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ABB Plant Tour: A Competitive Advantage through Integrated Business Teams

At the ABB Dodge plant in Marion, NC, the keys to success are integrated business teams that function on a foundation of collaboration and trust, as well as operations that concentrate on standardized processes and a top-grade safety culture.
These were some of the key takeaways from the Manufacturing Leadership Council’s plant tour of the ABB Marion facility earlier this month. More than 50 MLC members toured the Dodge plant, engaged in a question-and-answer session with plant management, and discussed their own initiatives around the tour’s theme of cross-functionally integrated business teams. Tracing its roots from 1883 when Ludvig Fredholm started making electrical lighting and generators, ABB, in its present incarnation, was formed in 1988 through the merger of ASEA and BBC. Today, ABB is a $34 billion global corporation made up of four main divisions: electrification products, robotics and motion, industrial automation, and power grids. With headquarters in Zürich, Switzerland, the company operates in 65 countries and has  nearly 135,000 employees worldwide.
The Marion, NC, plant has core competencies in tapered roller bearings and spherical roller bearings, which have primary applications in aggregate belt conveyors for mining operations, grain elevators, and air handling systems for power generation. The 256,000-square-foot plant opened in 1996, and today has 170 employees working over three shifts.
Three words heard often at ABB are safety, flexibility, and accountability. Hourly employees are cross-trained on a variety of shop floor functions and equipment to allow for flexibility in job assignments. Performance monitoring and continuous communication between all levels of the organization builds a companywide accountability mindset. Daily safety conversations at the start of each shift bring attention to best practices and potential areas of improvement. There is a continuous effort to keep safety top of mind, and the safety culture at the Marion plant is so good that they have had just one lost-time incident in the plant’s 22-year history.
While these integrated teams have improved how the plant works on the inside, it has also been crucial to the company’s mission of improving customer value and streamlines into the company’s voice of the customer process. This process identifies a complete set of customer needs at the start of the product development cycle, with the following goals:

  • To define engineering requirements for new product development
  • To increase the success rate of new products by focusing them on solving customer problems
  • To reduce or eliminate costly design changes to new products once they are delivered to market

Using this process, the company heard from its mounted bearings customers that they wanted to minimize unplanned downtime, more easily monitor the health of their bearings and know when they were due for replacement, monitor bearings remotely, and eliminate the safety risk from internal bearing inspection done by their workers.
From that information, the company introduced the ABB Ability smart sensor for mounted bearings. The wireless sensor monitors temperature and vibration within the bearing, sending a warning if it detects anomalies. A bearing is then more easily repaired or replaced before a breakdown, and physical bearing inspection is no longer necessary. As MLC members witnessed during the tour, the sensor is tapped into the bearing’s housing and can be installed or removed easily through a pipe plug. It includes a QR code that routes directly to the smart sensor website, a resource for bearing data, user information, and customer support.
At the time of this plant tour, ABB was just entering the second month of a tiered accountability improvement system, formally known as the Relex daily management system. The goal of the program is twofold: (1) to drive employee engagement, and (2) to quickly understand a team’s wins and losses when it comes to meeting performance metrics. Utilizing four tiers, the system is designed to identify problems quickly, to empower staff to resolve the issues they can, and to rapidly escalate any remaining issues for swift resolution. Even in its earliest stages, the company has reported that productivity and safety KPIs have improved since program implementation.
As one company official said during the panel discussion: “Our cultural glue is giving people the power to make decisions, but also being accountable for their outcomes.”
When company officials were asked about what they felt was the next level for the Marion plant, they had broad ideas for the future. One said more sensors and more centralized data collection. One mentioned automated conveyance – to end the use of fork trucks on the plant floor. One suggested a universal pay scale for hourly employees to maximize flexibility, and several mentioned building a more nimble supplier base.
With an engaged workforce, culture of accountability, and an eye on products that will be the best solutions for their customers, the ABB Dodge plant is a case study in operational excellence achieved in large part with the help of cross-functionally integrated teams.

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