Take a look at the product you shave with. If you own a store-brand razor, it’s likely that that razor came from our 2009 Quality Plant of the Year recipient, Personna American Safety Razor (ASR, Knoxville, TN). The company’s focus on continuous improvement, quality processes and the importance of test and inspection, makes ASR a natural fit for this year’s Plant of the Year award in our small plant division. And, with millions of people’s skin on the line, such a focus is imperative.
BackgroundPersonna American Safety Razor is a private-label supplier of consumer razor blades in the United States. “When you go into a Kroger [a Cincinnati-based grocery retailer] and they have a private-label razor, more than likely that is our razor. Our competition is Bic, Schick and Gillette, as well as other private-label manufacturers. We consider ourselves as competing in the overall wet shaving market, and private label is one aspect of that market,” says Kermit Bantz, director of shaving manufacturing at the Knoxville, TN, facility.
Total U.S. market share for all razors, including branded products, is around 10% to 15%. Customers include large retailers such as Kroger, CVS, Walgreens, Target and Wal-Mart.
ASR has been manufacturing razor blades since 1875. Though the company has been in business for more than 125 years, ASR’s Knoxville, TN, location opened in 1995-first as a distribution location, and later as a blade manufacturing facility. Just three years ago, the Knoxville, TN, plant produced complete disposable razors, ready for shaving.
Today, with expanded requirements for blade manufacturing, assembly takes place in Mexico and the Tennessee facility only makes consumer-ready blades. An ISO 9001-certified plant since 2000, the Knoxville facility employs about 155 people.
High-Volume ProcessesDespite the current economic conditions, the Knoxville plant saw 2008 volume growth of approximately 2% over the previous year. Prior to 2008, volume grew about 11% each year for five years. Last year, the Knoxville facility produced 3 billion blades.
The plant’s high-volume environment is unique, because with 10 million blades made at the plant daily, it’s impossible to rely solely on the human eye for inspection. In response, plant management relies heavily on automated gaging and inspection throughout the manufacturing process, and employs operators to control and maintain processes, make decisions and double-check automated inspection performance.
High-volume vision and sensors are one reason ASR can meet its goals each year-including scrap reduction goals. From 2007 to 2008, the plant reduced grinding scrap by approximately 11%. Machine vision cameras and sensors inspect everything from position to height to coating of the blades throughout the process.
This year’s scrap reduction goal is an admirable 20%, according to Melissa Bailey, manufacturing quality engineer and quality control manager at the Knoxville plant. New cameras and sensors, an expanded statistical process control system and enterprisewide software should all help move the plant toward its goal. Six Sigma teams-the plant currently has three separate groups working on ways to reduce scrap-also will help.
With only three operators from press through grinding and more than 400 blades per minute whizzing by on each line, ASR’s management empowers operators to make judgment calls on the shop floor when necessary, including shutting down a machine. To maintain quality, teams of operators perform internal audits twice monthly, according to Daron Roberts, value stream manager/production manager at the facility.
“Our vision systems have allowed us to transition some of our auditors from manual inspection to process inspection. We rely on the inline gaging to make sure the product is quality and they help manage the process,” says Martin Day, quality manager at the plant.
Another way ASR has successfully improved processes is through its statistical process control (SPC) system, which keeps track of all scrap and data from the beginning of manufacture through the grinding or sharpening of the blades.
“One of our goals that we are working on is to get all of our data from press to packaging under one system,” Bantz notes.
The SPC system was first implemented to help move from manually charting the manufacturing process to electronically charting the process and determining control limits. “We were able to mechanize the SPC system online and inline and that has been a big technology advancement and quality improvement effort,” Bantz adds.
Continuous ImprovementContinuous improvement projects are regularly employed at the plant and evidence is everywhere-such as the new packaging stations, which are the result of a Kaizen project that took the better part of a year to perfect. The packaging stations use sturdy, reusable materials, and the company has already seen savings in material cost, waste and time.
The color-coded production schedules that line the plant’s perimeter are another result of a continuous improvement project. With 16 different SKUs of private-label-ready blades-each for a different customer-to keep track of, the color coding is another way operators can visually ensure that the blades making their way through production will eventually reach the correct customer.
The company regularly invests in consultants to discuss projects with and to help get things done. Six Sigma, lean and Kaizen are all used at the plant whenever an opportunity arises.
“We don’t approach consultants with them having the answers. We ask them to be the trainers so that we can take the ball and continue with that on a day-to-day basis,” Bantz says.
Fred Russell, lean manufacturing facilitator (also called Kaizen manager), manages continuous improvement projects and training and works with the company’s continuous improvement consultants. Representatives of all departments and shifts participate in continuous improvement projects on a regular basis. Thus far, the plant boasts 60 yellow belts, six green belts and seven black belts with more employees waiting in the wings to get their belts.
“We use Kaizen in terms of quality-just trying to mistake-proof devices. We also have a very strong Six Sigma program here and we use it on the really complicated issues. Six Sigma and lean also help us identify the Kaizen opportunities in the process. Everything works well together. We see all of it as ‘continuous improvement,’” Bantz says.
