Steely Reserve

DEMEP helps drive efficiency at Delmar’s Crystal Steel

By Eileen Smith Dallabrida

Founded in 1992, Crystal Steel Fabricators, Inc. is a leading regional provider of structural steel that forms the framework for hospitals, schools, office buildings and other larger projects.

Framework projects for Delmar-based Crystal Steel include buildings on the campus of Salisbury University.

Framework projects for Delmar-based Crystal Steel include
buildings on the campus of Salisbury University.

The Delmar-based company has earned a reputation for high-touch customer service, quality fabrication and on-time delivery with such high-profile projects as the control tower at Dover Air Force Base, the courthouse in Rockville, Md., and major buildings on the Salisbury University campus.

A certified Minority Business Enterprise in a number of jurisdictions, Crystal Steel’s clients include such major national contractors as Whiting-Turner, Turner Construction, Clark Construction and Gilbane Building Co.

In 2004, Crystal Steel expanded their operations to the Philippines, setting up an engineering center in Manila that enables Crystal Steel to offer quality detailing, engineering, and estimating at a competitive price point.

Like other fabricators, Crystal Steel has been impacted by a dramatic downturn in commercial construction. Industry wide, U. S. projects have plummeted, from 1.5 trillion installed square feet in 2008 to a projected .8 trillion installed square feet in 2011, a decline of nearly 45 percent.

“Companies are more aggressive to get work, and prices have gone way down,” says Emad Mohamed, Crystal Steel’s executive vice president. “When there are little or no profits, you have to find ways to become more efficient so you don’t lose money.”

Workers at Crystal Steel were already aware of the challenges in the industry. With fewer contracts, the company had eliminated positions in the plant, stopped running a night shift and called a halt to overtime.

In September 2010, Crystal Steel turned to the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership for assistance in learning to reduce waste throughout their process while maintaining their industry leading reputation of providing top quality products to their customer on time. Accredited by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, DEMEP’s mission is to substantially improve the quality, productivity and profitability of Delaware manufacturers by identifying, transferring and implementing best practices.

The strategy required three major steps:

  • Preparing and motivating the workforce
  • Streamlining the upfront process and flow of materials and information to the shop
  • Streamlining the processes in the detail and fabrication shops.

DEMEP provided basic education on the Principles of Lean Manufacturing to the entire workforce. Company leadership also stressed the need for change to employees.

If everyone pulled together and learned how to get the job done more efficiently, Crystal Steel would weather the economic storm and emerge a fitter company. “We held our own town hall meeting,” Mohamed recalls.

“We explained the market and what we were going to do to stay in business.”

Crystal Steel’s quality and customer service already was excellent; however it came at a great cost to the organization. Workflow in the shop was inconsistent. Jobs or sequences would be started, then put on hold for lack of details or changes. Beams or materials were building up in the shop, blocking aisles and preventing the smooth flow of material.

To get to a specific beam to work on, employees would often have to move beams as long as 30 feet and weighing more than a ton, a cumbersome and a labor-intensive task.

In the shipping bay, beams would be completed out of sequence and ahead of time, resulting in stacks of beams and parts. To load the truck, the shipper would have to search the stacks, find the specific item, remove the materials on top, restack the pile and load the truck.

“Every time we handle something, it takes time without adding value to the customer,” Mohamed says. “Our goal was to reduce the number of times we handle steel as much as possible.”

To improve the flow and quality of materials and information to the shop, DEMEP used Value Stream Mapping tools to analyze the upfront process, both in Delaware and in Manila.

Mapping revealed that drawings from the detailers sometimes created bumps in the road because they were incomplete or lacking specific finishes. And because their office is in Asia, it wasn’t always possible to obtain immediate answers to questions.

The team then created a Future State Map of how things should operate in the future. As a result, Crystal Steel began instituting standards throughout their processes to achieve consistent, predictable and repeatable results. They also looked at improved tools for communication and project tracking to better determine the root cause of errors and eliminate these problems over time.

“Multiple revisions cost the company money,” Mohamed says. “If we reduced revisions, we would save money.”

With the upfront processes improving, the next step was to look at the Detail and Fabrication shop. Once again, DEMEP used the Value Stream Mapping tool to identify opportunities for improvement and create a vision for the future.

As a result, Crystal Steel has improved scheduling of the process so that parts are fabricated in the order in which they are needed by the customer and loaded on the truck. Facility improvements and relocation of processes were identified for improved flow.

Equipment upgrades were also identified. An outdated saw used to cut heavy beams frequently jammed resulting in costly delays.

Crystal Steel invested in a new more efficient saw. An added bonus: the new saw includes a drill and requires only one operator to run both functions instead of two.

“We can pay for it in only two years for the money we are saving in lost productivity,” Mohamed says. “Plus it’s much faster.”

DEMEP also introduced the Principles of 5-S, or workplace organization and standardization. Originally developed in Japan, 5-s is a systematic approach to reduce waste and simplify the work environment, making it more efficient, effective and safe. The 5-S principles translate to Sort, Set-in- Order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain.

Using these principles, Crystal Steel has freed up space by eliminating obsolete equipment and materials. The shop is better organized. Time spent searching for materials, tools and equipment has been reduced.

Placing a plate next to the table where it will be drilled or outfitted with connectors eliminated a move, immediately trimming 30 percent off set-up time.

Scrap steel has been reduced by more than 10 percent. Plant wide, non-value added work time (time that does not contribute to the final product), has been reduced by 11 percent. Communication and understanding with the engineers in Manila has improved.

With new efficiencies in place, the company is able to do more fabrication in house. The night shift has been restored, Crystal Steel has added workers and overtime has been reinstituted.

“We know that the economy will turn around in the future,” Mohamed says. “When it does, we will be ready as a more competitive company.”