Clopay Corporation: Hometown heroes

Paul V. Arnold, Noria Corporation

Augusta, Ky., is a quiet, laid-back city (population 2,000) on the Ohio River that's best known as the hometown of actor George Clooney; his late aunt, singer/actress Rosemary Clooney; and Miss America 2000 Heather French Henry. These days, it's also gaining notoriety as the site of a Clopay Corporation manufacturing plant.

Clopay doesn't have an Oscar (like George Clooney), a Grammy (like Rosemary Clooney) or a diamond-studded tiara (like Henry). What Augusta's largest employer (a 210-employee maker of plastic products) does have is one of the more impressive maintenance and reliability organizations in industry today.

"We didn't label ourselves as world class. Other people did," humbly states Scotty Lippert, a planned maintenance technician who oversees planning and scheduling as well as machinery lubrication.

Those people include the International Council for Machinery Lubrication, who named the Augusta plant the winner of the 2005 John R. Battle Award for achieving machine reliability and maintenance quality through the development, implementation and management of a best-in-class machinery lubrication program.

They also include representatives from big-name manufacturers in the United States, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Australia, Denmark and Austria, who have made the journey to 531 East Fourth Street in the past year to benchmark and share best practices in several facets of plant maintenance and equipment reliability.

"We have been working hard here to build what we call 'world-class maintenance systems,'" says Randal Smith, the plant engineer who manages maintenance and engineering. "We're trying to get it to where the machine always runs as scheduled - no breakdowns, nothing unplanned. We use the term 'world class,' but to me, it's all about being more proactive and reliable."

The plant, which runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, turns resin pellets into films and materials that Fortune 500 customers convert to make consumable products - medicated back patches, life jackets, diapers, Tyvek suits, surgical sheeting, beverage bottle labels, coffee filters and a variety of other items.

Utilizing elements of predictive, preventive and precision maintenance as well as lean manufacturing, a staff of 16 multi-craft maintenance employees is making hundreds of pieces of production equipment more reliable and the plant exceptionally cost-competitive.

Clopay plant manager Brian Blackford (left), planned
maintenance technician Scotty Lippert (center),
and maintenance and engineering manager Randal
Smith take pride in the Augusta site's reliability prowess.

Maintenance technician Wayne Blevins holds resin
pellets, which can be processed into a wide
variety of films and materials.



To become well-known, this Clopay plant had to first get to know the difference between where it was and where it wanted to be in terms of maintenance and reliability performance.

Up until the turn of the century, Clopay Augusta functioned like most plants.

"It was 'crank out as many orders as possible,' and when the machine broke, which it frequently would, fix it," says Smith, "Looking back, it was crisis mode. My phone rang off the hook."

Lippert, a former operator, began a second stint at Clopay in 1997 when he was hired to do maintenance planning and scheduling. In the next 12 months, though, he only was able to schedule one shutdown.

"I wasn't a planner/scheduler. I was really a maintenance tech in that run-to-failure system," he says. "I ran around fixing machines."

Smith summed it up, saying, "We weren't a healthy organization or a healthy plant."

The environment began to change in 1999 after Brian Blackford became plant manager. He ushered in a mind-set of continuous improvement and empowerment.

"We started putting together real systems that made us better every single day," says Blackford. "Also, we have very smart people here. I wanted to let those people be smart. I wanted to let them do the things for which they have a passion."

Safety was the first target. Focused activities and efforts served to develop formal safety systems. The plant's performance in this area has evolved from average (10 or more recordable incidents per year) to world class (a recordable rate of less than 1.0). Through September 6, the site had gone 423 days without a lost-time injury or illness.

Quality, in the form of customer returns, was the second target. Activities and ideas worked to lower returns (in total dollars and as a percentage of gross sales dollars), eventually to the tune of 80 percent.

Then came maintenance.

"Our vice president, Mike Carlson, challenged us to become better," says Smith. "We were never told how to do it. We were simply encouraged to get better. We were prepared for that. We had been researching for about a year how we actually wanted to build the system. We brought these ideas to Brian."

