Volume 15 | Issue 1 | Year 2012

QualPro, a consulting firm with three decades of experience in the successful use of statistical analysis in business and industry, has abetted manufacturers in mature industries to do significantly better work. How? – By helping them better understand their processes and by involving workers in the improvement process.
Too often, talk about restoring American economic competitiveness focuses on new products or new technologies, but progress occurs when American manufacturers do what they’ve always done best. Dr. Charles Holland founded QualPro to help them do just that. He disseminated usage of statistical tools that he deployed as quality control manager of the Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

QualPro advances its proprietary Multivariable Testing (MVT®) process to structure experiments that simultaneously tests dozens of variables. As such, it represents an efficient data-capture methodology, one that best identifies the effects of interactions between variables.

QualPro has used this tool and its carefully crafted process to work with a variety of clients, including a South Carolina-based automotive company that encountered a major quality problem related to a new product. It was looking at the loss of one of its biggest and most important accounts – a major automotive manufacturer. The new product fell far below this major client’s requirements in about half of the finished goods.

The company had to do something quickly – you don’t disrupt an auto company’s assembly line for any period of time and then expect to keep the business – so it turned to QualPro. In one week, the company, collaborating with QualPro, tested 17 different variables, distilling these down to five changes that improved the process by a measure of 464 percent. QualPro’s John Nehls describes the result: “With the same workers and machinery, and no added costs, the revised process created a finished product that exceeded the ability to even measure it.”

The outcome? An important account was saved – and perhaps even the business. The plant manager observed, “MVT® showed us that our present process could do it, once we figured out how.”

In other words, MVT® helps a company best understand its own unrealized capabilities.

Other examples underscore the value: Take for instance the case of Lincoln Paper and Tissue of Lincoln, Maine. This company, relates Chief Executive Officer Keith Van Scotter, must constantly take the improvement approach. Paper is a mature, low margin, capital-intensive industry and Lincoln, while an important regional Maine employer, is a relatively small, capital-constrained company. But Van Scotter, a veteran of many of the industry’s largest companies, believes manufacturing is important: When well accomplished, it best addresses labor/cost advantages. Soon after purchase, he brought in QualPro to help improve operations. “QualPro, with its MVT®, provided the growth and drive in transforming the capability of our organization and our business,” he says.

Lincoln’s largest business was one of the most annoying: It produced those reader reply cards that fall into magazine readers’ laps. But it readily understood the importance of this marketing technique, and it also defined some measurements for quality and compared their product to others in the industry. They ranked themselves seventh out of seven. But they didn’t have the $4 million for a new machine that conventional wisdom and engineering analysis said was essential. With QualPro, the company ran a series of experiments in less than a week, using existing machinery and workers. It improved the quality of the product until they were first in the category – at no additional cost but with significant additional sales.

QualPro’s Art Hammer is impressed with the speed at which Lincoln has used the tools. “Lincoln Paper had MVT®s completed in less than a month after our start,” he says. “They executed very sophisticated MVT® in less than eight hours after the need was determined. A couple of days is not unusual for them.”

Van Scotter, who has graduate degrees in engineering and quantitative analysis, says, “the relationship between traditional design of experiments and QualPro’s MVT® is the same as the relationship between a nurse practitioner in a walk-in clinic compared to the power and effectiveness of the Mayo Clinic. There is no comparison. MVT® is easy to use throughout every part of the company.”

Despite Holland’s rocket science-like background, his and QualPro’s approach is practical and down to earth. Work to improve what you have first – that’s a company mantra.

Lincoln wanted to improve the efficiency in its brown stock-washing process that prepares wood pulp to be used in fine papers. Chemicals dissolve the natural glue in wood pulp, producing the brown stock. This stock then has to be washed to rid it of as much of the chemicals and lignin (the natural glue) before the fibers are sent off for bleaching. The effluent can be recycled and reused. The QualPro-guided team involved everyone in the complex process. “As a union guy, I was very impressed at the brainstorming meeting. No matter what you said, it was integrated,” says Scott W. Jipson, an assistant digester cook who was one of the leaders of the effort.

