If your mind dozes off at the mention of manufacturing plants, chances are you haven’t been in an automobile OEM site under the Toyota Production System. I have visited a space shuttle assembly plant and several neat electronic manufacturing facilities of the high tech industry; but the Flex-N-Gate plant experience last Friday is definitely one of my new personal favorites.
With facilities in the U.S, Canada, Spain, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, Flex-N-Gate’s corporate headquarters is right here in college-town Urbana—a mere 10-minute drive from BIF and Wohlers Hall. At the plant, we got to see the work flow from station to station, occasionally with large machinery and auto parts hovering over our heads. The work stations were positioned at as many as three levels. There were robots at work. We were educated on the Just-In-Time principals while observing the front and rear chrome bumper production. From its manufacturing facility floor design to its supplier arrangements, Flex-N-Gate really aimed at making the Pull System and Continuous Flow Processing possible by manufacturing and keeping inventory of strictly what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount needed. With frequent last-minute customer order requests and minimum allowance for work-in-process and inventory, the plant needs to not only perform work at high efficiency, but be able to respond quickly to changes. One of the most beneficial aspects of this system is that threats to quality can be detected and addressed earlier in the production process.
“If you can’t do fast-paced work or work under pressure, the auto industry isn’t for you,” says our tour guide, the Quality Manager at Flex-N-Gate.
At the end of the day, however, the aspect that impressed me the most at this particular plant was its people. The General Manager and Chief Engineer debriefed us through an hour long presentation. Before our tour, we were informed in detail of the strategy involved with the Toyota Production System: such as the “visual control”, which is a process to help increase efficiency and effectiveness by making things visible. During the tour, our guide was careful to point out examples of topics discussed in the presentation, and he tied them with concepts we might be learning in business courses. All of the in-charge and managers we met on our tour route took time off from their busy work schedule to inform us enthusiastically of how the operation on their ends fit into the big picture.
In a tour like this, perhaps you would expect narrations something along the lines of “so this is where process A happens. Machine B and C do this and that”. But no. At every stop we made (the paint storage room was no exception), we were given background information, industry trends, difficulties and benefits of the said function, as well as how all of these might relate to the Toyota Production System or that of a business model. After the tour, we were invited back to the conference room where the managers joined us in the back for lunch.
Upon the recollection of our lunch there…please allow me to diverge for a moment and describe to you what the lunchbox entailed. 4-5 selections of sandwiches, choices of beverage to satisfy majority demands, candy bars, large cookies, cups with an assortment of cut fruits—strawberries, grapes, apples, pineapples, cantaloupe, honey dew melon, blueberries—and the nicest disposable utensils that I didn’t know existed. (I’m not kidding. These disposable utensils looked like fake steel, with decorative engravings at the handles). Not bad for a fieldtrip free lunch that wasn’t even obligatory on their part.
Throughout the entire visit, questions were welcomed and answered in a professional, yet unpretentious and informative manner. All together, the people made quite an impression on me. I felt as though I was the owner, Shahid Khan, himself visiting the plant.
If this is the level of attentiveness they put in for a group of students that knew very little about their industry, I can only imagine the diligence and type of quality work that goes into this plant. No wonder Flex-N-Gate is one of the largest suppliers of the auto industry worldwide, manufacturing auto parts for major players such as BMW, Ford, GM, Nissan, and Toyota. I know I’m not alone when I say the Flex-N-Gate fieldtrip has helped me give well-deserved respect for the people and strategic technology driving the auto manufacturing industry.
P.S: In knowing how a great company was built, one has to learn the great mind that started it.
Here's an article about Shahid Khan, the owner of Flex-N-Gate