Says Blackford, "They had the ideas and the brains, and the drive to do it. My job was to support them and get out of their way."

The plan was as much about philosophical change as it was about structural or organizational change. The focus was on questioning everything, rethinking everything and continuously improving. No sacred cows would be spared.

"The key to continuous improvement is not accepting where you are at," says Smith. "We needed the attitude of always wanting to get better. We also needed a consistent course, where we weren't chasing this one day and chasing something completely different another day. This isn't easy, especially in a department of veteran technicians. It's hard to change when you've done something a certain way for 20 or 30 years. It has also required everyone to take on major tasks when they already have full-time jobs. But, you must take the long view. You have to work harder today in order to give yourself the opportunity for an easier future."


In late 2000, predictive and preventive maintenance was elevated and accelerated, and it would be led by the technicians in the organization. The assignments handed out by Smith included:

Lippert, oversee machinery lubrication as well as preventive maintenance contracting for hoists.

Junior Blevins, internal hoists PMs.

David Hargett, infrared thermography.

Fred Hargett (David's cousin), vibration analysis.

Wayne Blevins (Junior's cousin) and Jody Schweitzer, laser alignment and airborne ultrasonics.

Benny Mains, machine component balancing.

Karen Jones, calibration and instrumentation PMs.

Developing this expertise and leadership required a considerable amount of training. All of these technicians attended multiple seminars in their focused areas and several achieved professional certifications. Lippert is certified in machinery lubrication, shaft alignment and hoist maintenance. Junior Blevins is also certified in hoists. Fred Hargett is pursuing a certificate in vibration analysis.

"While we have people who are leaders in these PdM tools, other people learn about them as well," says Smith. "We don't want to be totally dependent on one person. We have to branch out. Secondary training is done by the leader, through seminars or through our vendors."

It also required investment in tools and technologies. The organization purchased, among other things, ultrasonics equipment, handheld heat-measurement guns, a thermography camera, laser alignment equipment, and a wide array of machinery lubrication and oil analysis equipment.


Lubrication has been the PM/PdM element that's made the biggest strides and received the most attention. As Lippert says, "It's the backbone that's propped up all other areas of reliability." It's no wonder, since oil is the lifeblood of any machine, and grease the salve that soothes and smooths many of its critical elements.

Any discussion on lubrication at this Clopay plant has to start in the lube room, which has been called "among the best in the world" by several high-ranking, well-traveled visitors.

It wouldn't be that far of a stretch to say that the room is as clean and organized as a hospital operating room. On shelves, in cabinets and on racks, there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place. Oil tanks, portable containers and sampling tools are color-coded to specific food-grade synthetic lubricants in order to virtually eliminate the risk of errors and cross-contamination. The color-coding system expands out to the plant floor, where individual gearboxes, automatic lubricators and Zerk fittings are color-coded to receive specified lubricants. That's extensive when you consider a single machine can have 100 or more Zerks.

In the lube room, Lippert samples oil when it arrives from the supplier to check baseline cleanliness levels. After the oil has been transferred to a tank on the rack, it is run through a specially designed filtering system to lower its International Standards Organization (ISO) cleanliness code.

Planned maintenance technician Ronnie Youngman
inspects motors in the storeroom.

"I can take a sample and see the difference in the oil going through one filtering, two filterings, and so on. I can lower the ISO cleanliness code about one point every time I filter it," says Lippert. "Our oil is very clean when we get it from our supplier, around 18/15/16, but I can take it to another degree of cleanliness."

Lippert says oil is filtered multiple times before it goes into a gearbox. This results in prolonged life and performance.

"All of the gearboxes that we changed over (from mineral oil to food-grade synthetic) in October 2002 still have the same oil in them today," he says. "That 4-year-old oil is cleaner now than it was when it first came into the plant."

Zerk fittings throughout the plant are color-coded
(white in this photo) to denote the correct grease
to use for a particular machine component.

