-product usage. These productivity summits are very powerful tools for us to share best-practices and try to understand how our different processes operate. Invariably, every time we do it, someone comes up with one of those nuggets. It’s a big aha moment and you can feel the epiphany run through the room.”

Tribal Knowledge

Momentive employs many of the people who invented the products—whether it was 35 or five years ago. “From experience, I’m a mechanical engineer who hated chemistry,” shares Spain. “One of the reasons that I’ve been able to be successful is because of the resources in the company. We have great engineers, rocket scientists who can help us. It allows us to work as one cohesive team.”

Collins concurs, “Our sister plants don’t have the same total package we do because it all started here. We have the generational knowledge of how to make things, and we had to transfer that information to operations in Europe and the Pacific.”

Momentive was also able to weather the recession because the company's technologies span many markets thanks to a vast, knowledgeable staff. In fact, the company hired 65 people from job fairs during the recession. “When a lot of companies were laying off and terminating, we had job fairs and hired more people,” says Scharf.

“We held five job fairs in the Capitol region, and we had more than 850 people apply. The recession not only allowed us to find some really good talent, but also cultivate them to eventually replace all of the retirees. In the next five to ten years, for instance, we know that we’re going to have quite a few people walking out the door. We want to share that tribal knowledge and bring it across [the enterprise]. With the recession, we’re finding folks who hit a tough patch in their career path and they’re out of work. They wind up becoming perfect finds and fits for Momentive.”

According to Collins, everyone struggled through the recession and Momentive was no exception. What set this company apart was a choice to approach the recession from the perspective of recognizing that its people are its greatest resource. Collins, Spain and their colleagues worried about how to weather such a slowdown, while maintaining the workforce, equipment and training operations. Momentive elected to reorganize and restructure the support staff, and made it through the dark period without a single layoff.

A History Based Not Only on Silly Putty

Momentive Performance Materials, the silicone side of the business, is the heritage of the facility—Farris even calls it the birthplace of silicones. “Not very far [from Waterford], in a research lab that was run by General Electric (GE) at the time, the direct process for creating silicones was created—and eventually spawned this facility. When the business was sold in late 2006, this plant continued operations as the main facility.”

Momentive Performance Materials is made up of four legacy businesses: GE, Toshiba, Bayer and Union Carbide. Over the years, certain parts of the business were either bought, acquired or merged. The company has a lineage bred from premier companies. A current challenge, according to Farris, is that the legacy companies are more well-known than the combined Momentive enterprise.

“A few of the things that we are proudest of are the moon boots that Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts used,” says Farris. “The inner soles were made out of our silicone materials because they work well in both high and low temperatures. To walk on the surface of the moon, you needed materials that had those wide-ranging capabilities.”

The last remaining moon boot was donated last year to a local children’s museum in the greater Capitol district. Momentive wanted to share the story with the community—particularly the kids—because most people don’t know about the impact silicone products have made in the nation’s history.

Moreover, before Ronald Reagan became President of the United States, he was an actor and a spokesman for GE. As further testament to Momentive’s rich heritage, an employee recently stumbled upon an old company marketing video from the early ‘50s.  At the end of the tape, Ronald Reagan made an appearance. The newfound prized possession was donated to the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum last month.

“Regardless of what name is on the sign out front, whether it’s GE or Momentive, we all belong to this rich heritage and strong history of being first to market with these products, and we started it all at this facility with silicones,” Scharf concludes. 

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