The OpExChange plant tour in Duncan on May 9, 2023, was anything but ordinary. Not only did members witness firsthand how AFL Conductor Accessories has skyrocketed on-time delivery and sales with very little capital investment, but they also had the privilege of being taught how to do it themselves with a tutorial from Gemba Systems on Practical Analytics using Microsoft Power BI.
But that is not all! The AFL team wowed them with real-life examples of how they use Power BI to streamline their daily operations, from inventory management and sales pricing to product and program management. The testimonials from team members on how the tool simplified their jobs provided some depth to how these improvements were made.
Eric Borowicz, the General Manager of the site, presented a top-level overview of the program and its outstanding results. In just one year, on-time delivery has improved by nearly 50%, with revenue and operating profit realizing significant growth. The implementation of practical analytics has given the team unparalleled visibility and insights, improving communication and collaboration.
While Eric certainly takes immense pride in his team’s financial accomplishments, he is even more delighted with what he considers to be their “crowning achievement.” Specifically, the site has gone an impressive 23 years – which amounts to a total of seven million hours – without experiencing a lost-time accident. This feat is a testament to the incredible culture that the team has worked diligently to create and maintain and has resulted in a world-class employee retention rate.
Practical Analytics Evolution at AFL
Despite AFL’s delivery performance being superior to that of their competitors, it still remained one of their primary objectives for improvement. To enhance their on-time delivery (OTD) performance, the organization identified inventory management and control as critical areas for improvement. Eric stated, “We have 15,000 locators, 10,000 different SKUs, 3,000 of these are less than one hundred pieces. Our warehouse was a mess!”
Eric enlisted the assistance of Gemba Systems to tackle this challenge by streamlining their warehouse operations. The Gemba team collaborated with AFL to analyze data and identify potential issues. As Joseph Etris, Vice President of IoT Solutions, rolled-up his sleeves and “got dirty” with the AFL team, he had an epiphany – if he could harness the data he had been analyzing into a user-friendly format, it had the potential to empower the AFL team to make autonomous decisions. He began exploring Microsoft Power BI as the tool to do this, and soon was able to put them on a path that would change their world.
Witnessing the immense power and remarkable flexibility of this tool, both the warehouse team and management were excited, envisioning how it could simplify their lives exponentially. This realization sparked a cascade of innovative ideas in other areas of the plant.
Power BI emerged as a valuable asset for the sales department, offering enhanced visibility into sales margins and trends. Its impact was significant, leading to a pronounced improvement in the margin percentage. Over the past year, they have experienced meaning margin growth showcasing the tool’s ability to drive profitability and bring about positive changes.
Eric estimates that dashboards and reports provided to him have personally saved him about one hour per day. That is time he can now spend more effectively with his team. This type of time savings was typical to other applications made throughout the factory.
Jon Potter, AFL’s Commercial Manager, shared the personal pride he takes from the customer recognition they receive. Many of their customers are distributors for large, nationwide distribution channels who specialize in warehouse operations. Jon finds it particularly gratifying when these customers visit AFL’s plant for a tour and are astounded by their warehouse efficiency and control. This validation serves as a strong affirmation that AFL’s efforts are making an impact.
The Flintstones Culture with a changing workforce
Eric affectionately refers to his team as “the Flintstones.” This is due to the nature of their work. “We work for a living over here. We build parts. We are a machine shop.” Being a machine shop has its advantages, and one of them is the flexibility it provides. As a result, AFL is able to offer flextime to their team, promoting a better work-life balance.
Eric stresses the significance of accommodating employees’ personal needs, such as attending recitals or ballgames, without compromising their vacation time or attendance at work. This is just one of the many benefits AFL offers to benefit their employees.
Because of an employee-centric work environment, the Duncan facility is able to boast an attrition rate that is world-class. Eric estimates that they may lose one employee per month, which translates to about a 5% attrition rate. He noted that those that do leave are typically parting due to attendance issues and not leaving for other manufacturing jobs.
The make-up of the workforce is changing, however. As the tenured employees retire, they take with them some of their “tribal knowledge” and experience. When Eric started at AFL in 2000, the average tenure was fifteen years. It is now about two years. They have addressed some of this departure with technological improvements. As an example, they have implemented robotic welders so that an experienced welder is not needed. They just need a person to responsibly load and unload the machines.
During the visit, several employees from different departments spoke about how Power BI has positively impacted their work life. Representatives from program management, production supervision, warehouse, operations, product management, and pricing management all provided deeper-dive testimonials on how Power BI has improved their efficacy in their jobs. The testimonials shared by the employees revealed three recurring themes – the user-friendly nature of the tools, the time saved through their utilization, and the positive changes they brought about.
An important aspect to highlight is that the utilization of these tools and reports does not require an elevated level of technical expertise. It was emphasized that even individuals who consider themselves “technologically challenged” can effectively navigate the interfaces. One presenter shared their personal experience, expressing that the visually appealing dashboards and reports make it incredibly user-friendly, despite their initial concerns about their own technological proficiency.