Oil-compatible hoses equipped with quick connect/disconnect couplings safely and neatly transfer lubricants in the lube room and on the plant floor.

Such equipment and methods are meaningless without proper PMs that, among other things, examine lube health and ensure proper levels and function.



Karen Jones tests some electronic equipment with an amp meter. Jones is also responsible for calibration at the plant.

"PMs are a religion here," says Blackford. "They are fixed and scheduled. It's a key component of our planned maintenance strategy. Our production leaders understand the importance."

The maintenance organization parlays its lubrication prowess. It shares its success story with other companies in exchange for knowledge in other areas.



As most anyone who has been in the Clopay Augusta plant will tell you, its maintenance and reliability leadership goes beyond lubrication.

Smith's crew is seeing impressive results from using individual PdM technologies. But the biggest bang frequently comes when multiple technologies are used to solve an emerging or pressing issue.

Extruders for one product line were becoming problematic. The crew used boroscope and vibration analysis equipment to achieve the proper diagnosis: The base for the extruders was inadequate. The base was reinforced and components were rebuilt over the next two and a half months. The problem was eliminated.

Laser alignment teamed with machinery lubrication on another project.

"A big part of one technician's time was spent rebuilding pumps," says Smith. "We never got out of that situation until we started doing lubrication and alignment. By going through some diagnostic work, we found that the bases were an issue. We corrected that and started to address lubrication. Different technicians used different kinds of greases on these pumps. By combining all that - the alignment with the lubrication, giving it a good base, etc. - the rebuild issue went away."

Other PdM combo projects have led to increased reliability in components such as gearboxes and bearings.

"What one technology might not catch, multiple technologies can catch or can confirm," says Smith.


High-tech is cool and cutting edge, but this Clopay plant also found that substantial improvements can be attained by focusing on minute details. To that end, Smith stresses the ideals of "precision maintenance."

"A big point in overall proactive maintenance is being more precise in what you do. There is a definite payback here," he says. "If you replace a bearing, put it on correctly. Torque the fasteners properly so they don't come loose or you don't strip the threads. Studies show that maintenance creates a sizeable percentage of its own problems. We want to take steps so we aren't creating problems; we're solving them."

Therefore, technicians received training in precision maintenance methods from John Robertson, a University of Dayton instructor with more than 40 years of experience in plant maintenance and reliability.

The team also received torque and fastener training, and training on the proper use of torque wrenches, testers and calibrators.

In addition, Lippert recalled technicians' grease guns and replaced them with guns color-coded for certain greases and specifically calibrated to deliver the appropriate cubic centimeter measurement of grease per pump.

Underlying all of these precision activities are hundreds of documented standard work practices that provide the framework for maintenance and reliability at Clopay. The goals of these standards are to ensure consistency and predictability of tasks from one technician to the next, and to reduce variation and mistakes.

"We are indeed trying to reduce the chance of errors," says Smith. "Standard practices are the ways we want people to work, whether they've been here two months or 20 years."

All members of the maintenance organization regularly meet to establish or update the best practices. Agreed-upon practices are either written into the body of a PM task or into an overall work procedure housed on the Maximo computerized maintenance management software system.

"We probably have 150 to 200 work procedures and a great deal more inside of PMs," says Smith.


Standard work is also one example of how Clopay Augusta brings lean principles into maintenance and reliability. Just don't categorize and compartmentalize it as lean, says Smith.

"I started in manufacturing in the late-1970s," he says. "Back then, the concept of lean manufacturing didn't exist. But many of the things that you do in lean existed in maintenance. It's ironic to see how that has evolved. I worked in maintenance before I went to college. I was taught that you need to make things simple and straightforward. That was our model as far as documentation. That's the example we've used as we've put these systems together. I don't think of it as lean. I think of it as common sense."

Take the storeroom. An incredible amount of work was done - call it a 5-S lean project or pure common sense - to make this area a model of cleanliness, visibility and organization. Every item is labeled, stationed and presented in such a way that a storeroom employee, even one on his or her first day, can easily find the products they need. That setup is further bolstered by a bar-coding system that connects with Maximo to keep track of inventory levels and usage history.

