Volume 11, Issue 5 - September/October 2009


At the Source
Step Inside Safelite’s Enfield, N.C., Manufacturing and Distribution Facility
by Penny Stacey

As you drive into rural Enfield, N.C., you probably wouldn’t believe that a plant located in the town produces 26,000 to 32,000 windshields a week and sends them throughout the United States. In fact, you might not believe the town is even home to enough people to man such a factory.

But nestled in this small, rural town, just a few miles off Interstate 95 is a 315,000-square-foot manufacturing plant and distribution center, where Safelite manufactures windshields for distribution throughout the nation—both to its own shops and other customers.

Half of the massive facility handles the manufacture of the glass (laminated parts only) and the other half handles distribution—and outside you’ll see lines of trucks coming and going, delivering glass from other manufacturers for further distribution, and carrying the glass the company makes on the first step toward its final destination.

Why Enfield?
Safelite originally chose Enfield as its primary manufacturing spot on Route 301, which goes right through the center of town, due to its prime location—halfway between New York and Florida. Though 301 was once a main thoroughfare for trucks traveling the East Coast, it has been replaced by Interstate 95—which still is only a few miles from the plant.

But the facility wasn’t always so large. It started at around 80,000 square feet.

“From about 1970 to 1995, there was very little investment in the business,” says Rich Glover, assistant vice president of manufacturing and distribution for the company. “In 1996, the model shifted.”

At that time, the company added CNC glass cutters to the manufacturing plant and started its expansion; after adding on to the facility twice, it ended up where it is today, at 315,000 square feet.

Even with this growth, though, Safelite has outgrown its current facility, and just recently opened a second distribution center in Ontario. Calif., to service warehouses west of the Mississippi River (see related information below).

The Latest in Distribution
Safelite Opens New Facility in Ontario, Calif.

Though Safelite’s facility in Enfield, N.C., is 315,000 square feet, the company also recently opened a brand-new distribution center in Ontario, Calif., to serve locations West of the Mississippi River. Enfield will continue to service Eastern locations.

The new hub is the largest distribution center in the world not only for Safelite, but also for its parent company, Belron.

The facility can hold 130,000 glass units, and ultimately will see one million units per year go through the distribution chain, according to Rich Glover, assistant vice president of manufacturing and distribution. Glover predicts the facility will handle 2.5 times that amount of glass by 2013.

Though the facility will house some parts made at the company’s manufacturing facility in Enfield, it also will handle parts made by other manufacturers, including Asian imports, according to Tom Feeney, chief executive officer of the Columbus, Ohio-based Belron US.

“What we’ll end up with is a two-pronged supply chain strategy, with product coming in from Asia, coming in here, as opposed to Enfield now, and the plant filling the East Coast distribution center,” said Feeney.

The company is placing a renewed focus on green with the opening of the facility and even has a new slogan, “The glass is always greener on the Safelite side.”

Among the green elements of the facility are skylights throughout the warehouse, which, on a sunny day, provide bright lighting throughout the area. Likewise, the lights in the facility work on motion sensors; if there’s no one working near or under them, they remain off.

Belron chief executive officer Gary Lubner also said the company is exploring the option of putting solar cells on the roof of its newest facility as another way in which it can save energy.

“It’s not just good for the environment,” he said, “but it’s good for our bottom line as well.”

The company began making preparations to open a West Coast distribution center last July.

Feeney said that the company currently serves 300,000 customers in the state of California—and looks to triple that number with the new distribution facility. He also spoke of the company’s four-year plan to change the culture of the company.

“We’re making investments in our supply chain so we can better service our customers,” he said. Feeney said the company plans to invest a total of $60 million this year to reach its goals.

“We had growth and volume and we struggled,” says Glover.

The plant makes between 5,500 and 6,000 windshields a day.

Making OEE Parts
Though Safelite does not make original-equipment glass, it makes what it calls “original-equipment-equivalent” (OEE) glass.

“Aftermarket is a misnomer,” says Glover. “From a functionality perspective, there’s no difference [in an OE and an OEE part].”

In order to produce these parts, engineers at the plant start with an original-equipment part, create a mold and then reverse-engineer it.

“Once we do a virtual 3D model, we can bend our part,” says Glover.

The coordination of orders (which come from distribution centers throughout the country) is automated. Everything comes into the system via mainframe, and all instructions for parts also are included on the company’s

Though the system is somewhat automated, there are people working throughout the plant, monitoring the various processes through which the glass goes—and moving it from one station to another.

“There’s an active push to be further automated,” Glover says.

However, the complexity of the glass will continue to require skilled operators to man its production.

“Setting up the furnace can be very complex, and now [glass is] becoming more encapsulated, more solar control, more complex,” he says.

Currently the facility has a high yield—between 92 and 93.5 percent. (Yield is the percentage of glass that makes it fully through the system undamaged. For example, if there 10 pieces of glass put into the system and eight pieces make it through the process, then the yield is 80 percent.)

