Imagine you get the green light to build a new facility in which to manufacture your products in the most optimal way possible. What would it look like? Where would you place your equipment? Would the manufacturing plant and processes be significantly different from how you operate today?

A handful of years ago, 2016 IndustryWeek Best Plants winner L.B. Foster Threaded Products in Magnolia, Texas, got the opportunity to more than imagine the answers to these questions. Following a decision to change the market focus for its threaded products, the company also determined that a new manufacturing plant was in order. What had been an outdated operation of nine buildings spread over a sprawling campus was reimagined as a compact, lean-influenced facility that cut out waste, improved productivity and created a safer work environment.

Single-piece flow manufacturing is at the heart of this site, which produces water well system pipes for agricultural, municipal and industrial applications. "[Single piece flow] sets us apart. It makes us more efficient," says Jeffrey Robinson, quality manager. Short customer lead times is a key differentiator for the site, its leaders say. Moreover, the site has said goodbye to work-in-process inventory.

The production layout at the manufacturing site looks deceptively simple, but a significant amount of research and employee-inspired process improvements are behind the design.

"When we found out we were moving, we talked to employees and asked, 'What could we do better?'" says plant manager Bobby Brogden, a 36-year veteran of L.B. Foster. Not only did the workforce have a host of ideas, their participation was far more hands on. Approximately 90% of fabrication and installation of equipment was performed by employees. Exceptions included items like the thread machines and electrical.

L.B. Foster Threaded Products

Magnolia, Texas

Employees: 15, non-union

Total Square Footage: 26,000

Primary Product/Market: Water well system pipes

Start-up Date: 2012

Achievements: greater than 99% finished-product first-pass yield on pump column threaded pipe; 76% reduction in scrap and rework costs (as a percentage of sales) in the past 3 years; Implemented approximately 11 improvement suggestions per employee; 99% on time delivery, based on customer request date

Clever ideas abound within the site, several of which are designed to move pipe more easily and quickly, or to improve ergonomics or reduce other safety risks. (Long lengths of pipe can be both heavy and unwieldy.) Such care appears to reap rewards. L.B. Foster's Magnolia facility reported an OSHA incidence rate with days away from work of zero.

"We don't want our employees hurt, and they know it," Brogden says.

Additional improvements include the introduction of automation in one area that completely eliminated the need for forklifts – as well as the 40 to 50 miles per day of driving traffic they produced. Moreover, even the location of the L.B. Foster facility promotes lean thinking. It's immediately adjacent to a key supplier, which also is a joint-venture partner. As L.B. Foster states in its IW Best Plants competition application: "It's a truly JIT system."

Let's Talk Cross-Training

L.B. Foster's Magnolia site is small, with a total employee count of less than 20. With a workforce of this size, it is imperative that employees can perform a variety of tasks and be able to step in and help fellow operators. At Magnolia, every employee is cross trained to do at least three different jobs, and seven of them, including the plant manager and quality manager, can perform every task. Robinson even programs all the machines.

The plant manager says it only makes sense for the site leaders to have more than a passing familiarity with plant-floor processes. "You need to understand the operations and what the operator goes through day in and day out," Brogden says.

Moreover, adds Robinson, "it helps with morale."