Freightliner Customizes Quality
View a slideshow of Freightliner’s Mt. Holly, NC, Truck Manufacturing Plant
Freightliner’s Mt. Holly, NC, Truck Manufacturing Plant is constantly in motion, with 1,200 employees weaving throughout the shop floor, along with robots, automated carts-some of which play ice cream truck music to make their presence known-and of course, various parts on their way to becoming a truck.
The Quality Magazine 2007 Plant of the Year is loud-bring earplugs-and busy, producing about 80 trucks per day, with plans to produce twice that in the coming years. Electronic message boards display downtime and quality performance, which have improved significantly during recent years, according to Plant Manager Mike McCurry.
Continuous improvement is a goal shared by management and employees alike. Last year, Mt. Holly conducted 98 team-driven continuous improvement events, which resulted in a productivity increase in excess of 5%. In addition, the plant’s electronic improvement suggestion system allows employees to suggest improvements to their work environment, which may affect any of the performance metrics. Last year the team members submitted 2,600 suggestions for improvement-a rate of almost two suggestions per employee.
The Mt. Holly plant manufactures heavy-duty and medium-duty (class 5 through 8) commercial vehicles for long-haul transport, local and regional distribution, construction and services.
McCurry is understandably proud of their work at Freightliner and wants the staff to feel the same way. He requires that potential assembler applicants receive a mechanical certification before applying, which ensures mechanical aptitude and, more importantly, a commitment to work there. This strategy has paid off for the plant. “Our number one success story is our employees on the shop floor,” McCurry says. However, as some employees are nearing retirement, McCurry also aims to get more youth into manufacturing. He says they have to realize, “It’s not some dark, dungeon-like sweatshop. You can have a future in manufacturing.”
And the future looks bright in Mt. Holly. The plant received a face lift in 2001 to begin building the M2 business class model, and it became one of the most automated plants in truck manufacturing, McCurry says. The plant now has 46 robots, 25 automated conveyors, two automated guide vehicles and an automated fluid fill.
Custom ManufacturingAt Freightliner, customers can choose among many high-option trucks-a nice choice for the customer, but potentially difficult for the manufacturer. To deal with the myriad of options, Freightliner formed complexity teams to follow unique trucks through the assembly process. This team also trains other assembly teams to ensure the customer’s expectations are met. Customer interaction is important to Freightliner, says Erick Nelson, Freightliner’s manager of manufacturing quality who is based in the Portland headquarters. “We feel very good about it and spend a lot of time on it,” Nelson says.
“The customer focus keeps us in business,” adds McCurry. Unlike buying a car, people who buy the trucks have different expectations. “The truck is a moneymaker for them,” McCurry says, and they need to get the most out of it. A quality product equates to a lower cost per mile for their customers.
Despite some initial growing pains, the complexity teams have done well; since the team’s inception, the assembled product audit (APA) scores and warranty claims have continually improved and now “some of our best trucks are some of our hardest trucks,” McCurry says.
The plant’s stringent quality standards ensure that customers are not exposed to problems. As a result, when a customer gets a vehicle, it is ready to go, Nelson says.
Chris Harris, quality assurance manager at Mt. Holly, has something to do with that. Harris has been with Freightliner since graduating from college with a chemical engineering degree. In his 12 years at Freightliner, he has been the environmental engineer, the facilities manager and now the quality manager, which he says he likes best. By working with suppliers, dealers and customers, Harris says he has learned more about the company.
Along with the people, the organizational systems contribute to the plant’s success.
Chassis team boards are a day-to-day feature of the plant. Every day, the teams, consisting of five to 15 employees and the team leader, huddle around the board to see where they are at with their targets and goals. With the standardization of team tasks, the first shift knows they are building the same truck as the second shift. By using job rotation and training, the teams also can swap jobs when necessary.
Several times, the Mt. Holly plant has scheduled days without management or supervisors, which gives the team leaders a chance to take charge. This sends a message to the team leaders and hourly employees, McCurry says. “We know you can run the business,” he says.
