Cambridge Industries Inc. is overhauling its 18 factories worldwide so it can run a tighter, more disciplined ship.
The lean-manufacturing project, started in January and now rolling out to every plant, will radically change the way the company designs and produces parts.
In each plant, the company is reconfiguring its production lines into manufacturing cells. In each cell, a small group of workers handles tooling, molding and finishing work for each product.
Each factory will ship its output the same day it is produced, instead of allowing finished parts to linger in inventory.
In addition to assembly, workers will be trained to perform other tasks, such as simple machine maintenance.
Like other suppliers, Cambridge is adapting the Japanese-style production method popularized by Toyota Motor Corp.
Eliminating waste and reducing variability in manufacturing are key components of continuous improvement, called kaizen in Japan.
'We've typically been viewed as an industry that runs its plants as body shops,' said Kevin Alder, president of Cambridge's automotive systems group. 'Our intent is to do things differently. We want to take a more disciplined approach by eliminating the need to shuffle products from one station to the next.'
That approach has been partly born of necessity. Cambridge, based in Madison Heights, Mich., is easing out of a fast-paced acquisition cycle over the past decade. The supplier of trunk lids, body panels, grilles and exterior trim has bought molding operations from nine companies.
Sales have risen sharply to a projected $530 million for 1999, and Cambridge expects another $250 million in booked business over the next three years.
But high-powered growth has produced a few headaches. Meshing newly acquired plants - with their differing operating styles and cultures - inside Cambridge has been difficult, Alder said.
The acquisitions also left the company with more than $330 million in debt at the end of March. Standard & Poor's placed the company on its CreditWatch list in June, reflecting concerns over the company's liquidity.
Those factors led Cambridge to launch its cost-cutting campaign.
'We have a new operating philosophy,' Alder said. 'It's really revolutionized the way that business is done.'
In September, Cambridge hired Don Mackey as its first executive vice president of lean manufacturing. Mackey previously had promoted lean manufacturing at vehicle-carpet supplier Masland Corp. of Carlisle, Pa.
Mackey faced a larger challenge when Southfield, Mich.-based Lear Corp. bought Masland in 1996. He managed lean manufacturing at more than 150 plants in 28 countries, Mackey said.
'We used the Japanese kaizen process, Americanized to fit our culture over the years,' Mackey said.
Now, Mackey is trying a similar strategy at Cambridge. His core idea is to attack waste continually, whether it be wasted floor space or wasted time shipping parts across a plant or to a warehouse.
'In real estate, the key is location, location, location,' Mackey said. 'In lean manufacturing, it's material flow, material flow, material flow.'
In Cambridge's factories, managers are locating production processes close together to save floor space and minimize the need to haul parts to different stations.
Each cell includes a team of four or five workers who are trained to perform one another's jobs. They also handle routine maintenance and change tooling.
Under the old system, press operators sometimes waited hours for specialists to come to their station and perform those tasks, Alder said.
Now the goal is to change a mold in 10 minutes - instead of an average of four to five hours - by readying the new mold before the press shuts down for the change.
In total, Cambridge's lean process includes 14 modules for continuous improvement. It can be adapted for everything from accounting to product development to tool design, Mackey said.
A key is to teach the system to all 4,500 Cambridge employees, a process that could take several years, Alder said.
The company already has had some success in its Lenoir, N.C., molding plant.
The approach has freed 21,000 square feet of work space, eliminated 200 feet of conveyors and wiped away three hours of tool-changeover time, said the plant's general manager, Michael Bond.
That plant relies on workers to carry out the program after top management holds initial training sessions.
'It really changes people,' Bond said. 'Our goal is to affect the way they think. One of our guiding principles is to get people empowered to do the work themselves.'
None of these changes is all that complicated, Mackey noted.
'In our case, it's the process, stupid. That affects every aspect of our business.'