Boeing, IBM, Maytag and Mitsubishi-Caterpillar plants earn Honorable Mentions.

What do military helicopters, computer servers, dishwashers and forklifts have in common? All of those products are assembled in outstanding plants. In fact, the facilities were finalists in the 2005 Assembly Plant of the Year competition sponsored by ASSEMBLY magazine.

There was an exceptionally strong field of candidates for this year's award. That made it extremely difficult to narrow down the list to five finalists.

All of the assembly plants were worthy of consideration, but at the end of the evaluation process one stood out from the others: the Xerox Worldwide Production Systems Manufacturing Plant in Webster, NY. The facility was selected as Assembly Plant of the Year because of the way it has applied Lean Six Sigma to help Xerox achieve a remarkable turnaround. The plant has also focused shop floor efforts on meeting customer needs, while addressing environmental concerns.

However, the other finalists are also quite impressive. Here's a brief look at what makes each of these world-class plants stand out.

Boeing Mesa

The AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter is built by Boeing Co. (Chicago) in a state-of-the-art plant in Mesa, AZ, that employs 4,700 people. They produce both remanufactured and new aircraft using a single, mixed-model, pulsed moving assembly line. Boeing has successfully met all production contractual deliveries to the U.S. Army and other customers since 1999. This is due in part to the deployment of the pulsed moving line and lean manufacturing principles.

The Boeing Production System serves as the foundation for manufacturing the Apache. By applying lean concepts, the Mesa plant has reduced final assembly, integration and test hours per aircraft by 85 percent during the past 5 years. A 40 percent reduction in cycle time has been achieved over the same time period. Other achievements include:

  • 100 percent on-time delivery of helicopters over the past 5 years.
  • Manufacturing hours per aircraft reduced by more than 47 percent over the past 5 years.
  • Internal defects reduced by more than 72 percent over the past 4 years.
  • The cost of internal defects, such as rework, repair and scrap, reduced by more than 48 percent over the past 3 years.
  • Injuries resulting in lost workdays reduced by more than 61 percent over the past 3 years.
  • Lost workdays reduced by more than 58 percent over the past 3 years.

"By integrating people, processes and tools into the manufacturing support systems, Boeing Mesa has created a center of excellence for supporting customer requirements throughout the life cycle of the high-tech helicopters," says Ed Koopman, general manager. "A qualified, trained and empowered workforce is important to the success of the plant.

"Employee involvement shapes the successful execution at the site through the use of high-performance work teams and integrated product teams," adds Koopman. "These teams are responsible for the continuous improvement that is the core of the site's success and results in the delivery of consistently high-quality products to customers."

In 1999, the plant launched an innovative program that migrated the responsibility for product quality to operators. The site began moving the inspection function from designated third-party inspectors to the operators, who are responsible for inspecting their work.

To encourage employees to develop job-related skills, the plant developed a system called skill-based pay for direct-touch labor. Under the program, pay is based upon skill competency, not service time.

Team performance is monitored and reported by teams on a weekly basis. To allow operators to benefit from their exceptional performance, Boeing Mesa ties a percentage of pay for meeting performance targets. At the end of each quarter, if teams meet its cost, quality and schedule commitments, the team is rewarded with a 4 percent cash payment.

IBM Poughkeepsie

High-end computer servers, such as the pSeries and zSeries, are built by IBM Corp. (Armonk, NY) in Poughkeepsie, NY. Each device is housed in a relatively unassuming black box that measures approximately 72 inches tall, 40 inches deep and 36 inches wide. But, every machine is custom-built and crammed full of powerful microprocessors, memory cards and other electronic components.

Despite the complexity of the product, the simplicity of the production process allows the plant to excel. "The assembly team takes great pride in meeting customer expectations," says James King, manufacturing operations manager. "We base our efforts and discussions on business value and customer focus, and all improvements are driven by one or more of our business values: cycle time, quality, culture, inventory and cost."

All products assembled in the plant have a mean time to fail measurement that averages in excess of 50 years. During the past 8 years, the ISO 14001 and ISO 9001:2000 certified facility has moved to a fabrication and fulfillment process.

"The assembly team builds and tests, or fabricates, the various parts required to fulfill a customer order," explains King. "Once a customer order is received, the fabricated parts are then used to assemble the order."

This emphasis on speed has significantly reduced the time required to fulfill an order, allowing the manufacturing team to satisfy a high-end server order within 48 hours from customer order entry to shipment. That includes assembly, testing, packaging and putting the order on a truck.

Customers can choose more than 250 features, which leads to thousands of various configurations. Every server is built to the exact configuration requested by each customer. The assembly process indicates to the operators which features are required for each order. Once assembled, each server is run through a test plan designed specifically for that configuration. Customers can also order upgrades to their existing servers, which can be assembled and shipped within a few hours by the Poughkeepsie plant.

