What do metal water tanks, pickup trucks and RV chassis have in common? They’re all assembled in state-of-the-art facilities that were finalists for the 2011 Assembly Plant of the Year award.

What do metal water tanks, pickup trucks and recreational vehicle chassis have in common? They’re all assembled in state-of-the-art plants. Amtrol Inc., Ford Motor Co. and Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. operate facilities that were finalists in the 2011 Assembly Plant of the Year competition sponsored by ASSEMBLY magazine and The Boston Consulting Group Inc. (BCG).

ASSEMBLY’s editorial staff and BCG’s operations practice narrowed down the pool of candidates to create a final four. All of the assembly plants were worthy of consideration, but at the end of the evaluation process one stood out from the others: the Philips Respironics plant in New Kensington, PA. The facility was selected as Assembly Plant of the Year because of its innovative lean and green manufacturing initiatives.

However, the other finalists are also quite impressive, because they all have improved productivity by harnessing technology and lean manufacturing principles. ASSEMBLY and BCG applaud Amtrol, Ford and Freightliner for their efforts. Here’s a brief look at what makes each of these world-class plants stand out.

Amtrol Inc.

Thin-walled steel pressure vessels are used in a wide variety of residential, commercial and industrial applications, such as well water accumulators, indirect-fired water heaters and fire-control sprinkler systems.

Amtrol is a 65 year old company that invented the pressurized well tank, expansion tank and indirect fired hot water market. It operates a 250,000-square-foot facility in West Warwick, RI.

“We have worked hard to continually improve ourselves,” says Ellen Sweet, director of operations. “As a mature company, we depend on continuous improvements to [address] safety, quality, customer satisfaction, cost and technology to continue bending, welding and painting metal in the Northeast corner of the United States.”

Sweet and her colleagues have implemented many initiatives recently to reduce costs and stay competitive. “For instance, Project BOB (build-to-order break-thru) resulted in shipping to our customers directly from the manufacturing lines rather than from the finished goods warehouse,” she explains. “We increased shipments directly from the manufacturing lines from $4 million to $7 million.”

This project reduced SKUs for one product line by 53 percent; and caused finished goods inventory turns to go from a low of 9.3 to 19.7.

Amtrol has also invested in new production technology, such as robots that ensure consistent paint thickness and reduce repaints. “Not only was this a quality improvement in the paint adhesion; we were then able to utilize those operators who were manually painting and train them on robotics and other continuous improvement tasks related to painting,” says Sweet.

“To improve our welding processes, we installed a new degreaser, rebuilt some of our existing welders, and upgraded our welding technology from short arc to pulse,” adds Sweet. “In addition, we hold weekly meetings with our operators to continuously improve welding. We have installed vision systems throughout as quality checks.”

Amtrol is a vertically integrated facility that molds its own diaphragms and produces hoops that are used to assemble thin-walled steel pressure vessels. The company also manufactures valves that are used in steel gas cylinders.

A team was recently set up to look at scrap from the diaphragm molding process. “Our scrap rates were running through our material usage variances,” says Sweet. “We separated this to start tracking the true scrap value and where it is coming from. We have reduced this department’s scrap rate from 7.4 percent to 2.2 percent.”

Ford Motor Co.

The seven-year-old Dearborn Truck Plant is the home of the best-selling Ford F150 pickup. It’s also one of the greenest and leanest assembly plants in the auto industry.

The 2.6-million-square-foot facility was built from the ground up to be a showcase for green manufacturing. “The Dearborn Truck Plant was designed and developed with an ecological plan and vision focused on energy conservation and environmental responsibility,” says Anthony Hoskins, plant manager.

Hoskins and his colleagues have been aggressive in their recycling efforts. For instance, in 2007, the plant’s recycled paper, pallets, cardboard, concrete and scrap metal equaled the landfill disposal needs of a community of 159,580 Americans or the annual electricity needs of 21,427 homes.

