Keeping the Machines Running… Profitably

Once a planned production facility came online in China and the global economic crisis erupted in 2008, production at DuPont’s Uentrop European facility slowed dramatically. The plant was forced to either become more streamlined and competitive, or face a long period of negative growth.

In 2007, when chemical engineer Reinhold Sand was posted to one of DuPont’s largest sites in Europe at Hamm-Uentrop, Germany, he found a well-structured plant with no major issues. It seemed to be the ideal training ground for his new role as plant manager. But the easy introduction was deceptive. “A year after arriving in Uentrop, all hell broke loose,” he recalls.

DuPont’s Uentrop facility is Europe’s largest manufacturer of polyester fibers, as well as the biggest production site in the world for polybutylene terephthalate, a polymer used as an insulator in the electronics industry. But once a planned production facility came online in China and the global economic crisis erupted in 2008, production at the plant slowed dramatically. The facility was forced to either become more streamlined and competitive, or face a long period of negative growth.

Eliminating Inefficiencies

At the time, Uentrop was beset with inefficiencies that prevented it from achieving operational excellence – significant time, effort and resources were being invested without achieving sustainable productivity and financial returns. This was particularly evident in the area of maintenance. Each of the four different production groups at the facility had their own maintenance teams, and a large, central maintenance group intended to serve the entire facility existed, but was never utilized.

To address this, DuPont implemented a new production system model at the facility to act as an integrated, standardized method for engaging employees and developing organizational capabilities with the goal of making the best possible use of skills and resources. It began with conducting a pre-assessment of the site and data collection. An online survey of all employees was conducted, as well as in-depth interviews and workshops. Previous worker surveys also were analyzed for trends requiring attention. During this phase, communication with employees was essential. Soliciting and clearly understanding their needs and concerns made them feel invested in the new system and believe in its importance, which is critical to successful implementation.

Based on the data and information gathered, the project management team identified areas for improvement, and then defined the principles that would help the site progress toward achieving its ideal future state. A new organizational structure and processes were then developed, and a pilot program based on this new system was implemented at a particularly inefficient function at the facility: its maintenance capability.

Uentrop had to transform its maintenance organization from four unit-specific shops to a single, lean, centralized structure that still offered the four production groups specialized support. Easily transferable maintenance tasks were identified and steps were developed to reorganize the maintenance structure to achieve the greatest possible centralization of planning and scheduling, and to reduce contracted maintenance work through insourcing. To help control costs, a new inventory management process was implemented that requires a single procurement manager to approve purchases, and requires that all purchases go to a central maintenance office before being distributed to one of the four production groups.

Maintenance employees were trained to carry out a range of different responsibilities, not just the specialist tasks related to a specific production unit. This allowed knowledge-sharing and created a much more flexible team of maintenance staff, which is particularly important in a marketplace where demand may quickly change due to shifts in the economy. To help embed the new maintenance approach into the organization, apprentices were trained in the new system and some of them returned to be leaders in the maintenance department after earning their degrees.

Seeing the Results

Visit Uentrop today and the difference compared to 2008 is obvious. Not only is the hum of machines a reassuring, constant background sound, but work stations, storage areas and display boards all look completely different. All material is centrally coordinated and shadow boards clearly show where tools can be found. Visual management gives everyone a clear overview of what needs to be done and central scheduling allows for daily and weekly planning. This makes it much easier to move resources between areas based on demand, and results in greater flexibility.

With greater planning efficiency and improved job execution by a smaller group, Uentrop’s overall maintenance costs were cut by 14 percent within the span of two years, and between 2008 and 2014 they had fallen a staggering 28.4 percent. This translated into an initial savings of 16 percent on maintenance costs per kilogram of product manufactured at the facility during the first two years, and by 2015 maintenance costs per kilogram of product has fallen 42 percent.

Uentrop achieved the transformation to a more efficient and productive facility by: including all levels of the organization in designing the new production system and soliciting employee input; ensuring change was introduced and advocated by leaders who set an example; creating new structures and processes; and focusing on iterative improvement.

Alexey Lesin is Capital Projects and Operations Excellence Global Practice Leader for DuPont Sustainable Solutions (DSS).