Encouraging employees to get involved in continuous improvement projects is one way management tries to empower its operators. “We use almost everybody in an effort for quality and continuous improvement, but most of our projects are driven by operators. They are the ones that really drive improvement. I think it energizes employees. It allows for some personal growth and basic job enrichment to be actively involved in what they do, day in and day out,” Day explains.
One of the plant’s continuous improvement initiatives, implemented four years ago, allowed the Knoxville plant to reduce inventory by about half.
“Inventory [has gone] down as volume and demand have gone up. When we were making 6.5 million blades per day, we had about double [the current amount of] inventory in the system at that time,” Bantz says. Today, the company makes about 10 million blades per day and operates on about 100 million blades in inventory.
Quality PhilosophyMuch of the Knoxville plant’s improvements can be linked directly to the privately held company’s commitment to quality and willingness to support its plants with capital and engineering influence.
The Knoxville facility has its own engineering department on hand, and in recent years, the plant has invested heavily in gaging and inline inspection equipment, including vision systems and sensors.
Another investment was made in 2008 to implement Qualtrax software at the Knoxville plant-a move that has enabled the facility to significantly reduce waste and improve processes, including training, workflows and communications.
“I think what [the software implementation] has done for us at this stage is make everything more available. [The information] was there, but you had to know where to look for it before,” Bailey says. The plant continues to move workflows and documentation over to the software program. “Before, we would have a 5-pound laminated book [of process documents]. Now we don’t have to worry about loss of a book or one book not getting updated,” she says.
Ultimately, ASR plans to have everything computer-based. “That’s our goal for this year; the operator will have everything they need on screen, so we’re really excited about that,” Bailey says. In addition, the implementation of the software has impacted processes in such a positive way already that corporate management plans to implement the software at all ASR locations. Eventually all ISO and work instruction documents will be available across all facilities.
TrainingThe Qualtrax software implementation has allowed the plant to move its large training manuals and work instructions to an electronic format-an effort that will help improve training communications, processes, and save money in paper cost and time.
“Our training is much smoother with the software. We know when operators have read the documents, and it increases effectiveness in training. It has made the process a whole lot simpler,” Bailey says.
“We invest heavily in training. There is a need to retrain or train employees on any change in work instructions. All people get retrained in a process change no matter how long they’ve been at the company,” Bantz explains. The Knoxville facility has two full-time trainers on staff.
Russell spends a lot of time overseeing training initiatives and updating staff on process changes, in addition to managing improvement initiatives. All members of the management team, including Russell, Bantz, Day, Roberts-and the two quality engineers on staff: Bailey and Anna Hickman, consumer quality engineer-play a role in training by teaching new employees a module in their respective areas of expertise.
ASR not only believes in equipment investments and training, it also invests in its people. The company offers tuition reimbursement to employees, and tries to educate them on a personal level. Recently, ASR staff and shop floor employees were offered a course on improving people skills and understanding interaction with people.
“We know who our employees are, and we make the investments to keep them,” Bailey says.
And after 134 years in business, ASR has had a lot of time to perfect both its processes and its commitment to employees. “We have a great group here,” Day says. “It’s a team effort.” Q
For more information, visit www.personna.com.
Editor's Note: To learn more about Personna American Safety Razor, listen to the Q-Cast podcast.
ASR at a Glance
The Manufacture of a BladeOperators on the shop floor perform several inspections and quality checks throughout the manufacturing process, and it all begins with 3-mile-long strips of steel. ASR goes through about 25 to 30 coils of these strips each day. First, 2,000-degree furnaces harden the strips of steel at about 50 feet per minute. The strips are then cooled.
A strip from each coil goes offline to a Smart Scope for inspection. If the strip is out of spec, the entire coil will get scrapped. A statistical process control (SPC) system keeps track of all scrap and data from this point on through grinding.
Along the way, the steel strips are perforated. In 2004, the Knoxville plant had five presses. Today, to keep up with the increased production, the facility has eight. During the hardening process, the steel strips are at risk for stretching or breaking. ASR employs an inline vision system to check for these defects.
“Online detection is very important, because with 3 miles of steel, you can get a lot of bad product,” says Daron Roberts, value stream manager/production manager at the Knoxville plant.
To double-check the vision system used, an operator uses an offline stretch gage to check for stretching and straightness with a tolerance of about 4 /16 of an inch.
Next, the blades go to the grinding process to achieve their sharpness. Throughout the process, cameras measure blade height. Tolerance is approximately 1 /1,000 of an inch. Offline, an operator checks for blade appearance and edge quality with a microscope.
An in-house designed machine, called the Sharpometer, is used by an operator to check for balance of the blades-from edge to edge and front to back.
Blades then go through a cleaning and coating process. Sensors measure position of blades along the way and a vision system ensures that the coating was applied correctly and evenly. Blades are packaged in small boxes and wait for shipment to Mexico for assembly.
The test and inspection processes don’t stop after the blades are complete, however. “All products are shave tested annually and are tested against the brand name products,” says Anna Hickman, quality engineer and consumer quality manager for the wet shaving division. Hickman sends product samples to a third-party source for consumer testing regularly, as well as conducts in-house shave testing.
There are two lab technicians on staff responsible for customer quality issues. Offline, a scanning electron microscope at 10,000X to 30,000X power is used to determine how smooth or sharp the blade is and to look into customer issues. The microscope also is used to research the impact of different processes on the edge of the blade.