Recyclable packing materials for parts, including cardboard, plastic caps and clips, paper and metal pins and screws, are collected in designated containers. The plant recycles more than five pounds of packing materials per vehicle, and has improved its recycling by more than 35 percent since 2004. Value stream mapping processes are used for assembly line waste stream management.

The Dearborn Truck Plant, built on the site of Ford’s historic River Rouge complex, makes extensive use of skylights and glass monitors to bring in natural light and reduce electrical demands. Photo sensors to turn off lighting when not required and a daylight monitoring system shuts down significant plant lighting when lighting levels are reached.

“Specially designed HVAC systems enable the heating and ventilation system to run at cooler temperatures and utilize heat gain in the plant to warm the air,” Hoskins points out. “Variable frequency drives and building pressure monitors minimize kilowatt-hour requirements, while maintaining the pressure envelope. A thermal energy storage and distribution system cools the body shop and final assembly buildings during hot and humid summer days.”

A 10.4-acre green roof system suspends 70 percent of storm water prior to runoff. According to Hoskins, this removes potentially toxic and carbonaceous particulates, and provides building cooling through evaporation and shading. The green roof also provides sound deadening; extends the useful life of the roof membrane to twice that of conventional roof membranes; and provides habitat and nesting opportunities for a wide variety of birds and insects.

“We have achieved a 13.7 percent reduction in waste to landfill against a 10 percent annual objective,” says Hoskins. “Despite many obstacles, including a two pound per unit increase in cardboard, we continue to over achieve our objective.”

Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp.

Next time you see a big motor home at a football tailgate party, chances are its chassis was built by Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. The company, a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America LLC, supplies chassis to leading recreational vehicle manufacturers, such as Coachmen, Four Winds, Gulf Stream, Jayco, Tiffin and Winnebago. It also assembles chassis that are used by manufacturers of walk-in vans, school buses and commercial buses.

An aggressive continuous improvement program has played a key part in the plant’s success. “Value stream mapping is used to identify waste in our current assembly process,” says Joseph Bradshaw, production manager. “Directing the efforts are highly trained lean sensei’s who facilitate removing the identified waste from our processes.

“Highly motivated team members help identify waste in their assembly processes,” adds Bradshaw. “They incrementally reduce waste from the process and understand our ultimate goal is to eliminate all waste. This is currently done through our employee suggestion system.” By using this two-fold lean effort, Freightliner Custom Chassis has remained profitable even in challenging market conditions.

Visual management and visual work instructions are widely used on the plant floor. Label, marking and foot printing is used throughout the 283,000-square-foot plant to assist teams with their organizational efforts. Scoreboards on the assembly lines communicate progress on an hourly basis for throughput time, direct run and accumulated downtime from the day’s performance.

Color-coded charts are used to measure performance against set targets. Standard work in process is controlled by red, yellow and green indicators to help relieve potential bottlenecks within the process. In addition, visual safety signs are used throughout the plant to raise awareness of potential hazards, such as speed doors and suspended loads.

“Visual work instructions provide our assemblers with standardized procedures to abide by while performing their job,” says Bradshaw. “A defined sequence of steps is identified for all manufacturing processes and job element sheets are created to support training and to ease the identification of waste. The standards are routinely audited for accuracy and updated as the necessary improvements are made.”

The 16-year-old Freightliner Custom Chassis plant is also a leader when it comes to green manufacturing. In fact, in October 2009, it achieved zero waste to landfill status.

Assemblers have found innovative ways to reduce and recycle all waste streams in the plant. They recycle batteries, cardboard, fluids, nylon, paper, plastics, metals, rubber and wood.

Results achieved by the Green Team, a cross-functional employee group, have pushed Freightliner Custom Chassis toward environmental excellence through improved environmental responsibility. “Green Team successes include a lessened carbon footprint, increased environmental awareness, community outreach, cost avoidances and reductions, and practice sharing with other businesses and organizations,” claims Bradshaw.