The warehouse team demonstrated how they use Power BI for cycle counting and consolidation of part location. The improved cycle-count accuracy from this justified eliminating performance of an annual, multi-day physical inventory.
Plant Tour – Go to Gemba!
The group was taken on a comprehensive 45-minute tour of the 140,000 square foot facility. They were given the opportunity to witness the standard operations of a machine shop, which included various processes such as turning, pressing, drilling, and welding. What made this particular experience unique was the realization that despite the use of traditional methods, the “Flintstones” are certainly not stuck in the past. Instead, they have integrated some cutting-edge 21st century technology into their operations.
Within the facility, an impressive 3D printing room stands as a testament to technological innovation. The room is equipped with state-of-the-art machines that operate around the clock, leveraging additive technology to fabricate intricate castings and parts. The remarkable impact of these machines is their ability to produce parts and castings quickly and inexpensively. Starting with a single printer, savings realized in the 1st year exceeded 4x the investment. Today Accessories has four printers of different sizes and capabilities.
Moreover, the facility proudly embraces the implementation of a cutting-edge real-time locating system (RTLS). This advanced system harnesses the power of ultra-wide band (UWB) technology to track work-in-progress with remarkable precision, achieving accuracy of up to a eight inches. The system’s capabilities prove invaluable, particularly during high-priority orders such as those necessitated by unforeseen events like tornadoes or hurricanes. Their customers depend on a rapid response to restore electricity to the power grid. The ability to swiftly locate and monitor the progress of jobs in real-time empowers the organization to efficiently fulfill the expedited orders, providing vital support to customers in times of crisis.
Practical Analytics Workshop
After the morning presentations and tour, the group dove into the afternoon activity: a three-hour workshop facilitated by Gemba Systems. Equipped with their own laptops and using Microsoft Power BI, participants connected data tables from various sources and created their very own customized dashboards. The workshop was designed to highlight the power and simplicity of the tool, and the group was excited to learn how to apply these techniques at their own facilities. After the training, one OpExChange member stated, “I learned more in this beginner course than I have learned in multiple virtual training sessions at my own company.”
Leadership and Culture are Foundational to Continuous Improvement
The OpExChange plant tour in Duncan on May 9, 2023, provided a remarkable experience for attendees. They were able to experience a facility with demonstrated world-class safety results and employee retention. AFL displayed their impressive achievements in on-time delivery and sales growth without capital investment, while Gemba Systems offered a tutorial on Practical Analytics using Microsoft Power BI, empowering participants to implement similar strategies.
The examples and testimonials from AFL team members emphasized the user-friendly nature of the tools and the time saved through their utilization The tour also showcased AFL’s commitment to continuous improvement, as evidenced by their investments in technology such as 3D printing and the real-time locating system. The workshop allowed participants to explore Power BI and create their own customized dashboards, further enhancing their understanding of its potential. Overall, the event demonstrated the power of “practical analytics” and innovative solutions in driving operational excellence and fostering a culture of continuous improvement in manufacturing organizations.
The impressive accomplishments and advancements achieved by the AFL team can be attributed to the strong underlying culture developed and maintained by the team and its site leadership. A family-like atmosphere, built on trust and empowerment, has played a crucial role in driving the organization’s success and facilitating continuous improvements. This collaborative culture has enabled AFL to overcome challenges, implement innovative solutions, and achieve outstanding results. The spirit of teamwork and collaboration was evident throughout the OpExChange event as Eric and his AFL team openly shared their experiences and knowledge, displaying their commitment to collaboration and their willingness to contribute to the broader community of South Carolina manufacturers and distributors. This is what makes the OpExChange so powerful for improving the collective competitiveness of the South Carolina manufacturing ecosystem.
Eric succinctly summarized the event and OpExChange purpose – “The whole thing about the OpExChange is that this isn’t just a presentation that you receive and walk away from … You can come back. You can come sit with our folks; you can walk through the program … The purpose of the OpExChange is to share that best practice and learn, and you don’t have to really invest in it yet.”
Founded in 1984, AFL is an international manufacturer providing end-to-end solutions to the energy, service provider, enterprise, hyperscale and industrial markets. The company’s products are in use in over 130 countries and include fiber optic cable and hardware, transmission and substation accessories, outside plant equipment, connectivity, test and inspection equipment, fusion splicers and training. AFL also offers a wide variety of services supporting data center, enterprise, wireless and outside plant applications.
Headquartered in Spartanburg, SC, AFL has operations in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia, and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Fujikura Ltd. of Japan. For more information, visit www.AFLglobal.com.
The OpExChange, sponsored by the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, is a peer-to-peer network of manufacturers and distributors in South Carolina known for generating success for members through benchmarking and best practice sharing. Member companies host events and share practical examples of industrial automation, lean manufacturing improvements, and leadership development. It is an invaluable resource to South Carolina companies that provides access to others who are on similar improvement journeys. If your company is interested in participating in this collaborative effort to improve both the competitiveness of your operation and South Carolina, contact Mike Demos (Mike@OpExChange.com). More information and upcoming plant visits are available on the OpExChange website www.OpExChange.com.