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Evan Miller


Healthy Growth Management

Improved control leads to more consistent products, increased line speeds, and more sales

Published: Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - 13:09

Sponsored Content

PLZ Aeroscience is North America’s largest custom aerosol manufacturer and packager. It produces its own private-brand products and custom formulations, and provides contract filling for other customers. PLZ has been in business for more than 100 years and during the last six years underwent significant growth—and the inevitable growing pains.

Legacy systems hamper growth

Recently PLZ managers realized that their legacy paper-based data management systems also need to change to effectively manage that growth. PLZ had grown through acquisition and expansion of privately owned brands. As the company combined smaller operating entities, each with its own processes and systems, PLZ needed to consolidate these information systems and improve operating efficiency.

“With the increasing number of products that we were trying to manage with the current level of personnel, it was very challenging to make sure everything was just being held in control.”

PLZ began by implementing an enterprise resource planning system, improving its ability to schedule and track orders across all the plants in the organization. That system showed promise, but there was more riding on the company’s reputation for quality. Thus, quality data systems quickly became the focus for improvement opportunities.

As the new corporate quality engineer, Douglas Niemeyer realized that individual companies’ quality systems maintained control, but there was great opportunity for improvement by creating a corporatewide quality system. Niemeyer had spent the formative years of his career in the electronics industry, where access to clean, timely data was taken for granted. At PLZ, inspectors on the shop floor were writing down quality numbers on paper, just as it had been done within the individual companies. Quality team members periodically audited work on the shop floor, reviewing the data collected on paper, and double-checking the line controls.

“We would have inspectors on the lines, recording data in spreadsheets,” recalls Niemeyer. “Then the QCs were reviewing that data with a greater focus on keeping the controls ‘in spec’ versus understanding what the line capabilities really were, and when corrections should be made before a control ranged ‘out of spec.’”

It was very challenging

It wasn't difficult to see if any of the numbers were out of specification; however, it was difficult to understand how the product was running against target. And it was very difficult to compare how different machines or tooling were performing. “With the increasing number of products that we were trying to manage with the current level of personnel, it was very challenging to make sure everything was just being held in control,” Niemeyer notes.

Another big problem was that the information was stuck on the factory floor. Problems were hidden and out of sight, and Niemeyer's team had little time for proactively improving operations. Quality staff spent a considerable amount of time managing rework when processes ranged out of specification. With increased demand for transparency across all the company’s facilities, the practice of shoe-leather-based research proved to be inadequate.

Something had to give

On top of these inefficiencies, the PLZ quality team faced a challenge to bring staff costs in line with new corporate expectations. “We were challenged to reduce our head count while at the same time improve our quality and productivity,” explains Niemeyer. “There is no way we could achieve those conflicting demands while continuing to use legacy systems and practices.”

Rising staffing costs, customer complaints, declining efficiency, and high inventory carrying costs impacted profitability. Quality staff spent many hours chasing last week’s problems. Meanwhile, business performance suffered as the company was unable to leverage economies of scale through standardization across the diverse manufacturing plants. Caught between high corporate expectations, the current reality of operating performance, and inefficient supporting data systems, something had to give.

Timely, accurate data were key to improving performance

PLZ decided to replace its manual, paper-based quality tracking processes with a single, state-of-the-art computerized system. With immediate access to timely, accurate quality data, quality engineers believed they could address a number of performance issues.

One of the acquired plants had successfully used Hertzler Systems' GainSeeker software for several years for real-time data acquisition and analysis, but the corporate research team wanted due diligence to select the best solution. After a thorough competitive search, the team selected the GainSeeker SPC software because they were confident it had the flexibility to handle the volume and diversity of products the company manufactured.

Company sees immediate payback from automated paperless system

Implementing first on two lines at the company’s Pacific and St. Clair, Missouri, facilities, PLZ managers began to see immediate payback from their efforts.

“If I tried to analyze some of the things I do now with the system, it would take a hundred man hours just to be able to generate the data that I can now create in a few minutes.”

Hertzler worked with the PLZ team to implement a custom-configured deployment of the GainSeeker Suite to match PLZ’s specific processes. Together they set up a system to collect data on the production lines and in the quality lab. Several dozen measurements were automatically collected from digital gauging equipment, or posted manually using a computer keyboard. These included a variety of prefill and post-fill weights, pressures, container dimensions, and other measurements. In addition, operators were given limited ability to enter key performance attributes such as for spray patterns and visual appearance.

