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UB Center for Industrial Effectiveness

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Six Sigma

Niagara Transformer Embraces Cultural Change to Improve Efficiency

A case study on lean efficiencies and value stream mapping

Published: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 - 13:50

Niagara Transformer is a supplier of transformers that meet the most demanding applications. It has a tradition of supplying transformers for unique applications with unusual specifications and requirements. As an industry leader, Niagara Transformer has successfully completed several quality audits for university research laboratories and various government agencies, and can easily comply with MIL specification requirements. Its in-house quality control program consistently meets or exceeds customer requirements.


Niagara Transformer’s engineering group custom designs most of the massive transformers they build. Its 30,000-square-foot facility houses engineering and production functions, as well as corporate headquarters.

Increasingly, the company’s core business has become large transformers (liquid-filled or dry). The company also reconditions transformers that are sent to its facility. In short, space is very tight and, because the site cannot accommodate expansion, more efficient use of space is essential.

While Niagara Transformer has adapted well to market changes, change has been incremental. The company’s skilled workforce was comfortable in well-established roles, but significant space saving and efficiency initiatives required dramatically new approaches. What’s more, the company, which has well under 100 employees, had limited resources to commit to ambitious improvement programs.


With help from a New York State Department of Labor grant, Niagara Transformer partnered with University at Buffalo’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE) to launch a program of lean enterprise training and implementation. In all, 184 hours of training were delivered across the workforce. Classroom training focused on introduction to lean tools and value-stream-mapping processes.

Implementation, for office and shop floor, focused on 5S organizational principles and pull systems to reduce clutter and optimize the location of inventory and material supplies. The TCIE team was spearheaded by staff member Al Hammonds. TCIE consultant Thom Marra provided training in lean principles and value stream mapping.

Shop floor wins

Multiple 5S projects were completed that targeted virtually every area of the plant. Some of the biggest wins were achieved in the stacking area. TCIE trainers helped lean teams design a pull system for steel coils and subassemblies, while physically reconfiguring storage racks. Reduction in material inventory freed up nearly 50 percent of available floor space in the area. Streamlined flow and more available space justified purchase of a new forklift dedicated to the area. Previously, a crane had to be used to lift a forklift from a lower level. Material replenishment time was reduced from one hour to about five minutes. General brainstorming for stacking area improvements led to safety gains, too. The team implemented the use of ratchet straps to better secure material on shelves.

In the duct paper storage area, six storage areas were reduced to two, freeing up 50 percent of available floor space. Better labeling helped sort paper by size, and a paper staging area was created. A pull system was implemented—for material and information flow—to deliver duct paper to specific operations as needed. Outside storage trailers reduced the need to store paper in high traffic areas.

5S organization of the duct paper storage area freed up 50% of available floor space.


A comprehensive 5S project in the welding area involved clean-up and removal of a large drill press. 5S improvements drove the replacement of the drill press with a new iron worker, a piece of equipment with more functionality that fit on a smaller footprint.

Operations in the winding area have benefited from labeling and visual communications. A whiteboard dedicated to each winding machine now helps operators communicate between shifts. A master whiteboard streamlines winding machine scheduling and facilitates a pull system for material replenishment.


The above communication Whiteboard supports a Kanban system for replenishing steel coils and sub assemblies in the stacking area.


A pull system for paints and solvents relocated supplies from the warehouse to point-of-use. Paints and solvents are now kept in a fireproof cabinet with min-max kanban triggers for re-supply.

Many nonvalue-added trips to the office were eliminated with the addition of a shop floor e-mail station. The e-mail station provides generally improved communications, while expediting the ordering of supplies and certain raw materials.



Tools Applied

Space Savings

Stacking area for steel coils and subassemblies


40-50% of floor space

Duct paper storage area


50% of floor space

Welding area


250 sq.ft. of floor space


According to plant manger Bob Fishlock, the real benefits of TCIE’s program are a combination of significant short-term efficiency gains and a noticeable change in the company culture. “The TCIE team was able to demonstrate that even minor improvements can really have an impact,” says Fishlock. “Our employees have really caught on. Instead of accepting a bottleneck or shop-floor clutter as a function of the job, we’ve begun to develop a can-do, problem-solving approach. I see it every day.”

Engineering department wins

Lean gains were also achieved in the engineering department. Several key successes were:

• Value-stream-mapping exercises led to design standardization of a number of transformer components, including mounting brackets and terminal lugs.
• Before delivery, etched stainless steel nameplates are mounted on completed transformers. Previously, CAD artwork was delivered via courier to the producer of the nameplate. Today, a workstation has been set up at the vendor’s facility to accommodate electronic receipt of the CAD files, reducing turn-around time by 50 percent and costs by 20 percent.
• In the engineering department, a computer terminal has been dedicated to visual display of the current status of all open jobs; whiteboards are also used to track job-based activities and assignments.

General office wins

The success of lean initiatives at Niagara Transformer has been driven, in large part, by the top-to-bottom adoption of lean and continuous improvement methodologies. President John Darby made certain that lean tools were applied in the office too. “We’ve demonstrated that all areas of the company can benefit by reinventing processes and mind sets that had gotten resistant to change," says John Darby, Niagara's president . "Office and shop floor personnel were side by side in some of the lean training. Office staff learned about production challenges, operators learned how demanding the purchasing process can be."

5S initiatives (e.g., labeling, archiving) in the general office and engineering department freed up approximately 20 percent of available space. Brainstorming resulted in improvements to the conference room that included internet hook-up for customers that are on-site for witness testing. A pull system for ink cartridge supplies was installed and has eliminated stock outages and corresponding downtime, particularly vital to the design group. Safety supplies are no longer kept only in the office, but have been pushed out to point-of-use cabinets with visual restocking triggers. A simple card file system has eliminated nonvalue-added time that was once used searching for job folders.

A kanban replenishment system for printer ink cartridges has reduced printer down time and eliminated unscheduled trips to the office supply store.



Summarizing the success of the program, Darby credits the training program and the workforce’s openness to change. “TCIE showed us the tools for leaning out our operations and did a great job teaching us how to apply them," he explains. "Also, our employees have really shown that they understand the importance of sustaining these gains. That this is a work in progress.”


About The Author

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UB Center for Industrial Effectiveness

The Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE) is a program of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, University at Buffalo. We deliver world class solutions to our customers utilizing the best people, the best methods and the right technology. For more information about TCIE, go to: www.tcie.buffalo.edu.