As a supplier to aerospace companies, Specialty Steel & Forge of Fairfield, New Jersey, is one of the first companies in the United States to register for certification to AS9000, formally titled the Aerospace Basic Quality System Standard. The Society of Automotive Engineers released AS9000 in May 1997; Specialty Steel & Forge was registered to be certified the following January. (Click here for more about AS9000).
Founded in 1972, the company has operated under its current ownership since 1984 and produces a dual product line. It's a service center for specialty steel warehouse products such as nickel alloys, stainless steel, titanium and aluminum. It also has a forge operation that produces open die forgings and rolled and contoured rings in the same materials.
Specialty Steel & Forge's motivation to become AS9000 certified originated strictly from a marketing viewpoint, as a way to get more aerospace orders. But as the registration process evolved, so did the company's understanding and attitude toward the standard. The first step initially appeared easy. For a company like Specialty Steel & Forge, which registered to ISO 9000 in 1994, it seemed a simple matter of adding AS9000 requirements to its existing ISO 9000 system. However, the changes involved more than just paperwork. Reaching the level of quality assurance necessary to achieve AS9000 certification didn't happen overnight.
Every company aims to provide quality service and products on a consistent basis. Both ISO 9000 registration and AS9000 certification make this more than just a mission statement. The supplier must implement a system that quantifies its quality vision. Moreover, it must document that vision on paper every step of the way, from the time an order is received to the time material leaves the loading dock.
The road to registration
How does a company become AS9000 certified? First a consultant, preferably certified as an ISO 9000 quality system auditor, is engaged to review current operations and manufacturing and establish the necessary quality assurance and documentation steps. The goal is to use the company's existing framework to maximize quality standards.
Specialty Steel & Forge hired MRJ Consultants of Madison, New Jersey. Originally, an MRJ consultant helped create manuals consistent with ISO 9000 requirements. When the SAE formalized AS9000, a consultant returned to modify Specialty Steel & Forge's existing manuals to meet the more stringent AS9000 requirements and to verify that the procedures were being implemented in the workplace. This entire process involved setting up a documentation control system, supporting in-plant implementation and training personnel.
Next, a registrar is engaged to begin the final process. Specialty Steel & Forge used SGS International Certification Services Inc. of Rutherford, New Jersey. SGS employed a three-step process. First, Al Roseff of MRJ Consultants worked with Specialty Steel & Forge's quality assurance manager to complete an SGS questionnaire to determine if the company was ready for the certification process. Once the questionnaire was completed, SGS reviewed all Specialty Steel & Forge quality assurance documentation to ensure compliance with ISO 9000 and AS9000 requirements, as appropriate. Finally, SGS performed an on-site audit to confirm implementation of ISO 9000 and AS9000 standards.
"As an independent certification service, SGS cannot recommend changes or assist with solutions," emphasizes Ernani Pires, president and CEO of SGS International. "If the audit team identifies issues requiring further action, they are reported to the client in writing. The major issues outlined must be addressed and corrected by the client prior to our issuing a certificate."
In Specialty Steel & Forge's case, MRJ Consultants worked out some kinks discovered during the initial audit. Once SGS was satisfied, the certification firm issued an ISO 9002 registration and, subsequently, an AS9000 certification.
"It's important to realize that both ISO 9000 and AS9000 certifications are ongoing processes," notes Roseff. "The certification agency comes back semiannually to audit for quality assurance procedure compliance. That's one test you don't want to flunk, because it may require more intensive re-audits."
Currently, ISO 9000 registration is good for three years. AS9000 certification details haven't yet been formally approved but will likely be the same. To ensure it meets the SGS requirements, Specialty Steel & Forge audits a different section of the company each month to make sure it remains in compliance. The company was reregistered for ISO 9002 in 1997.
Accountability and negative backlash
Achieving this level of quality assurance requires a thorough analysis of a company's everyday operations. It's necessary, for example, to break an order cycle down into component parts. At Specialty Steel & Forge, order fulfillment was considered a four-step process: receive order, process job, fill order, ship to customer. That process has now been broken down into 11 steps -- and that's before order fulfillment even begins.
Once a process comes into focus, the next step is to introduce accountability. That's where the certification process real-ly makes itself felt in the workplace. One of Specialty Steel & Forge's greatest challenges was to achieve accountability without generating a negative backlash from the work force.
That backlash has two faces. The first is an aversion to change. No one likes to have routines that have worked well for years be disrupted and new work rules put into effect. But implementing new and more demanding quality assurance levels at the supplier level will require change. Perhaps the biggest change is getting the documentation in place necessary for accountability.
This brings up the other obstacle that must be overcome: fear of accountability. Accountability shouldn't be viewed as a blame game. "Employees are not going to get enthusiastic about a program they view as merely another way for them to be left open for criticism," maintains Robert J. Kleinhenz, Specialty Steel & Forge's quality assurance manager. "ISO 9000 and AS9000 certification require suppliers to document their actions completely. The challenge is to get the work force to view this as a positive thing."
