By Larry Nagengast
“I’d rather see more money spent on the front end and have production go smoothly without any defective parts. Training from DEMEP helped improve our efficiency and improve our quality. We’ve shipped more than 3.5 million parts to Nissan since September 2006, and we’ve had no rejects.” — Ken Orr, Atlantis president
For more than 40 years, Atlantis Industries Inc. has produced injection-molded plastics for a variety of industries, always adjusting its focus to stay ahead of market trends. From its beginnings as a supplier of parts used at the DuPont Co.’s nylon plant in Seaford, its evolution has included manufacturing parts for gas pumps, credit-card imprinters and gas masks.
While its current product line includes military, medical and plumbing applications, the auto industry truly drives the company’s business, accounting for about 60 percent of its revenue, Atlantis President Ken Orr says.
Ken Orr, owner of Atlantis Industries, Inc., explains the molding process to Governor Ruth Ann Minner inside Atlantis’ Milton facility. Streamlining processes like this one was made possible with help from DEMEP.
Since Atlantis, a family-owned business in Milton with about 35 employees, began supplying auto manufacturers in the early 1990s, it has learned the importance of staying ahead of the curve. To continue supplying parts and to expand the business, Atlantis realized it had to become what is known as a “first-tier supplier,” and that requires receiving ISO/TS 16949 registration. “If you want to be in the auto industry at a high level, you have to have it,” Orr says.
Earning that certification was no simple matter. It required tightening the company’s production processes – and learning how to do that required special training. So Orr and Atlantis turned to the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership (DEMEP), the nonprofit organization that helps the state’s manufacturers improve their quality, productivity and profitability by identifying, transferring and implementing appropriate best practices.
“Atlantis wants to play with the big boys,” says DEMEP trainer Kit Eisel.
Breaking Into the Auto Industry Supply Chain
The American automobile industry, Orr explains, is a multitiered operation, with suppliers working at many different levels, much like the human food chain. “It’s kind of peculiar how you get involved in different projects,” Orr says. “Nissan, GM, the big manufacturers, don’t come directly to us. They buy systems or modules from other large companies – those large companies subcontract to us.”
But Atlantis was hardly at the bottom of the chain. It was known as a “second-tier supplier,” one whose products usually move through one larger supplier before they wind up on the assembly line. Some of the materials used for the parts it manufactures come from third-tier suppliers, and others farther down the line.
ISO/TS certification, Orr explains, is generally reserved for first-tier suppliers, those that ship directly into the assembly plant. But some of Atlantis’s contracts require the company to manufacture parts entirely on site and then to ship those parts directly to the assembly plant. In these situations, Atlantis was functioning as a first-tier supplier even though it didn’t have that designation.
To reach first-tier status, a company must be able to demonstrate that its manufacturing processes operate at the highest level – with maximum efficiency, exceptional precision and qualitycontrol measures to ensure that defects are identified and corrected promptly.
It’s part of what’s called PPAP, for “Production Part Approval Process.” According to Eisel, “it sounds like it’s an easy thing, but you’ve got to go through 17 different analyses” for each different part produced.
For Atlantis, this represented a monumental challenge. As Eisel notes, “there are a lot of companies that supply only one part to a single automobile manufacturer. Atlantis makes many parts, for several manufacturers, and for each part they’ve got to make a separate review of their processes.”
Orr boils it down to four words: observe, monitor, detect and correct.
To do it correctly requires training – and proof that the necessary procedures have been set in place.
DEMEP Comes Through Again
To receive the required certification, Atlantis contracted with DEMEP for the training, and received partial funding for the training through the Delaware Economic Development Office.
“The training DEMEP provided when we sought ISO 9001 certification was exceptional,” Orr says. “We knew DEMEP would come through again this time.”
The training started in early 2004 with a Gap Analysis, a study of the company’s administrative and manufacturing processes to determine where Atlantis would have to improve its processes to upgrade from ISO 9001 certification to the higher ISO/TS16949 certification. Based on the results of the Gap Analysis, DEMEP was able to help Atlantis develop a comprehensive training plan to bridge that gap.
“We’re a small company,” Atlantis operations manager Billie Jean Clifton says. “One of the first things we found out is that we all talk, we review what we do, but we needed to have regular meetings to set goals and objectives, to have a more structured and formal review process.”
Now, she says, “after the DEMEP training, our whole system has improved. We have goals, objectives that we monitor continuously. We report regularly to management. We monitor absenteeism, on-time delivery, and our scrap rate [pieces that had to be discarded because they didn’t meet quality standards].”
Quality Leads to Contracts and Profits
Having some scrap is inherent in any manufacturing process; minimizing it can spell the difference between profit and loss, and developing a reputation for quality can mean more contracts, and greater profits.
This is especially true at Atlantis, whose die-makers create the molds for the plastic parts it produces for automakers. The dies are then used to create the actual parts.
For Nissan, it’s a series of small clips – unseen after the car is assembled – that join the roof to the frame of the vehicle. Atlantis molds the clips and then uses robotic devices to attach them to a heat-activated tape imported to the plant which must be kept below 48 degrees throughout the manufacturing and shipping process. When the clips arrive at the assembly plant, they’re placed in a track atop the frame; the roof is slipped into place and the heat in the painting process activates the glue on the tape. Each car needs 12 clips; Atlantis ships 350,000 to 400,000 clips a month to Nissan assembly plants in Smyrna, Tenn., and Canton, Miss.
For Ford, Atlantis makes a plastic end cap – it’s shaped like a gently curved letter “L” – that covers the joint between the roof and the body over the rear windows of the F-150 pickup truck. Each pickup needs two end caps; this summer Atlantis was making parts for 10,000 to 12,000 F-150s a week; in peak periods, it can turn out end caps to outfit as many as 18,000 vehicles a week. These caps are shipped to a first-tier supplier in Canada en route to Ford assembly plants in Michigan.
Having implemented the new processes and procedures with DEMEP’s help, Atlantis demonstrated a significant success with Ford. This paved the way for another significant job. Starting in the spring, it will manufacture a similar end cap for the redesigned Dodge Ram pickup.
“Without the ISO/TS certification, we never would have gotten the Dodge contract,” Orr says.
And the DEMEP training has helped Atlantis accomplish much more. In the process, management and employees have analyzed and documented every step in production, written it all down and printed it out so everyone knows what has to be done at all times. They’ve examined every conceivable variation in production – why a part might not come out just right – and figured out what might cause it (human error, a problem with calibration, etc.) and how to control it. If something goes wrong, they know how to fix it.
Workers feel more involved because the DEMEP training has given them a better understanding of all the processes at the plant, and this has increased productivity, Clifton says.
With that better understanding, Orr adds, employees also feel more empowered because their new knowledge enables them to make suggestions that can improve the process.
For a company of its size, what Atlantis has done “is a tremendous accomplishment,” says Eisel.
“DEMEP gave us the right trainers. They made it all happen,” Orr says.