During the past year, a new continual improvement process was put into place. An advanced manufacturing sciences team, consisting of six individuals, works with all 295 manufacturing employees to discover plant floor issues and come up with solutions. So far, more than 70 process changes have been implemented, based on more than 700 ideas submitted. Each improvement has had an effect on business values and allowed the plant to achieve more than $1 million in cost savings.

Because of the initiative, the plant was able to meet cycle time and customer needs during a recent spike in demand. "During the last 13 days of 2004, our plant shipped 56 percent of its total ships for the fourth quarter," says King. "As our shipments peaked during the last five days of the quarter, we had one fully loaded tractor-trailer packed with high-end servers pulling away from the shipping dock almost every hour."

Maytag Jackson

Maytag Corp. (Newton, IA) opened a new factory in Jackson, TN, in 1992 to serve as a model of just-in-time manufacturing, with the goal of building the appliance industry's best quality dishwashers at the lowest possible cost. Assemblers build more than 100 dishwasher models daily, with brands including Maytag, Jenn-Air and Amana.

All 600 employees subscribe to the Maytag LeanSigma philosophy, which combines lean manufacturing methods with Six Sigma tools. Since the plant began its lean manufacturing journey in 1999, it has achieved significant improvements in safety, quality, cost and delivery. For instance, the facility has reduced OSHA-recordable injury rates by 64 percent while improving first-pass quality yields by 84 percent. The plant has also reduced its internal defect rate by 32 percent and lowered hours per unit by 27 percent.

In the past, Maytag Jackson boasted a single, very flexible assembly line capable of producing any model any day. Today, the plant features eight single-piece-flow assembly cells with the ability to produce any model any hour.

"Our goal is to deliver the right product at the right time," says Terry Spalding, director of manufacturing. "We have the flexibility in our facility to immediately respond to customer demand. Teams can adjust assembly cells with minimal notice to changes in the schedule. Through the use of our lean manufacturing principles, we have the ability to produce any model dishwasher at any hour of the day."

The plant has implemented numerous lean manufacturing practices, such as kaizen events, visual work tools, standardized work and poka-yoke systems. "These world-class tools are the foundational blocks that allow us to improve continuously in meeting the competition, which is so fierce in the appliance industry today," says Spalding.

For instance, kaizen is linked into an abnormality management program and a daily improvement system. "Training, goals, time and resources are dedicated to kaizen, and recognition for accomplishments are the keys to our success," explains Spalding.

Team culture encourages empowerment at all levels in the decision-making process. Maytag Jackson team members are totally committed to continuous improvement. "They are dedicated to creating a safe environment and to providing top-quality dishwashers in the quantities required by our customers, at the time required by our customers," says Spalding.

To cultivate this concept, employees are divided into high performance work teams. Each team is a natural work unit that accepts responsibility for managing its daily work environment. This means learning and taking responsibility for all jobs within the team by rotating through each workstation, selecting new team members, conducting peer reviews, monitoring product quality, managing production schedules and facilitating weekly team meetings. Teams also assume additional responsibilities for other activities, such as safety, scrap reduction, preventive maintenance, information sharing, budgets, training, 5S and inventory.

Mitsubishi Caterpillar Houston

Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc. is a joint-venture plant in Houston operated by two global powerhouses in the material handling industry: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (Tokyo) and Caterpillar Industrial Products Inc. (Peoria, IL). Different qualities and strengths, such as engineering prowess, brand-name recognition and product support, were melded together in the early 1990s to create an industry heavyweight. Today, the 700,000-square-foot plant builds a wide variety of forklifts that roll off the assembly line painted Cat yellow and Mitsubishi green.

The facility has implemented world-class manufacturing techniques that have supported innovative new product launches. Shipments have risen from 92 vehicles a day to 98, while delivery rates have improved from 19 percent to 66 percent. The number of hourly manufacturing workers has been reduced from 733 to 579, while hours per unit has dropped from 75 to 44. At the same time, warranty cost has been slashed from $9.05 per unit to $4.65 per unit.

According to David Greathouse, engineering manager, the average vehicle is assembled from more than 2,500 distinct parts. He says the forklift assembly process was created to meet current production needs while taking into consideration future changes to vehicle design. For instance, standardized workstations can be changed or modified quickly and easily to accommodate new vehicle options or features.

Last year, the plant unveiled revised standard operating procedures that show operators how to assemble the vehicles using appropriate methods, tools and equipment. They are given a broadcast sheet that describes the options and custom configurations requested by each customer to make sure that each forklift is assembled correctly.

The new work instructions have more detailed information, including better illustrations, such as 3D drawings, defined critical parameters and part number information. "The old SOP used to be stored in dusty books hidden on supervisors' desks and would have to be manually updated for engineering changes," says Greathouse. "The new system now has document control and viewing capabilities via a Web-based interface on our intranet. Touch screen monitors have been installed throughout the facility for better access by the operators."

The plant has also taken steps to improve the fastening process. "To make sure fasteners are secured to engineering specifications, we use calibrated torque tools during the assembly process," explains Greathouse. "We also perform quality checks throughout our processes to ensure solid workmanship and optimum safety."