To do this, the message must come from company executives that quality assurance is a higher priority than ever before. Management must foster a team mentality, where everyone's actions affect the company goal of manufacturing a product and shipping it out the door. Here's where breaking your company's processes into component parts pays off; doing so allows individuals to see exactly how and where their everyday actions fit into the big picture. It also aids in greater customer satisfaction, increased corporate profitability, improved personal job satisfaction and increased compensation through company profit-sharing programs.
The next step is to show employees the positive effects of accountability and get individuals focused on their contributions to the process. Rather than worrying about what's happening ahead or behind them, workers can concentrate on the job at hand.
Again, the documentation process makes this possible. Having the ISO 9000 and AS9000 documents means a company quickly can find where a problem originates and take steps to correct it. More importantly, documentation gives employees an increased sense of empowerment. They have the power to call attention to any situation that may prevent them from completing the necessary paperwork documenting their contribution to order fulfillment.
For example, a company's sales staff can and should be brought into the quality assurance equation. At Specialty Steel & Forge, this involved training the sales staff to read blueprints, learn some basic production terminology and manufacturing techniques, and understand some fundamentals of metallurgy.
"Now, a production staffer can ask a salesperson directly when a question comes up during the manufacturing process," observes Ken Mills, a lead sales executive at Specialty Steel & Forge. "The documentation enables production to match orders with specific salespeople. We can communicate directly instead of going through layers of red tape."
The company also has noticed that people focus more on their work. Cynics may predict that AS9000 standards will lead to increased product rejections due to quality control during the production cycle. It follows that higher quality standards mean higher rejection rates, right? Wrong. Specialty Steel & Forge's rejection rates have dropped since registering to ISO 9002 and will continue to drop with AS9000 because employees focus more on doing their job right the first time. The fact that the scrap heap is smaller means everyone can take pride in a job well done.
Other positive reinforcements are the ISO 9000 and AS9000 testing requirements. In the past, warehouse products that came from steel mills generally weren't tested; the mill's test reports were considered to be gospel. Now, however, as part of the quality process, warehouse products are pulled at random and sent out for confirmatory independent testing as well. The testing is an added expense, but less material winds up on the scrap heap. And finding errors before they reach the customer certainly has enhanced customers' favorable image of Specialty Steel & Forge.
ISO 9000 and AS9000 have affected the company's bottom line in several ways. Overall, quality assurance costs have increased and definitely have changed the way material is inventoried and orders are processed, manufactured and shipped. But it's small change compared to costs incurred when a bad order is shipped. The supplier may spend tens of thousands of dollars replacing bad products and still lose the customer's future business.
AS9000 also can motivate a sales staff. "We are definitely calling on more aerospace customers than ever before," admits John Mitchell, sales manager at Specialty Steel & Forge. "AS9000 gives us a new angle to pursue prospects. It also adds to our credibility."
Specialty Steel & Forge believes AS9000 is here to stay. It expects to see U.S. manufacturers and suppliers register to the standard sooner than they did with ISO 9000. The company figures large aerospace companies will begin to demand AS9000 certification as a requirement for suppliers doing business with them. If the automotive industry's QS-9000 revolution is any indication, companies like Boeing, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney eventually won't even consider suppliers who aren't AS9000 certified. Midsize and smaller buyers of steel and alloy aerospace products and materials probably will follow suit, producing a dramatic effect on the 10,000 U.S. subcontractors and suppliers to aerospace and aerospace-related businesses.
AS9000 offers many benefits, but they must be earned. The challenge is for a work force to consider AS9000 documentation as a team effort in quality assurance. At Specialty Steel & Forge, this challenge continues to produce improved financials combined with improved customer satisfaction.
About the author
Lewis A. Weiss is president of Specialty Steel & Forge in Fairfield, New Jersey. He founded his first company in 1972 and has more than 37 years of experience in the metals and forging industry. Weiss can be reached at telephone (973) 808-8300, fax (973) 808-4488 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AS9000 on the Fly
AS9000 is a new quality standard for the aerospace industry based on ISO 9000. Written by the Society of Automotive Engineers in conjunction with Boeing, General Electric and United Technologies, AS9000 was officially released in May 1997.
Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, GE Aircraft Engines, Pratt & Whitney and others formed a steering committee to develop an aerospace version of ISO 9000. The SAE first submitted a preliminary draft of the standard, called ARD9000, in October 1996. It was reviewed by industry experts and government agencies closely affiliated with the aerospace industry, including the FAA, DoD and NASA, before being released as the Aerospace Basic Quality System Standard.
For more information about AS9000, contact the Society of Automotive Engineers at 400 Commonwealth Drive, Warrendale, PA 15096; telephone (412) 776-4970; fax (412) 772-1851. The SAE's Web address is www.sae.com.