"There are large projects that equate to greater reliability, and there are smaller ones that add up as well," says Smith.

Daily kaizen/common sense also leads to innovative solutions.

Storeroom racks that house bearings are located one floor below production machinery. These machines transfer very slight levels of vibration that can cause a pitting defect in the stored bearings. So, maintenance placed vibration-absorbing pads under the bearing storage racks. Problem solved.

Color-coding and visual instructions are consistently used to ensure that the right component or the right fluids or the right activity is married with the right machine.

A root cause analysis shelf serves as another lean/common sense example. A failed component is transferred to the shelf, located a few steps outside of the storeroom. From there, the technician embarks on a full five-whys examination to try to determine the root cause or causes that led to the failure. If he or she needs assistance, additional resources, including vendors, are brought in. Such RCA work recently helped determine that frequent failures in a material fluffing process were the result of static electricity and not the level measurement components and control devices that perform the process.

"We go to great lengths and dissect it," says Smith. "The ultimate goal is to virtually eliminate the chance of the failure reoccurring."


Fewer breakdowns, continuous improvement and increased reliability lead to happy internal customers.

"If that machine goes down on third shift, the production manager gets a call in the middle of the night. That production manager then calls maintenance. Those calls aren't pretty," says Blackford. "When you do the work that reduces the likelihood of a breakdown, that means fewer call-ins and less friction."

Adds Smith, "We look at it as we don't provide a service as much as we provide a product, which is a fully functional machine that will make a quality product."

It makes the bean counters happy.

The maintenance organization buys "a fraction" of the oil that it previously did (thanks to the change to food-grade synthetic lubricants and altered lube practices) and fewer gearboxes, bearings, filters, etc. (thanks to extended life from better storage, daily care and maintenance). It also stocks less inventory thanks to better tracking, historical data and storeroom management.

"Vendors don't like us as much as they used to," jokes Lippert. "We buy a lot less."

Adds Blackford, "We are asked to pursue cost savings every year, and the efforts here go a long way toward helping us reach those goals."

It also leads to happier external customers.

"Customers don't typically call you when things are going good. They call you when things are really bad," says Blackford. "I can say this, customers do frequently come here and audit our facilities. When they see what we are doing, they leave here really comfortable. It provides peace of mind."

That helps ensure a continuation of current business as well as create opportunities for expansion. The plant is currently building a production area in order to handle a huge new product line for one of its major customers. As a result of the expansion, Clopay will hire at least 50 more employees.

"If we didn't perform as well as we have over the last three years, we wouldn't have seen this new business," says Blackford. "It was our safety results, our quality, our productivity, our uptime that led our management to make the decision that Clopay Augusta is the place for this new equipment and these new employees."

Clopay gave the new business to Augusta even though the cost of raw materials is more costly here than at its plants overseas.

"If it costs less to run the equipment and there are fewer costly breakdowns, you can balance things out," says Lippert.


Balance is indeed important.

The Clopay Augusta maintenance team has made phenomenal strides and earned a considerable amount of recognition in the past few years. Its leaders are proud of that. But in true Augusta, Ky., fashion, they also stress humility, continuous improvement and a heavy dose of reality.

"You can't be satisfied with where you are at and what you've done," says Lippert. "So many people have started a project like this, but they dropped it. When progress stops, the situation reverts back to the old way. Something like this needs persistence and dedication."

Says Blackford, "We compete against the world. If we do not continue to get better every single day, our number is up."

Adds Smith, "We are trying to reach a total proactive mode. We may never get there, but that's the goal. If you think about it, there's really no end point. When I retire, I'll still not have fully met my goal. But when I retire, I hope that I can look back and say that I made improvement every year."


The next time you're in Augusta, be sure to visit the Rosemary Clooney House and Museum, buy an autographed copy of Miss America's book at the Parkview Inn, keep your eyes peeled for a vacationing George Clooney, and snap a few pictures of the Clopay Corporation plant.

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