Manufacturing Makeover Provides Solutions and Savings

By Eileen Smith Dallabrida

Founded in 1996, Atlantic Aluminum Products Inc. designs, manufactures and installs custom-built railings for both residential and commercial customers, as well as sunrooms, patio enclosures and screen porches.

Located in Greenwood, the residential division of the company services all of Delaware, plus parts of Maryland and Virginia. The commercial division serves the entire Mid-Atlantic region. Owned by Dan Schlabach, Atlantic Aluminum strives to strike the artful balance of providing a premium product at an attractive price point.

In pursuit of that goal, the company built a warehouse in 2007 that enabled the business to purchase aluminum directly from the mills. The next year, the company completed a fabrication facility in order to get products to customers more quickly, while keeping costs under control.

It is easy for workers at Atlantic Aluminum to locate materials, thanks to a more efficient inventory system. Photo provided by Atlantic Aluminum

It is easy for workers at Atlantic Aluminum to locate materials,
thanks to a more efficient inventory system. Photo provided by Atlantic Aluminum

Atlantic Aluminum designed, custom fabricated, and installed the balcony railings on twin homes in Wilmington that were featured in the ABC series “Extreme Home Makeovers.”

The company itself did not require a radical makeover. But Atlantic Aluminum was intent on increasing its efficiency in manufacturing railings, learning ways to squeeze wasted minutes out of processes so that time could be put to productive use.

Schlabach reached out to the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership (DEMEP) after speaking with managers at two nearby plants, Berecah Homes Inc. of Greenwood, a modular home manufacturer, and Miller Metal Fabrication Inc. of Bridgeville, a maker of custom sheet-metal parts and equipment.

“I was looking for a fresh set of eyes to look at our operation and suggest ways we could cut overhead costs without reducing personnel,” he says. “After hearing about the improvements that other businesses made through DEMEP’s help, I was interested in what they could do for our organization, too.”

Accredited by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, DEMEP’s mission is to substantially improve the quality, productivity and profitability of manufacturers in the state by identifying, transferring and implementing best practices.

“In a competitive marketplace, we help good manufacturers to find ways to reduce inefficiencies and make their operations even better,” says Steve Quindlen, executive director.

DEMEP field agents Lisa Weis and Kim Kilby trained Atlantic’s 42 employees in the principles of lean manufacturing, a strategy that focuses on reducing seven wastes— over-production, waiting time, transportation, processing, inventory, motion and scrap—that do not contribute to the final product. The Delaware Economic Development Office provided a training grant.

By meticulously mapping the processes at the plant, the agents identified a bottleneck in obtaining materials on the front end. In essence, when certain information was lacking on work orders due to the prolonged submittal process, the plant held off on ordering materials.

“If the information doesn’t get out to the floor properly, the whole process comes to a screeching halt,” Weis says. To make the process more efficient, Atlantic Aluminum retooled its order forms to focus on information that would enable the company to obtain the materials needed for the job. Such details as design questions could wait for later.

“It was a matter of making certain we asked the customer the right questions,” Schlabach says. “Instead of waiting for information that would tie up an order, we ask those questions up front.”

In order to broaden its reach to more customers, Atlantic Aluminum has introduced a new iRail system. The line is less labor intensive to assemble, which enables the company to provide standardrailings at a lower price point.

“The product line is very important to our long-term growth potential,” he says.

But changing over equipment between orders for traditional railings and iRail jobs required an hour, more time that did not contribute to the bottom line.

DEMEP helped identify wasted steps and cumbersome tooling procedures. With the assistance of DEMEP, the team came up with new change-over procedures, one of which includes quickchange hydraulic connections. Equipment for both jobs has been repositioned so that it is in close proximity, with tools and parts such as fasteners color coded and at the ready.

As a result, change-over time has been cut in half to 30 minutes and in some set ups to even less time.

Strategic staging of work areas, equipment and materials further streamlined production. Instead of walking across the floor to gather materials, items are simply handed off.

“It is a tremendous improvement,” Schlabach says. “Just by rearranging work stations, we reduced foot traffic time by 65 percent.”

Over the years, the inventory of parts and materials had swelled and the company was looking for ways to reduce the overflow and make it easier to find various components. DEMEP came up with a centralized system that enabled the plant to reduce inventory by 15 percent. That freed space for materials for the iRail line.

To prevent inventory levels from creeping back up, Atlantic Aluminum now orders in smaller batches that are two-thirds less than previous orders.

“There are less materials sitting around waiting for an order to come,” Schlabach says.

In providing custom services, measurements are critical. The company relied on one skilled production worker to handle the job.

But the process was expensive, because the worker frequently had to drive significant distances to the job site, time that did not contribute to the final product. Measuring was scheduled around his days off.

The solution was to cross-train the sales staff and some installers to take measurements. The production person still handles the task on complex projects.

“On a simple job, a sales person can take measurements in the field,” Schlabach says. “We don’t have to send out a production person.” To make installations run more smoothly, hardware required for the job is organized and displayed visually, so supervisors can readily see when items need to be replenished. The system also eliminates time that was lost looking for hardware, a process that frequently involved engaging a supervisor to help search. “Parts are so clearly identified, a person could find something his first day on the job,” Schlabach says.

Atlantic Aluminum was able to reduce its overhead without a reduction in force. Thanks to a more efficient layout and processes, productivity is up 10 percent overall at the plant. An average of three days has been lopped from lead time, an improvement of 15 percent. On-time delivery is up 5 percent.

“DEMEP gave us fresh ideas in inventory control and helped us to clearly identify ways to be more efficient,” Schlabach says.