ISO 9002 at Atlas Foundry is only part of the commitment.
"Any commitment to quality is a good idea" is how Rod Mehrer answers the question of why Atlas Foundry & Machine Co. decided to become one of the first foundries in the U.S. to achieve ISO 9002 certification.
As an ISO registered supplier of steel castings, Atlas views certification as an important step toward fulfilling its commitment of meeting customer needs - a commitment guided by the company's credo of continuous improvement.
So, in early 1991, the task of pulling the pieces of the company's quality management system together to satisfy the requirements of ISO 9000 fell to Mehrer, the foundry's quality assurance manager, and his staff. The Atlas management team determined that the company had the resources to take on the job internally with no help from outside consultants.
Having previously been through numerous audits, they felt comfortable that they had the talent to do the work needed to pass the audit and become ISO certified. In retrospect, the decision to keep the preaudit work inside became both a blessing and a curse.
The effects of shrinking markets, rapid technological changes and fierce domestic and international competition during the early and mid-1980s took its toll on nearly all U.S. foundries. Atlas Foundry & Machine was no exception. Those near-recession years left an indelible mark on the foundry, and taught it two vital lessons that continue to guide the foundry today.
First, their business, as they knew it, would never be the same. The pace of change had become so rapid that to sit back and wait would be economic suicide. Atlas had to anticipate customer needs and be willing and able to meet them or someone else would.
Second, and even more important, was that if Atlas was to grow in a mature market, quality that led to customer satisfaction had to be the engine to drive that growth. It couldn't afford to be just another steel foundry.
Established in 1899 in Tacoma, Washington, Atlas has served a variety of markets throughout its long history. Today, nearly 90% of its castings are used by the power industry. Pumps, valves, turbines and compressor parts make up the bulk of the foundry's shipments. And as its customers' businesses have grown beyond the North American boundaries, Atlas has had to grow with them or risk losing business to competitors that, just a few years earlier, were unknown.
With this knowledge and an already strong commitment to set itself apart from its competitors, it didn't take much urging from customers for Atlas to tackle the ISO 9000 program. According to David Caldwell, vice president sales and marketing, "Two of our three largest customers were moving toward ISO 9000. We didn't need them to tell us that at some point they expected their suppliers to follow their lead."
"In terms of business," said James Reder, Atlas president and general manager, "I think the thing we saw more than anything else was opportunity. Being an ISO-registered foundry will give us the chance to expand our business domestically as well as in Europe and the Far East, and to a much more limited extent, in China and Taiwan.
"Competition is being limited by customers who are looking to reduce their overall supplier base. Part of that was accomplished during the '80s when a lot of steel foundries went out of business. At the same time, the pressure to perform has grown because the foundries left are pretty good. Our goal is to be the best of the best foundries. ISO certification is an important move for us in achieving that goal."
Atlas also was backing up its stated commitment to quality with significant investment in improving its manufacturing facilities. Before starting its ISO program, the foundry had already embarked on a $12 million capital investment program. That included a new 50,000-sq-ft, state-of-the-art cleaning facility, a wet sand reclamation system, an expanded sand delivery system, two new high-intensity mixers, a high-temperature heat treat furnace and an 80,000-gallon quench tank.
With so many pieces of the quality puzzle firmly in place, management believed the stage was set for Atlas to become an ISO 9002 steel foundry. Its own personnel would conduct all of the preaudit work. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) was contracted to perform the, system assessment and, upon successful completion, would provide coregistration with the British Standards Institute.
But as Mehrer says now, "We knew we had our work cut out for us, but we may have approached the program too casually in the beginning, and we stumbled a little. By the time we finished, it had become a tremendous learning experience for us."
The ISO Experience
"The ISO Series Standards are a set of three individual, but related, international standards on quality management and assurance, and one set of application guidelines (9001-9004), "said Michael Warchol, Quality Insights. "These standards were drafted by the International Standards Organization and have been adopted by more than 50 countries.
"ISO 9000 is not itself a standard; rather it is a map for selecting and using the other standards within the 9000 Series. Its purpose is to provide the user with guidelines for the selection and use of ISO 9001, 9002 and 9003. ISO 9004 is not a standard, but a document titled Quality Management and Quality System Elements - Guidelines."
ISO 9001 is the all-inclusive standard that covers design/development, production, inspection, installation and servicing systems. 9002 is a subset of 9001, excluding the design/development phase of the standard. It is designed to cover organizations where specific requirements for products are stated in terms of established design or specifications. Atlas chose 9002 because they only provide design assistance.
At the outset, the Atlas staff was confident it could accomplish the precertification work in the time allotted. The goal was to become fully registered by early 1993. By the time they kicked off the program, they had already completed their nuclear recertification with ASME, which they have maintained for 20 years. In addition, they had been through dozens of customer audits and were certified to NAV SEA 250-1500 to supply components to the U.S. Navy.
With these experiences already under their belt, Atlas personnel were comfortable in tackling their newest challenge. For more than 1-1/2 years, the foundry's staff pieced together hundreds of documents to back up the quality system. "It was an enormous job," Mehrer said. "We found that we were working with forms that I think were 100 years old. These were updated and computerized.
"Teams were formed in various areas and assigned to write up their own procedures. The Quality Assurance Dept. then audited, reviewed and approved the procedures. We then released them to the plant."
