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Week of 21 Nov 2016: Innovations--winners and losers

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I thought I would spend some time this week talking about some of the innovations I have witnessed over the years.

When I was a co-op student, about 21 years old, I was sent to a factory in Williamsburg, Virginia, that makes two-piece beer cans for the brewery next door (It is still there. It was brand new at the time). I was sent out of desperation--the company I worked for was short staffed. We built washing machines that washed off the drawing compounds after the cans were formed and prepped them for printing. This was a warranty call--each of the three machines had six sets of fans on top of them to blow off the wash solution between each stage. The fan shafts were breaking because they were on three bearings and had never been aligned. Three machines x six fan sets x three bearings--fifty-four bearings and eighteen shafts needed to be changed. We had made the new shafts larger, but due to the larger shafts and the misalignment problem, there were four holes in 1/8 inch stainless steel walls that needed to be enlarged. This was being done with a small hole punch that one operated by engaging a bolt with a socket on a ratchet handle.


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One of our so-called professional service people had made a trip, accomplished almost nothing (one shaft replaced), and declared due to the facility's outage schedule it would take a year to change out all the shafts. I made one trip, changed out a critical one and went home to gather supplies. This facility worked a crazy schedule, noon to midnight and midnight to noon. I had recognized that the hole punch was the limit to getting the work done. When I arrived in their maintenance shop on my second trip, I took a couple of old broken shafts, welded one to the bolt head on the hole punch and welded another crosswise on the opposite end as a t-handle. Now I could reach the difficult spots and apply all the leverage I needed. I started at noon on a twenty-four-hour shutdown. The factory gave me one helper. Two shafts had been replaced, one by me and one on the previous trip, so I had sixteen to go. My helper and I got seven done by midnight. A fresh helper came in then and by then I was motivated. We pressed on and got the other nine done by 11:30 a.m. Innovation saved the day. The customer was happy. I don't think this could be done today--first off, I am not 21 years old, but more important, we were working on a sloped surface twelve feet in the air--today we would have to be tied off.

A few years later, I was working on a new manufacturing module for a new design of feminine products in Missouri. We had a machine called the CCLI--Carton Closer Leaflet Inserter. The carton was presented to this machine loaded with product. Printed instruction leaflets came off a roll, were folded and inserted in the carton, and the open end of the carton was glued shut. The problem was the mechanism that slid the folded leaflet into the carton. It consisted of a series of chains with little posts that protruded up through a slotted bed. Keeping the chains exactly aligned and the slotted bed components exactly even was impossible. I decided I could do the job with a couple of timing belts, backed by steel runners, that would squeeze the leaflet and shove it into the box. My design took us from about ten moving parts that need all sorts of finicky adjustments to two moving parts and a smooth plate. Worked like a charm--except. Except the mechanics liked to fool with this piece of equipment and they made a case, statistically, that the old system was more reliable than the new. They won.


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Another decade, and I am in northeastern Ohio in an old folding box board mill. Three folding boxboard machines making a whopping 333 tons per day. All three machines had winders. One machine had a decent sheeter with a flying knife. One of the other machines, in another room, had an old sheeter with a fixed bed knife. The fixed bed knife sheeter caused dusting problems and lots of rejects from the printers. We had more sheeting business than we could handle on the one machine with the good sheeter. I got an idea. I put an unwind stand in the basement under the good sheeter. I built some carts that would take full reels from the machines in the other room through the basement to the new unwind stand. The sheet was fed up though a slot in the floor to the sheeter upstairs and allowed it to be utilized when the machine with which it was aligned was making rolls. We called the whole thing the underground railroad.

Successful? Yes and no. At the same time this was going on, we had a super-sharp mill manager who eventually became the site manager. He kept improving production on the machines. Eventually, he got production up to 500 tons per day on two machines (with no capital, I might add) and removed the third machine with the fixed bed knife sheeter. He no longer needed the underground railroad because he saw a bigger picture and bigger opportunities than I did.

I could go on, and I could talk about innovations in management and other aspects of our business. However, I think you get the idea--big or small, innovations can be very effective.

What do you think? Please take our quiz here this week and let us know your thoughts.

For safety this week, innovating how we interact with machinery can make it safer for all of us.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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