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Investing in employees.

Aurora Metals realized that all the latest technology and equipment won't do a world of good without upgrading its work force.

In an era when finding the time and energy for "extras" is tight in the industry, one foundry in rural Montgomery, Illinois, decided it couldn't afford to let its most valued resource slip by the wayside.

"We need people to work in a higher tech environment," said Jim Pearson, president of Aurora Metals. "Equipment is available and easily found, but it's not easy to take a work force and figure out how to run it. It comes down to upgrading equipment and people."

Aurora Metals, a division of Aurora Industries, was founded in 1899 to cast pistons for locomotive engines. When that market began to fade, the foundry started working with a variety of alloys and patented a unique vacuum diecasting process in 1927.

Later, it diversified into permanent mold and the two processes became the mainstay of the foundry. Feeling a bit insecure that nearly all of its business was related to these two processes as well as copper-base metallurgy, Aurora opened a sand foundry three years ago that allowed it to not only find new customers, but offer additional services to existing ones.

Aurora now promotes itself as a one-stop casting shop, complete with engineering services, vacuum casting, permanent mold and nobake casting, as well as a complete machining operation for final finishing. A year ago, the company also drew upon the talents of its employees and opened up a pattern shop.

Educating Employees

Recognizing the need to update its workforce, Aurora applied for and received an Illinois Prairie State Grant of $75,000 to fund an on-site training program through Northern Illinois University (NIU), in nearby DeKalb. Math skills and reading comprehension levels were determined for all 180 employees through confidential assessments administered by NIU.

Based on the results, NIU officials then recommended which employees should take shop math and workplace literacy courses. Because 30-40% of Aurora's employees are Hispanic, English as a Second Language (ESL) is also offered. Enrollment in the program is voluntary.

"It's shocking at times to find out what people don't know," Pearson said. "Until you have that assessment, you don't realize what the needs of your people are."

Classes are held three hours a week in a sectioned-off area of the lunch-room. Nearly 40 employees have graduated from the program. All employees remain punched in on the clock during the classes.

The classes are geared primarily toward work. In the English class, NIU instructor Helen Serafin teaches how to ask for directions, request things, and read and understand safety directions. Other discussions, she said, focus on day-to-day things to help the workers feel more comfortable speaking English.

During a recent English class, employees worked on tenses, pronunciation and verbal communication. Eager to learn, nearly all participated and they appeared to be having fun.

"It really boosts their self-confidence and self-esteem," said Serafin, who teaches both courses. "Before, they wouldn't talk at all."

Although this type of program should prove successful, Pearson said continual commitment is necessary. "There's a technical revolution in which the work force will require more education," he said. "Companies need to work with local schools. We're the customers of schools, and our employees are our most important asset."

Workers Rewarded

Two of Aurora's employees saw the results of the class pay off immediately. Maria Chavez, a rough grinder for 9-1/2 years, was recently promoted to second shift shipping/receiving duties after completing the ESL course.

"I don't have time to go to school on my own," she said. "I live in Plano (Illinois) and there's no teacher there. Here, she |Serafin~ teaches us everything--about going to the doctor, shopping, phone skills and how to talk to people with higher skills. When I talked to office people before, I didn't know what I was saying and got nervous. I'd get scared and say I didn't know English.

"Now we talk with people in the office. We talk and understand. It's still not perfect, but I'm not usually nervous."

Maria Carrocio is a Romanian immigrant who started at Aurora 12 years ago as a sander. She recognized her need for the classes, and attended math courses to help her advance at work. Foundry officials designated her a "utility player," working in inspection, sanding, the punch press, lathe and coreroom. Her regular duties were recently combined with inspection, eliminating unnecessary and time-consuming steps from the process.

"I've done it all," Carrocio said. "I can't get laid off as easy now. I'm too valuable."

Leadman Ruben DeLaCruz recently went back to school and earned his general equivalency diploma (GED). Now, Aurora officials have him deal directly with Mexican employees, and he has advised fellow workers to get their equivalency degree. "I've mentioned it to others--getting the GED. They have it in Spanish," DeLaCruz said.

Since earning his degree, Aurora has sent him to several CMI courses for additional training.

Dave Charbauski, foreman of the sand foundry, added, "If you don't keep learning, it's amazing how much you can forget."

