JOHN DAVIES: Keller making 'sweet music' on shop floor

2014-04-13T00:00:00Z 2014-05-07T21:58:10Z JOHN DAVIES: Keller making 'sweet music' on shop floorJohn Davies nwitimes.com
April 13, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Harmony is something we normally associate with music, but Don Keller applies it to the factory floor.

The owner of Tri-State Industries in Hammond employs this term to describe the importance of relationships among co-workers in a work environment.

In fact, he gives bonuses based upon not only how the company performs, but in part how well employees work together. But it is more than getting along. It’s also contributing ideas to solve problems and come up with solutions.

“We can teach people basic skills,” Don said. “But they have to possess a willingness to be part of a team and help us be successful.”

In addition to the 70,000-square-foot plant in Hammond and a 40,000-square-foot plant in East Chicago, the company also has a 65,000-square-foot plant in Alexandria, LA. There are about 65 employees.

This emphasis on encouraging ideas to come straight from the shop floor stems from an innovative process Don launched in the late '90s. It’s called lean manufacturing, and Don helped pioneer it in this region. “A lot of this is lean thinking and constantly improving and driving out waste,” he said.

“Our workers come up with new ideas to improve the process because they do the work. They are much better qualified to come up with new ideas than I am.”

In contrast to batch processing that is the approach found in traditional manufacturing, lean manufacturing is based upon producing the just the amount of products that the customer needs.

“In lean manufacturing, the objective is to ensure that the job is finished only when you put the part down,” he added. All manufacturing operations are built around U-shaped cells where the work is completed. “I tell employees I want them to move with their hands, not with their feet.”

Additionally, Tri-State Industries took a major step forward with the installation of six in-line welding robots. So the combination of automation and lean manufacturing gave him an edge in reducing costs and turning marginal contracts into profitable ventures.

Today, Don is launching a new division to refurbish used robots and sell them to small manufacturers. Called Tri-State Automation, his company offers training, tooling, programming and installation of cells for robots.

By refurbishing welding robots, Don keeps outdated equipment out of landfills. He also helps small manufacturers save money. “A new robot can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $120,000, while a refurbished robot is about $65,000.”

Don’s company is the first to offer a turnkey service involving robots to customers in Northwest Indiana and the Chicagoland area. “We are the first to focus on used equipment to make this more palatable to small manufacturers.”

For someone who likes harmony, Don is likely to make “sweet music” for small manufacturers who embrace a winning combination of robotics and lean manufacturing in pursuit of profits, quality and sustainability.

John Davies is managing director of the Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana, which is part of the Gerald I. Lamkin Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center of Ivy Tech Northwest. The opinions are the writer's.

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