Accuride Reinvents Its Wheel End Plant

April 20, 2018
One of the oldest foundries in the U.S., the former Gunite operation bounced back from bankruptcy through continuous improvement. Now, it’s all in on lean.

For any U.S. manufacturer to trace its roots to before the First World War is impressive. For a manufacturing company to date back to before the U.S. Civil War, though, is almost unknown. Yet, in Rockford, IL, we find Accuride Wheel End Solutions plant (formerly Gunite), a company founded in 1854. It has operated from that location since 1905.

Accuride Wheel End Solutions, Rockford Operations, is a 619,000-sq.ft. plant with 332 employees, represented by the United Auto Workers union. Last month it was named a 2017 winner of the IndustryWeek Best Plants Award — an achievement based on Accuride’s 15% increase in units/man-hours worked (2014-2016); 57% reduction in casting scrap; 92% improvement in first-pass yield of wheel end products over the past three years; and its 2015 Assn. of Manufacturing Excellence (AME) award.

The Rockford plant is one of the oldest operating foundries in the country, molding, pouring, and finish machining its own brake drum castings for trucking and agricultural market. However, despite its long and impressive track record, the company entered the 21st Century in desperate straits. Having gone through several ownership changes over the years, which saw much of the plant’s production capabilities moved to other cities, the company filed for bankruptcy in 2009 when the recession caused a precipitous drop in large-truck sales.

As it turned out, though, the plant’s dramatic transformation was about to begin.

The Rockford Operations was “a classic story of a Rust Belt factory that had been starved for capital and left for dead by previous owners,” observed Rick Dauch, president and CEO of Accuride, who came onboard in 2011, coincident with Accuride’s corporate push for continuous improvement at all of its plants. 

The decision was made to invest more than $70 million in the Rockford Operations to restore its production capabilities. “Together with our UAW-represented workforce, we decided to restore the business to competitiveness and profitability,” he explained, a restoration that took continuous improvement as its mantra.

A tour of the plant illustrated the extent to which Rockford Operations has embraced the lean culture, with various tools like the x-matrix (a strategic planning tool based on hoshin kanri methods), value stream maps, and a glass wall display board that shares high-level KPIs with employees, focusing on safety, quality, productivity and cost.

Another critical tool in use at Rockford is what Accuride calls Plan For Every Part (PFEP). This approach helps determine how much of each type of item is needed to meet customer needs across Accuride’s four key value streams: foundry, drum machining, hub machining and assembly, and slack assembly. Then, kanban pull systems are used across the processes.

“If you do kanban right, it’s the most powerful CI tool there is,” said Chuck Burns, Rockford Operations’ supply chain and lean manager. “And, when you get the shop floor-level workers involved in understanding the nuances of what goes into making products, then true continuous improvement has settled in.”

Core to Accuride’s continuous improvement strategy is what it calls the 50-50-20 impact, explained Jd Marhevko, senior vice president of quality, lean systems and EHS. This depicts how Accuride has leveraged a 50% average reduction in lead time, which has resulted in an average 50% increase in productivity and an average 20% reduction in cost per unit across its key value streams. When it comes to continuous improvement, it’s not much of a stretch to say that Accuride wrote the book on lean since Marhevko and two other colleagues wrote Lean Management 50-50-20 recently, documenting how Accuride has applied lean corporatewide across products, processes, and partners. Indeed, as Marhevko noted, Accuride’s matrix of strategic continuous improvement initiatives ensures that “no strategy is left behind.”

That being said, “The first thing we focus on every day here is safety,” emphasized Eric Pansegrau, director of operations at the plant. “We’re very much customer-focused as well.” In fact, Accuride is branching out now into enterprise-level lean, where they work closely with customers as well as suppliers to drive out waste throughout the supply chain.

“Changing the culture doesn’t happen overnight,” Pansegrau acknowledged, but one advantage that the Rockford Operations has is that many members of the leadership team have military backgrounds. “They bring a strict focus on ethics to the company,” he said.

“With so many ex-military people on our staff, they just won’t allow us to be bad,” added Marhevko.



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