The company’s lead time to fill orders is one day or less, and all of the glass manufactured is based on daily sales and orders.

“I don’t know what I’m going to make tomorrow,” says Glover.

Safelite, of course, starts with raw float glass, which is shipped from Pittsburgh Glass Works in Meadville, Pa. This is inspected prior to heading to scoring and painting. Then it goes through a bending process, based on the mold for the particular part; then it is washed and, after drying, laminate is added.

Polyvinyl butyral interlayers are supplied by both DuPont in Fayetteville, N.C., and Sekisui in Winchester, Ky.

Once the windshield is laminated, which is done by hand in a temperature-controlled clean room, it is placed in a tacking oven, and then heads to an autoclave, to complete the vinyl/glass adhesion process. Then, moulding or antennas are applied if needed. Finally, it is loaded onto pallets for transfer into the distribution area.

Quality Control
Throughout the manufacturing process, the glass (and the pieces that make up the final windshield) are inspected for quality. Part of this relates to the fact that the company has embraced lean principles and, specifically, Six Sigma—a business strategy in which manufacturers strive to remove the causes of defects and problems and streamlines processes.

Safelite has two Six Sigma masters on-site at Enfield and five blackbelts throughout the company. The company does 600 audits per month as part of this process. An audit might be simple, such as a supervisor walking out into the plant and observing to make sure he/she sees no unsafe acts. But they also occur among employees as well.

“It’s about training everyone in the facility about how to be supervisors,” adds Glover. “It’s about taking time and just watching.”

Safety, of course, also is a factor.

“It’s not just, ‘We make glass and try to be safe,’” Glover says. “It’s, ‘We want to take care of our associates and then we make the glass.’”

The company also is certified with ISO-9001 through DNV. Though the certification has helped the company improved its processes, it’s also increased its need for documentation Part of this led to the company’s move to using the Intranet among employees as a way of communication new information.

“We should be able to go to a particular page on the Intranet and see everything we need to know to make a certain windshield,” Glover says.

When something changes, Glover says it’s easy to update—as the change can be made in the Intranet and so everyone has the updated information quickly.

“It was a way to corral the whole process,” says Glover.

Throughout the manufacturing process, the glass and parts that make up the final windshield are checked for quality. The float glass is inspected initially prior to scoring. The company also does its own testing onsite for both impact and penetration resistance.

In the lab, an operator drops a 5-lb. ball onto piece of glass equipped with laminate to simulate a person inside the car hitting the glass. In order to pass, the ball cannot drop through the construction when it is dropped from 12 feet or less. In addition, the company drops an 8-ounce ball on what would be the outside of the windshield, to simulate flying debris. These tests are conducted periodically by an independent laboratory.

The glass also is tested for distortion and for edge quality at several points. To check for distortion, the company places random pieces of glass in a dark room in front of a lighted screen filled with “zebra lines.”

If the lines bend in any way, the operator knows distortion is present and can research the issue. And when a problem is found, with any of the tests, the company has reaction plans in place.

“It depends on what [the problem is] and where it occurs,” says Glover. “We investigate the root cause.”

But, with all these checks, the manufacturing crew feels confident in the end product.

“We know we send out a quality product,” says Tony Roach, operations manager.

And, when a technician in the field finds a problem after the glass has left the facility, the company has a quality alert form that is completed and sent to the plant, and the manufacturing staff aims to get back to that technician within 24 hours to discuss the issue.

“We want to talk to them on the telephone,” Glover says.

Green Graces
Just as green has become more important to consumers, it also has grown in importance to manufacturers. And Safelite has taken steps in both its manufacturing and distribution operations to become more green.

First, the company watches its scrap glass—the float glass that doesn’t make the cut, or is leftover after scoring. Though not having scrap glass is not necessarily an option, the company still monitors the amount created.

“It’s about the trend—are we heading down or are we heading up the efficiency curve?” says Glover.

The Enfield facility recycles 20 million pounds of glass, cardboard and vinyl a year. Packaging also is changing.

“We’re trying to reduce the use of Styrofoam,” says Glover. “We have a packaging engineer on site working on that.”

The packaging engineer joined the Enfield staff early this year. For distribution, the company has begun utilizing recyclable wooden crates—which come back to the facility for re-use. In addition, the company currently is installing T5 lights that work on motion sensors in the distribution and manufacturing portions of the facility.

Future Outlook
Though few industries, if any, have remained unaffected by the economic downturn the country has seen in recent years, Glover notes that the company has at least seen minimal effects.

“We’re still running very strong,” he says. “We have felt the impact, but less than others.”

And the company continues to look to the future to improve its processes, as part of its commitment to Six Sigma and its ISO-9001 certification.

“It’s really about continuous improvement,” says Glover. n

Penny Stacey is the editor of AGRR magazine/glassBYTEs.com™.


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