By late 1992, Atlas was confident it could pass the ISO audit and become fully certified by early '93. UL auditors came, and after three long days of thorough and detailed study, Atlas received its grade - it had flunked.
Results of the audit stunned the management team. "UL left us bloodied and bruised," Mehrer said. "I think, like a lot of people, we looked at the ISO 9000 process as being inert. But we found out that it's a potent program that requires that you go beyond skimming the surface of quality management."
Back to Square One?
"We were more than a little surprised that we didn't pass the initial audit," Caldwell said. "We had already been through so many quality audits, we were comfortable that we would be able to satisfy the requirements of ISO. Rod and his crew and the teams that were formed worked more than a year and a half on the project. We still haven't figured out exactly how much time was devoted to it - probably thousands of hours. But in no way was the initial audit a complete loss because all we needed was a partial reassessment."
If the foundry's commitment to quality and achieving ISO 9002 certification wasn't as firm and institutionalized as it was, that initial disappointment could have been a real setback. Instead, it proved to be a real motivating force.
"What we learned was that we had done a lot of things right," Mehrer said. "Where our biggest failure occurred was in the consistency of writing the procedures and lack of detail in documenting everyday operations like molding and coremaking that we took for granted. We probably stressed the testing and inspection and quality assurance areas too much at the expense of the some of the normal manufacturing tasks."
"The first thing we did after the initial audit," Caldwell said, "was to write procedures so that we would clear up the consistency issue immediately. We learned that we didn't have universal procedures, just department policies. We had to make sure that we documented every operation and that they were consistent from department to department."
One example is the control and inspection of customer-owned equipment, such as patterns and tooling. Procedures need to be implemented for receiving and inspecting patterns; contacting the customer regarding the condition of the patterns; and establishing records that track the tooling - all the way through receiving, inspection, repair and use.
Other issues that weren't addressed initially involved subvendors and product delivery. "We hadn't established procedures to track our suppliers or to track our delivery procedures," Mehrer said. "Just like your own internal procedures, you must document, control, track and review your suppliers. Today, we do it quarterly."
"ISO addresses intent," Caldwell added. "You have to answer two basic questions: Are customer needs going to be met? And how do you verify that you are meeting their needs?"
Mehrer stressed the control and audit aspects of the international standard.
"Either you control what you're doing or you don't," he said. "Controlling a process without verifying it continuously is pretty much like saying that the control doesn't exist. Remember, in order to maintain your certification, auditors come back every six months to make sure that you're following your procedures."
When the auditors returned in January 1993 to do the partial reassessment, they brought four people - two regular auditors and two trainees. After two days of painstaking scrutiny, Atlas was told it passed the audit and was ready for certification. UL presented the foundry with its ISO 9002 certificate on March 10, 1993 and BSI followed with its certificate two months later.
In retrospect, the process was an enormously positive experience for Atlas.
"It's the best thing we ever did," Mehrer said without hesitation. "Formalizing your quality management system, then having an experienced outsider scrutinize it, takes you from being reactive to being proactive. Too often, you're wondering where you are with your processes. After going through this process, you know where you are. You eliminate a lot of the standard guesswork."
Atlas management will admit that the process of getting ready for ISO certification wasn't without its problems.
"I'm not going to tell you that there wasn't a lot of resistance in the beginning," Mehrer said. "Telling people that they had to write down procedures for jobs they had been doing for years didn't sit well with everyone. Top management support was key in getting beyond that initial resistance. Once we did, the momentum was amazing.
"What happened was that we began solving problems that we struggled with every day while we wrote the procedures. As the benefits became obvious, more and more people got excited about the project. The process of getting certified seemed to become just as important as the certification itself."
As the two-year project progressed, strong interrelationships between departments began to emerge, according to Caldwell.
"As engineering developed a better understanding of what sales was doing and sales began understanding what production was going through," he said, "you could see a lot of the traditional departmental barriers disappear. I don't think that we could have anticipated these reactions."
Mehrer, who spearheaded the Atlas ISO 9002 project, offered suggestions for other foundries considering ISO certification.
"Start from scratch," he said. "Go back to the basics. While the standards seem very general and subjective, don't take them too casually. All job functions are covered, including training. Substantiate, back up, calibrate, track and audit every function in the foundry. They all need documentation."
He also recommends a preaudit survey: "It isn't inexpensive to have ISO auditors come in and tell you what's wrong. Find someone with experience to check out your system and documentation before calling in the auditors. It will head off a lot of things that they could find during the formal audit."
Beyond positioning Atlas in a business sense, ISO certification is presenting the foundry with a variety of other opportunities, said Caldwell, as he shared the Atlas philosophy. It reads:
"We believe the manner in which Atlas does business should be founded upon many commitments both internal and external to the company.
"We also believe we must offer our customers the product of a company which provides quality, efficiency and service.
"We believe that our employees are our most valued resource; thus, we are committed to providing an atmosphere which promotes a team relationship that is mutually beneficial to each employee as well as the total organization.
"We also believe in providing the maximum profitable return on investments to the company's owners, which, in turn, should generate security and prosperity to the entire company."
At Atlas, being a registered ISO 9002 steel foundry represents just one more step in meeting these commitments.
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|Title Annotation:||ISO 9000, part 3; Atlas Foundry and Machine Co.|
|Author:||Kanicki, David P.|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1993|
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