Team Concept

As part of its continuous flow modernization plan, teams were established for improving specific areas of the organization. Teams were set up for machine shop, coreroom, setup reduction, customer service, implementation, welding, inspection, toolroom and the sand foundry.

"The goal is to develop a whole new manufacturing system by tapping the power of someone doing it for a living," Pearson said. "The old way, the worker checked his brain at the door. We want the decision-making person to help produce castings better and faster. If they're tuned in to the company, they'll ensure the success of that goal."

Charbauski admitted the total quality management program started off pretty rocky, since no one was sure what was going to happen. But in the long run, he said, the people doing the jobs know it best.

He said the old philosophy was to always do what the foreman said. "Now, by going to the team, you can give ideas on something you don't even work on," he said. "Before, foremen didn't like that too much."

Pearson added that the key to continuous improvement is that management must give up authority, but not responsibility. Now, he said, foremen are asked to be facilitators, coaches and mentors.

"Everyone wants to do a good job," Charbauski said, "and you do a better job when you're making your own decisions."

Recommendations Accepted

Aurora gives up production time to allow committees to solve problems. Several committees have visited manufacturers and other foundries in search of ways to streamline operations. The coreroom committee, for example, has proven to be efficient in improving operations while keeping costs down.

Aurora was using an alcohol-based dip, but employees were concerned because of possible safety issues. As a result of an investigation and ensuing recommendation by the team, the company switched to a water-based dip. The team also completed an extensive study before recommending a $75,000 furnace to dry the cores. Aurora purchased the machine.

During a recent meeting, the team discussed an experiment comparing different glues, equipment analysis and visits to other foundries. It also arranged for suppliers to come in and demonstrate different glues--especially on cores with thin vanes. Another employee said new blower heads for two machines would be needed before long.

After visiting another foundry, the team recommended dual conveyors for their core equipment. This way, smaller cores could go at a faster rate and larger ones at a slower rate.

Hands-off Management

Pearson said Aurora hopes to eliminate the "we vs. they" relationship management traditionally has with labor by having both the office and shop aim for the same goal--total customer satisfaction.

For instance, eliminating time clocks was one way to close the gap. "They were shocked we'd take that step," Pearson said. "But there's no reason they can't be as self-policing as us here in the office. If we develop trust, it'll chip away at things that separate us from employees."

In general, the company's new management approach has scored good marks. DeLaCruz noticed productivity really improved. Before, he said, there wasn't enough communication. "There's much more control now, and the work flow really improved," he said.

Sand foundry superintendent John Gerszewski spoke highly of the program and its impact on the foundry. "We showed them the end result and a couple of methods on how to get there," he added. "They just needed someone to show them how, that's all."

Andy Seifrid, lathe operator and facilitator of the machine shop team, said although it's had its glitches, a positive attitude keeps the program alive. "There are always people that no matter what changes, they're always going to complain about something," he said. "But as you see things happening, the attitude gets better."

Pearson said the program isn't successful at everything, but through the hands-off management approach, "we make mistakes and improve."

New Career Outlook

The continuous improvement plan also has reconditioned the way employees think about their jobs and dreams for the future. In October, 1991, veteran caster Saloman Rivas accompanied Pearson to Monterrey, Mexico for FUNDIEXPO. He assisted in translating, while the foundry promoted its vacuum casting technology in Mexico.

"Having worked here for 14 years, I think NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) could open up future possibilities for me in the industry," Rivas said. "No one wants to do the same thing for the rest of his life."

Planning for Future

Aurora's continuous improvement movement has received high marks from both the shop floor and the front office. It has established a common goal for both parties, who are working together to secure their future.

"Other companies have had short-term goals, and they're closed now," said Charbauski, who saw the foundry he worked for 14 years close its doors last year. "This program was a breath of fresh air."

Pearson said they haven't seen the economic rewards--yet. "But we have seen the intangibles, people working together, enjoying their jobs more and improving their skills.

"We don't want to be a Boeing, IBM, Sears-Roebuck or Pratt and Whitney. We don't want to lay off employees 10 years from now because of poor planning."
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Foundry Society, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Aurora Industries Inc. Aurora Metals Div.'s employee upgrading
Author:Lessiter, Michael J.
Publication:Modern Casting
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1701
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