Norwood Company Uses 'Natural Intelligence' To Compete With China

Oct 7, 2019

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.

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

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."

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

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.