Production SystemsAs part of the DaimlerChrysler organization-the Chrysler sale likely will not affect Mt. Holly’s operations, except for the name of their production system-Freightliner is actively working to instill the DaimlerChrysler Production System (DCPS) into its business. DCPS is the methodology for operating the plant, and is comprised of five core pillars: Human Infrastructure, Standardization, Quality Focus, Just-In-Time and Continuous Improvement.
In June 2004, the Mt. Holly plant began implementing DCPS, a lean manufacturing system, which has garnered support throughout the company and the plant. DCPS includes a team structure within operating units. This is a big personal responsibility, as that manager is responsible for the unit, in much the same way as a small business.
The UAW is committed to DCPS, says Bob Riggins, the UAW union representative, and aims to help the plant run smoothly with DCPS.
It seems to be working: DCPS coordinator Dewey Mauldin could not say enough about the system. “I have the best job in the plant,” says Mauldin, who loves the excitement of working there. It was not always this way, though. With all of the changes a few years ago, Mauldin told his wife that he would stick it out for a few years and then retire. However, thanks to the Freightliner team and UAW membership, DCPS has been a success, and Mauldin scrapped his retirement plans. Since beginning implementation, Mt. Holly has been awarded three Freightliner awards for Best Implementation of Human Infrastructure, Just-In-Time and Continuous Improvement.
SuccessJust as no man is an island, entire of itself, no Freightliner plant exists on its own. There is a friendly, healthy competition between plants, McCurry says, and they communicate with plants across the globe, from Germany to Japan and Brazil.
In 2006, Mt. Holly received the Best Implementation Award for Human Infrastructure from the Commercial Vehicle Division (CVD) of DaimlerChrysler. The CVD award was given to the best implementation of each DCPS subsystem worldwide, and Mt. Holly competed against 80 CVD factories. This earned bragging rights, and for some employees, a trip to Europe-Freightliner took several hourly employees to Germany for a week to accept the award, which was a big hit. “They still talk about it,” says Mauldin.
DCPS is still an exciting venture at Mt. Holly, says McCurry, as it eliminates obstacles for the hourly employees. “We feel we’re just getting started,” he says. “DCPS is not going away. It’s a cultural change that’s already well underway.”
Still, despite their process improvements, Mt. Holly management realizes that the end result is ultimately the most important. “Even with state-of-the-art technology and the greatest process in the world, you won’t succeed with a bad product,” McCurry says. Luckily, there is no doubt that the M2 is a good product: Freightliner has 27% of the medium-duty market share, and it continues to grow.
Self-InspectionThere are plenty of systems that contribute to this success.
On a hot North Carolina summer day, several Freightliner employees stand near the big red trucks on display outside the Mt. Holly plant. Although at first glance both trucks appear red, one is a deep, fire engine red, and the other is a brighter shade. This difference would not go unnoticed by those working inside. As Harris points out, “There are hundreds of types of white.”
Making trucks requires attention to detail, and with more than 9,000 colors to choose from, Freightliner’s paint department is prepared to handle many different customized jobs.
Along with cab assembly, paint is one of two self-inspection areas. The self-inspection operating units document their own defects and analyze for continual improvement, allowing the production assemblers to take responsibility for product quality. “Self-inspection is getting everybody looking at their work,” says John Neal, operating unit manager of paint. “The challenge is to have two different people seeing it with the same set of eyes.”
Paint is inspected on every vehicle and any defects that are detected are loaded to the Paint Inspection Notification and Tracking system (PINT). The PINT system shows a visual representation of each cab and chassis and allows paint inspectors to use pen-based data collection to indicate locations of specific paint defects. Analysis of repetitive paint defects is performed using Cognos reporting tools. The database has led to improvements in all of their metrics of quality, Neal says.
Neal acknowledges that the transition from an outside quality inspector to self-inspection was tough, but says the operators are more than qualified to do it. “They know the work,” Neal says. “They’ve been working with paint most of their lives. They’re the best people for it.”
Despite the department’s success, Neal-like most of the Freightliner staff-is not interested in resting on past accomplishments. “We’ve still got improvements to make,” Neal says. “We can take what we did today, and make it better tomorrow.” Q
For more information on Freightliner, visit www.freightliner.com.