by Brittany Willes, contributing editor
An operator in a rubber molding facility is hard at work. He uses a steel hook to help move the newest batch of product down the conveyor. As he works, the steel hook assist device gets caught on the conveyor and nearly pulls his arm down the line. Further down the conveyor, a chopper knife cuts the steel hook in half. “There are a lot of bad things we could take from this experience,” stated Greg Vassmer, chief technology officer for Trostel, Ltd., the facility where this incident took place. “This was a relatively new operator who had just finished training. He should have known to press the emergency stop button when he sent a quarter-inch piece of steel down the line, but he didn’t. The good thing is he let go of the steel bar when it hooked onto the edge of the conveyor. The chopper could have cut his arm off.”
Luckily for the conveyor operator, in June 2013, Trostel, located in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, invested in a visual management system. The company originally installed 10 cameras to monitor critical areas of the factory and since has added seven more. The camera system has 30TB of hard drive space that can store 60 days’ worth of recordings. Additional cameras and monitors on the plant floor allow operators to see what is happening during all of the downstream operations. “The person on the top floor of the mezzanine can see if the person at the blend mill is ready to receive material as it drops out. The person at the end of the batch-off can see the person loading the conveyor at the top of the stairs,” Vassmer stated. In this case, when the conveyor operator lost his steel bar, another worker saw it and was able to press the emergency stop.
“Our camera system is a continuous improvement tool. It’s not a security system or an employee monitoring system,” remarked Jayson Irwin, Trostel’s plant manager. “It is a process monitoring tool. Not all potential failures can be predicted, so when they do occur, this tool allows us to perform better root cause analysis investigations so we can put in place permanent corrective actions.” According to Irwin, the biggest challenge in installing the system was cost, which was a significant portion of his facility’s annual capital budget. “It was tough to convince some of our leaders of the intangible benefits of a system that cost so much,” Irwin stated. “However, those same leaders now are very much in support of this tool. This approach has resulted in improvements in safety, quality and productivity.”
The visual system speaks to Trostel’s culture of openness and continual improvement. “Trostel has a good working relationship with the Independent Union of National Amalgamated Workers Union, Local 711, and we were able to explain to our employees the benefits of this tool,” Irwin affirmed. “The main benefit is being able to go back and observe what happened when a failure is later identified. We also explained that we were going to use this as a teaching tool to show all employees videos of mistakes being made so that everyone could learn from these mistakes. This has allowed us to put in place better standard operating procedures (SOPs), develop better training for new employees and better lay out the work cells.”
Returning to the case of the conveyor operator, additional safety precautions have been put into place. The rollers at the beginning of the conveyors now have height sensors. If an operator’s arm goes into the system, the entire machine comes to a stop. The conveyor operator received more training and the emergency stops were made more prominent and moved closer to where the operator stands. “Now, if someone gets caught, they can still shut off the machine using another part of their body, if they have to,” Vassmer asserted, “while the person down below acts as a backup.”
“We never blame the individuals,” Vassmer said further. “We assume they meant to do right. When a problem occurs, we can go back and see what happened. Furthermore, we can see if there are safety issues, such as if there are dangerous practices in the warehouse. These are the areas we know we have to improve. Each step takes us closer to where we want to be as we go through our journey of continuously improving our operation.”