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UA professor's research helps Birmingham company.

The Dept. of Industrial Engineering at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa is helping a large Birmingham manufacturing company to improve the quality of its products and internal processes.

Professor Robert Batson has led UA's four-year assistance program at American Cast Iron Pipe Co. (ACIPCO), training upper and middle managers in the company to use a management concept known as the "quality improvement method," along with simple statistical techniques.

"I train them to focus on the process, not the results, and to base decisions on data from the process, not hunches," he said. "Furthermore, we combine training with project teams where the classroom concepts are applied to a chronic quality problem."

Batson is working with 14 teams of midlevel managers and their staffs to improve the systems they control and use. Two projects completed in late 1990 resulted in a combined annual savings of $200,000.

"Once management sees the improvement that is possible, they begin to organize training and teams in their divisions and departments," he said.

Such teams differ from traditional task forces and standing committees.

"Committees are made up of individuals who bring with them diverse problem-solving strategies, and only by change will someone steer the team to follow a structured process and evaluate data," Batson said. "Neither group (task forces and committees) has any philosophical grounding in the management of change, nor do they have any authority to make a change. They simply recommend."

The Deming Influence

The emphasis on data and the philosophy of continual improvement were popularized in Japan in 1950 by American management pioneer W. Edwards Deming. Batson said Deming's recommendations on teamwork, statistical analysis of data and improved communications proved effective in the 1980s for such well-known American firms as Xerox, IBM, Motorola and Federal Express, all winners of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

General Motors and Ford have led their suppliers to improve quality, as they did themselves under the guidance of Deming.

Batson stressed that success using quality improvement is gradual and continuous, but not usually immediately obvious. Maturity of such a program may take 10 years or more for a large organization.

"Many organizations hear about quality improvement or total quality management and think that somehow the turnaround will be overnight," he said. "Many become discouraged with the slow pace and hard work required, or just won't even make the attempt to improve."

However, for those who persevere, the rewards in expanded market share and improved productivity are impressive, he added.

"The people at ACIPCO have been very cooperative," Batson said. "I know just enough about their processes to ask questions. The knowledge of their employees, and their willingness to gather data and experiment, is what has propelled the quality improvement projects forward. I learn as much from them as they do from me. I collaborate with their engineers on publishable articles, and now have a lot of example for use in course discussions at the university."

In 1987, ACIPCO sought UA faculty assistance in a pilot quality improvement project in its brass foundry. The program now encompasses all of ACIPCO's product lines and has recently expanded into business functions such as shipping, purchasing, human resources and facilities. Batson, who worked part time with the company while on sabbatical the past year, has involved other UA industrial engineering faculty in the work as their expertise was needed.

Improvements

As a result of the collaboration, ACIPCO has seen improvements in metal pouring methods, moldmaking and coremaking, shipping and warehousing techniques, and job station designs. The use of production, maintenance and inspection records for improvement has become commonplace.

"The integrated treatment of such data is a key to improving manufacturing processes," Batson said.

Al Compton, an ACIPCO engineer and UA graduate, said quality improvement has been something of a "cultural change" for the company.

"We've got a lot of well-educated people in work line positions," he said. "We're teaching our supervisors to tap this resource."

Working with Batson on the project are UA industrial engineering professors Wayne Merritt, whose work has been in ergonomics or job station design; Jessica Matson, shipping and warehousing techniques; Allen Henry, who directs the Industrial Engineering Senior Design Clinic; and Gary P. Moynihan, who is co-directing with Batson student research to design an "expert computer program to aid in diagnosis of foundry quality problems."
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Title Annotation:University of Alabama's Robert Batson'; American Cast Iron Pipe Co.
Publication:Modern Casting
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Words:717
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