Knowledge Management Using Digital Dashboards

Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe developed a customized real-time data tracking system that provides useful production charts to aid in better decision-making.

N. Rankis

(Click here to see the story as it appears in the September issue of Modern Casting.)

Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe, a McWane Co. in Phillipsburg, N.J., is one of the country’s most experienced manufacturers of ductile iron pipe.It has been in operation since 1856, but the facility is not a plant of the past, according to general plant manager and senior vice president Dale Schmelzle. “Atlantic States has become a ‘knowledge management’ driven foundry,” he said. “Keeping in mind that technology enables us to manage our knowledge, we needed to start a culture that was conducive to sharing information and building an informational database.”

In the past couple of years, Atlantic States has adopted and implemented a knowledge management infrastructure to help the managers and employees make good business decisions within plant operations. To make it work, the company utilized some out-of-the-box systems while also customizing new programs to work specifically for its needs.

Usability of information management systems probably is one of the greatest barriers to a successful knowledge management system. Atlantic States uses an in-house programmed plant manufacturing system called Enterprise, designed by sister company Pacific States, which worked well for tracking production data.

“However, since it was based on how our sister company does production and reporting, there was a gap between the data and helping managers make business decisions,” said Steven Guymon, programmer, Atlantic States.

Once Atlantic States adopted the system, the company saw it worked well for manufacturing, but the reports and process simply were designed to work at another plant. Finding the right information was a challenge, at times, and the system provided data overkill. The pipe company wanted to fine tune the plant management system to provide its leaders and plant workers with only the data that makes up the health indicators of plant operations. The system also needed to capture undocumented information such as personnel’s thoughts and ideas.

Atlantic States set about programming its own system to create new charts and dashboards used on the plant floor and in managers’ offices to provide a visual representation of the data in Enterprise. Atlantic States relied on personnel with previous experience in knowledge management and developing digital dashboards, who began providing rapid application design sessions during weekly plant meetings.  Shortly following the sessions, new digital dashboards were rolled out that provided the real-time health indicators the company needed. These included the following:

Open Work Orders by Reason Code

Keeping work orders in control helps reduce machine downtime, keeps production running, reduces part cost and reduces safety risks. Managers can click on their department (e.g., safety) and view at a glance where they stand with their work orders. The chart also helps monitor forecast costs of parts and labor. By doing so, Atlantic States can better prioritize work schedules.

Actual Cost by Ton

The actual cost by ton is a banner that provides real-time expenses against budget. Like using a checkbook, departments can look at their financial budget goals and what’s available for the month. Atlantic States uses cost by ton because iron is a commodity, and the company can compare the cost to make a pipe to the tonnage produced.

Sales and Shipped Tons

This dashboard tells Atlantic States, by customer, what has been sold and what has been shipped. It allows the company to gauge sales and, at a glance, determine the presence of bottlenecks in shipping or plant production areas.

Top 10 Scrap Types by Percentage

Scrap is waste, and waste costs money. Iron scrap can add up to millions of dollars lost to the bottom line. The casting department and plant management look at this chart to see which casting machines are performing poorly and determine if training or machine maintenance is required. The casting team uses it to know where and what to focus on improving.

Production Equipment Performance

This is a real-time chart that reports what each machine is producing and which machines are up and running. It helps sales and shipping determine which orders are being filled or which orders can be filled, as well as whether machine output is within goal.

“This chart has given us the ability to process live,” said Dan Fittro, plant manager. “We can and, now, do monitor our chemistries and raw material additions, making changes well before the product is made, to get the best ductile iron pipe possible.”

Atlantic States has reduced its costs of cokes and anodes by 10% to 15% with this live tracking system.

Net Tons and Scrap by Day

Department managers and staff use this data to zero in on where they stand in producing good pipe vs. bad pipe. It allows them to gauge which days of production were good. Identifying the bad days helps with troubleshooting the machinery or with staff assignments.

Direct Charge Spent Today

The “Direct Charge Spent Today” reports to everyone what Atlantic States has spent for the day. It’s like counting calories when you’re dieting. When reducing a budget, the first step is to reduce spending. The company may determine to set the budget at spending no more than $15,000 per day. This knowledge management chart helps with that.

Daily Scrap vs. Good Pipe Real Time

At a quick glance, anyone can see the performance from the melting and casting machines, or what Atlantic States calls its “hot end.” 

Two kiosk areas display plant vital signs for plant workers. Key managers are able to view the same dashboard on their desktops.

Atlantic States aggregates technical data into the digital dashboards to view plant performance via “scorecards.” Each scorecard tells users how the plant is doing for that hour, day and week. The technical engineering team at Atlantic States developed simple SQL programs to query the Enterprise database and used existing production Excel spreadsheets to populate the dashboard components.

“The nice thing about our dashboards is that we can drill down,” said Jason Trimmer, plant operations manager. “If we want to know the number of plant work orders by department, we can drill down to see the detail of each work order. Our dashboards will show you key data at a glance.”

The programs in Enterprise run automatically on a regular update cycle far in excess of the frequency provided by paperbound alternatives, keeping the information in the dashboards current.

Employer and Employee Buy-In

For a successful knowledge management tool deployment, Atlantic States needed support from leadership and in-house employees with the know-how to work with technology and the willingness to spend time on it. Key to Atlantic States’ success was Schmelzle’s ability to create an atmosphere that empowered staff to produce high value content. Sharing production information can be a major change in a company’s culture. It is not uncommon for a person to withhold information for control or to preserve one’s job.

When Atlantic States first implemented the dashboards, it ran across such organization barriers. The first strategy for breaking down the barriers was to reward positive behavior and not punish negative behavior. The plant recognizes ideas through its quarterly newspaper, “Heard It Through the Pipe Line,” and provides individual monetary incentives. The incentive program compensates production employees for increased productivity, measured by good tons bundled, without compromising safety or environmental rules and regulations.

For production employees, Atlantic States displays individual and team results versus the goal results on LCD screens in the lunch room and major operations buildings. This helps employees understand how they are contributing to the bottom line. With a performance incentive on the line, the progress dashboards encourage competition between teams.

For executives, the data is available on demand rather than through a once-a-month report. They can propagate information to determine current status and trends compared to the ultimate goal. 

Since implementation, plant departments have begun to ask for screen access for additional information in the dashboards. Some workers want to see what the managers are seeing, such as when a manager two buildings away calls to ask about a casting machine adjustment that just took place.

Atlantic States has found that the digital dashboards have motivated employees to be part of the solution to issues in the plant and encouraged people to change their roles to disseminate knowledge. They also have provided real cost savings.

“Actual costs by ton for each cost center is a tremendous tool that gives our managers and fellow workers live information they can use to make real-time decisions on purchases and projects,” Fittro said. “Prior to this, we never knew where we stood until it was too late, over budget and we were scrambling to get back in line. We don’t have the high and low swings in our cost numbers now.”

According to Atlantic States financial controller Gary Merlino, the plant’s man hours/tonnage dropped 10% on average, along with a 4% reduction in coke usage. Re-anneals dropped by 10%.

“This is a significant improvement over last year,” Merlino said. “As we become more accustomed to utilizing and improving our dashboards, we expect more significant savings while maintaining the quality of our product.“