The key is finding the balance, where you get the best and most consistent fiber results while minimizing the chemical, water and power costs. But this is a continuous process that cannot be easily changed. First, the team had to examine what it was doing and realized that it had no standard process across the four teams that worked 12-hour shifts. They had to standardize among the operators, defining their measurements and using the data they collected to create the process’s first real status quo. This was a key step forward.

Second, with QualPro’s help, the team generated 112 ideas about how to improve the process. The collaborators boiled it down to 27 ideas that were fast, practical and no-cost. They ran a series of well-orchestrated tests minimizing changeover times and assured that the tests were done on materials that were exclusively generated by the appropriate recipe. In the end, the team lowered costs, in the process dramatically improving the pulp paper product going to the bleachers. But the biggest pay off, according to Ray Sabol, Lincoln’s senior project manager, was process improvement. “We learned a great deal more about the process, and this changed our operator perspectives,” he says. “It wasn’t just another management gimmick.”

Van Scotter says the MVT® process helped Lincoln use data, not perception or opinion, to make decisions.

While QualPro’s work with manufacturers focuses on improving operations, the net can be broadly spread – for instance, testing Lincoln Paper’s ability to get into a new market such as envelopes. More than half of Lincoln’s current production now involves products and markets developed with MVT®. Lincoln Paper and Tissue is an excellent example, says Hammer. “Executive leadership brings helpful tools to bear to save American manufacturing jobs,” he says.

Unifi is a manufacturer of nylon and polyester yarns. MVT® helped the company determine the best process for a substantially new business. Unifi, a publicly-traded company with $700 million in 2011 revenues, sells yarns knitwear, hosiery and performance athletic gear such as UnderArmour®. The company has done several projects with QualPro over the last five years, such as improving the splicing of material going into the yarn machine when one package of input material is finished and another one is installed. The team solicited improvement ideas from the midnight shift machine operator to the most senior manager. They screened these for ease, low cost and practicality, and then tested them. As has been demonstrated in many other QualPro studies, about 50 percent of the tested ideas had no impact. About 25 percent were beneficial, and the same amount hurt the results, which are often counterintuitive.

In this case, the refined process saved a company as much as a half-million dollars in annual production costs. When the company decided it wanted to go into the business of using recycled petroleum products to make polyester yarns and bought the appropriate equipment, the company once again decided to get QualPro’s help to determine its new machine’s capabilities and define the best processes. Stephen McGrady, the Unifi process development manager who led the project, observed, “QualPro allows us the opportunity to take a scientific approach to the innovation we bring.”

Huge and complicated, the new machinery came from Italy, and it involved pellets of recycled materials, as well as materials that had to be grounded, melted and extruded – processes that would eliminate impurities, create uniform viscosity and eventually form long fibers. This was a process that was at once handsome and beautiful, and its attractiveness isn’t easily or readily understood, but its impact on the world is immediately apparent.

Enough with the details; let’s look at the ledger.

Adjusting different temperatures at different points in the process as well as throughput speeds and other dials, Unifi has seen significant improvement in throughput times and product consistency. It has now completed a second MVT® to optimize the impurity filtering. “I know we are state of the art,” says McGrady, “but that still isn’t good enough.”

Bill Jasper, chairman of Unifi, and his management team put together the MVT® process improvement tools and the proper expectations to continuously improve the company’s competitive position in the world market place, reveals Hammer. “They have produced results that have gone straight to the bottom line,” he adds.

Textile companies, like paper companies, have gone belly up all over the country, says Holland. “I tell them, if we can compete in textiles, we can compete in anything.”

And with QualPro’s help, they are competitive.

Author Rita Koselka is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. She previously served as a senior editor at Forbes. To learn more about the MVT Process and how other manufacturers and Fortune 500 companies have implemented it, visit www.qualproinc.com.

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