In 2003, Atlas Holdings of Greenwich, Connecticut, purchased Wood Resources LLC and with it Olympic Panel Products, formerly Simpson Timber – the largest overlaid plywood manufacturing facility operating under one roof in the world.

With this acquisition, Atlas also inherited OPP’s Continuous Process Monitoring (CPM) model, which was put in place in September 2000, and has been guiding manufacturing activities ever since.

General manager Jim Zmudka recalls the concern of customers when the sale of the company was announced: “They said our quality and on-time delivery would suffer. One even stated that everything about the company was going to slip. We were determined that wouldn’t happen.”

In order to make the company as attractive as possible to potential purchasers, a team was assembled and a plan of control established. That team included Ken Pratt, who had been hired in 2000 to implement and grow the CPM model. Now plywood operations manager, he has been a driving force behind CPM since his first day.

“I saw the potential to grow CPM very early after realising it is not a programme with a beginning and end, but a model; a work in progress that strives for continuous improvement in every aspect of how we do our business.”

Equally committed to CPM is QA-CPM technical manager Bob Griffith, who came on board in 2004 and whose responsibility is the day-to-day management of CPM. He described CPM as the main driver behind manufacturing and quality at OPP.

“CPM’s role vision statement is to empower our workforce so they produce great results. They help develop goals, create tools to track results, reduce variation in our processes and develop habits necessary to achieve consistent quality products,said Mr Griffith.

He explained that CPM is process control, not quality control: “Our CPM procedures prevent out-of-spec products from being manufactured and so defective products don’t reach customers, internal or external. Either you inspect during the process or lose money after the fact,he stated.

To demonstrate the merit of his colleague’s point, Ken Pratt pulled up a chart showing claims submitted by customers: “We asked customers for feedback about every issue that impacted quality, even those considered insignificant, and then went about eliminating all defects to the point where claims are practically zero. And we used CPM to do it,he said.

Bob Griffith takes great satisfaction in that fact: “We make a value-added product, which is expected to be perfect. Since our panels may be an integral part of a much larger construct, a defective US$30 panel may result in a US$1,000 claim. It is in our own best interests to see that doesn’t happen,he said.

Process streams and the CPM model
Ken Pratt believes that OPP’s manufacturing process works because upstream customers understand fully the needs of downstream customers and provide products that meet their specifications.

“Internally, every log, sheet of veneer and sawn panel is a product. In all, we have 37 operating centres, each responsible for its own process stream, the progress of which we track constantly,he said.

Altogether, OPP tracks 253 key output characteristics (KOC), 61 of which are routinely reported. They form the baseline for equipment performance.

Said Mr Pratt: “The way we operate has changed over the years. Initially, CPM was used to drive waste out of the process. Now, it helps us to be more quality-focused”.

He explained that the changing resource has much to do with the refocusing. According to Mr Pratt, old growth resource allowed leeway in manufacturing, which led to waste. Now, with second and third growth, there is lots of room for error and so understanding the correlation between rising raw material costs and diminishing raw material quality is critical and it is one of the main reasons why OPP management views data collection and analysis as being crucial to their mill’s performance.

Said Mr Griffith: “It has changed OPP from a push-through business to a pull-through one, since we make what the markets wants, not what we decide to make. By asking the hard questions of our internal producers, we have been able to build, and maintain, performance specifications and standards that meet the needs of our internal customers.

“In turn, we have collected data on out-of-spec materials or improper actions into a reporting structure, which gives us a continuous feedback loop. This ensures that all shifts operate with the same information. It provides staff with the tools they need to be proactive and able to respond when needed. And, it eliminates finger-pointing”.

Establishing centrelines
Production supervisor, Mel Matson, is in charge of lay-up. During his 20-plus years in plywood production, he has witnessed change.

“Much has changed, but much has stayed the same. Raw material is still the main production variable, except now it is lower quality. Yes, technology has advanced, but we still use much of the same technology now as we did years ago. It’s just been upgraded. What has improved, greatly, is how we gather and utilise data. We still rely on our gut, but now we back it up with data,he said.