Given the company’s business profile of producing high-volume diverse products, Hertzler gave special attention to designing a sustainable system for managing the thousands of base products and hundreds of thousands of SKUs. All products are maintained in a company-designed (and familiar) spreadsheet.

Data are now logged automatically into a single database from wherever a test is performed, either on the production floor or in a quality lab. As soon as operators enter data, they see these data plotted on a chart. These are typically plotted separately by key variables such as filler head. This makes it easy to see how close individual filler heads are running to target, and to see (and take action on) trends before they become problems.

Image 1: Using GainSeeker Real-Time Analytics, PLZ was able to significantly reduce variation and increase the consistency of its products.

Real-time data empowers significant performance improvements

With real-time data visible and available for making better business decisions, PLZ teams have been able to drive significant improvements in company performance. These improvements include:
• Reduced material costs
• Reduced head count
• Fewer product holds
• Higher production numbers
• Reduced inventory and raw material costs
• Higher product consistency
• Reduced customer complaints
• Increased revenue

“When you have it charted, it makes it very clear what heads are functioning very well versus others that have a little bit more fluctuation happening than what we are comfortable with. That helps draw attention from the line mechanics to take a look at the specific heads in need of attention so we can correct the problem sooner.”

More timely and accurate data have helped PLZ teams to reduce the variation in key fill weights, resulting in reduced material costs and more consistent product.

“When you have it charted, it makes it very clear what heads are functioning very well versus others that have a little bit more fluctuation happening than what we are comfortable with,” explains Niemeyer. “That helps draw attention from the line mechanics to take a look at the specific heads in need of attention so we can correct the problem sooner.”

More consistent products, along with more timely information about problems, have reduced the amount of product placed on hold. Reducing product on hold means that orders are filled faster, and this in turn helps cash flow. On top of that, better control of the fill process means that the plants can hit production targets more consistently, and thereby reduce dependency on warehouse inventory to meet customer orders. This translates into reduced inventory and lower raw material costs.

Having more accurate data and better consistency in core business operations has allowed production lines to speed up. In the last three years, PLZ has increased line speed by up to 20 percent.

Some investments in capital equipment upgrades have been postponed due to increased efficiencies from legacy equipment. Lacking highly granular actionable data, many in the company had believed the equipment was doing the best it could, and would need to be replaced to improve fill rates and production line speed. With GainSeeker Suite, line operators have been able to pinpoint precise opportunities for adjustments or maintenance, and maximize the performance of the equipment. There may be a decision to upgrade or replace legacy equipment to push even higher performance, but it will be decided knowing that the company maximized the value of its original investment.

Another benefit realized is the increased flexibility of the manufacturing supply chain. The PLZ logistics teams can now assign specific production runs to optimum locations while taking into account overall production costs, including internal transportation costs, quality loss costs, and so forth. This increased flexibility helps PLZ be more responsive to its customers, and has, in turn, resulted in winning new and expanded business.

What about the original directive to reduce head count? With automated systems that focus on controlling processes, the quality department was reduced by half, and quality staff were reassigned to more productive activities. While that has been a significant savings by itself, it is arguably one of the least important benefits to having actionable real-time data available for better business decisions.

Improved performance drives revenue increase

“We’ve shown the quality management system to our higher-end customers and suppliers, and they've been blown away,” says Niemeyer. “We’re leading the way and engaging with more high-end customers.”

For Niemeyer, the time saving has been enormous, especially given the increased scope of data now being collected. Today, PLZ teams manage 100,000 data points a month from 11 production lines at two Missouri plants, and there are plans to expand the system to all facilities in the corporation.

“If I tried to analyze some of the things I do now with the system, it would take a hundred man hours just to be able to generate the data that I can now create in a few minutes,” notes Niemeyer. He is especially satisfied—proud even—of the feedback he has received from customers, of the ripple effect across the company, and of the enormous benefits PLZ Aeroscience continues to realize from these efforts.


About The Author

Evan Miller’s picture

Evan Miller

Evan Miller is co-owner, president, and CEO of Hertzler Systems Inc. Prior to joining Hertzler Systems, Miller taught technology education in Canada. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and his master’s degree from Ball State University, Indiana. Miller has served on the boards of IU Health Goshen (Indiana) Hospital, the Maple City Community Orchestra, and Pathways Retreat.