© 2022 Cincinnati Public Radio
Connecting You to a World of Ideas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Norwood Company Uses 'Natural Intelligence' To Compete With China

Ann Thompson
Shepherd Chemical has been in Norwood since 1919. It makes a variety of products including a rubber adhesion promoter.

More than a year ago, Shepherd Chemical, a fourth-generation family-owned manufacturer of specialty chemicals, started feeling the heat from China. But after making a few changes that didn't cost anything, it cut its production time by more than half. Now it's selling its products in Asia.

Unless you're involved in tire production you may not be aware of what's called a rubber adhesion promoter.  It's necessary for bonding in steel radial tires. Shepherd Chemical manufactures it; it's the size of an M&M.

Credit Ann Thompson / WVXU
The rubber adhesion promoter is in this form when it leaves Shepherd Chemical. It is added to tires in a microscopic form.

The problem is the cobalt-based product took a very long time to make. One batch was 127 hours. So the Norwood company called on QualPro, a process improvement firm. It spent three months talking to hourly employees to get their ideas and then developing and running tests based on those brainstorming sessions.

QualPro's Art Hammer explains hourly workers know the product better than anyone. "We worked on things that the hourly workers say, 'We can go make that change. We can do that change. That won't be difficult.' "

The company's MVT (MultiVariable Testing) methodology allows production people to test dozens of new ideas in combination with existing practices using extremely small samples.

Ultimately six of the dozens of ideas generated helped reduce production time to 42 hours.

Hammer says to solve the problem it wasn't artificial intelligence that was key, it was "natural intelligence."

Production supervisor Tim Dismuke says it couldn't have gone any better. "This was a win. We were able to increase everything we do, increase the volume of what we do without spending any money to do so."

Credit Ann Thompson / WVXU
From left: Tim Dismuke and Mike Ritter talk in the part of the plant where the tests were conducted.

CEO Tom Shepherd is pleased and introduced Business Leader Kelly Wray to talk about possible increased sales in China and Europe. "We told them we were optimizing our process," Wray said. "We didn't get into a lot of details but we said that we had the opportunity to reduce our cost to be more competitive with the local manufacturers." Wray is looking forward to increased sales in the fourth quarter.

Chemical Operator Mike Ritter came up with some of the ideas and is open to other changes. "The global competition's there every minute of the day. The way you do things might be the only competitive advantage you have anymore," he says.

In the meantime Shepherd Chemical has hired QualPro to streamline some of its other products.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.