Mr Matson believes, too, that CPM has impacted his role as a supervisor. “The supervisor’s job was always to make sure people did their jobs. Now, we are coaches and team leaders, even mentors. I like it much better. In some ways I consider those under my supervision to be like my kids. I want to instruct them on how to reduce waste and eliminate variation so that they contribute to the success of the company,he said.

Mr Matson described how the establishment of centrelines has done much to ensure that the machinery in his department performs at a consistently high level.

“The centreline,he explained, “is like a ship’s rudder, keeping the machine on a true course. Lay-up needs to deliver volume and quality. To achieve this we first establish and then confirm the centreline of the equipment in order to eliminate variability. We then maintain the centreline by making tiny adjustments, as necessary. It’s important that the centreline is the same for every shift because if three different operators are doing their tasks three different ways, you get three different results,he said.

An example of the benefits of a properly maintained centreline are to be found at the spreaders (lay-up). According to Mr Matson, his department was vigilant in maintaining proper workmanship standards over an extended period, to the point where they drove hundreds of thousands of dollars in waste out of the process.

“We’ve been especially focused on Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE),added Ken Pratt. “Again, we’ve had to ask hard questions – How effective is the machine in question? What is the real capacity of our plant? How much more can we really produce?

“We had to formulate design criteria for our production equipment based on a realistic runtime percentage, the key operating characteristics we felt we could expect; and we had to do so with safety in mind. We devised an OEE formula that considers the overall operational time of a piece of machinery and the percentage of quality product it produces, understanding that achieving 100% capacity with only 50% quality is a poor result. So far, our OEE numbers show us to be operating at a consistent level of performance.”

Developing and maintaining SOPs
The data collected by Ken Pratt and Bob Griffith has been used to produce Standard Operating Procedures, which are put in place to ensure that every machine operates at its optimum centreline. They are, essentially, step-by-step procedures for starting up a machine and turning it off.

“Even management must follow the process,said Mr Pratt, adding that it is a fluid process which can be modified as required. “Operators inform supervisors who inform coordinators who make changes to the SOP. It’s not a gut decision but a data-driven one,he said. In all, OPP’s 37 operating centres track from 1 to 15 data items, depending on the complexity of the operation and OPP has generated over ten thousand SOP documents.

The most advanced producer
It is not uncommon for a producer to claim that they are the most advanced producer in their field. Very often it is no more than marketing hype. In Olympic Panel Products’ case, however, they are prepared to back up their claim of being “the most advanced producer of overlaid plywood in North America”.

“The word advanced implies that you are ahead in development or progress. We can state this is definitely the case with OPP and the overlaid plywood products we produce,said Mr Pratt.

He cites the company’s track record of being consistently first to market with new products such as pre-primed MDO, barrier film and hardwood-faced HDO. He cites, too, OPP’s robust R&D initiatives that have earned for them a reputation as an innovator through their ability to partner with their suppliers in the design, production and testing of products.

“We don’t believe in experimenting with new products in the market. Products are ready when we take them there. The companies that supply our resin, overlay materials and the like are partners in our product development, as are our customers, whose input is vital. Products that don’t make it in the eyes of our customers are dropped.”

He cited further examples to support OPP’s “most advanced producerclaim: “A decade ago changes in raw material quality and other factors saw us starting to make combi-panels from imported wood and fir. The growing pains were severe, but the rewards have been great. Taking two such disparate species and making them work together required enormous experimentation, patience and discipline. Others have tried and failed. Olympic Panel continues to succeed.”

Today, Olympic Panel Products continues to advance its plywood overlaying business by identifying market drivers and supplying innovative products, such as new types of longer-lasting concrete form, signage that better withstands the elements and panels that can have hi-resolution graphics applied directly to their faces using purpose-built ink jet printers, to name a few.

What’s more, they have invested over one million dollars in the further development of Combi-panel technology and increased their product offering to several hundred configurations, based on many different overlay materials; the most offered by any producer of overlaid plywood in North America.

And, if you ask the people at OPP responsible for steering the ship how they’ve managed to achieve and maintain their success, they’ll tell you that much of it is owed to CPM.