Manufacturing for the front lines.

Miguel Cardenas, Staff Engineer – Process Improvement, Cast Iron, Kohler, Wisconsin; and Sean Murray, Iron Foundry Operator, Kohler, Wisconsin

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Manufacturing is at the heart of Kohler Co. From engines and generators to baths and toilets, our innovative and hardworking associates have continually tweaked and perfected our manufacturing processes over the past century and a half.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, one particular manufacturing team was asked to step outside its comfort zone to take fast action for the front lines.

“The company wanted to do something to help our community healthcare workers battling the pandemic, and one of their needs was face shields. We were asked if we had any capacity to help, and we jumped on the opportunity,” said Miguel Cardenas, process improvement engineer.

What makes this story particularly unique is that Miguel and his team work in the cast iron division. That’s right … they volunteered to make plastic face shields in the cast iron foundry.

“It may seem strange, but we are actually set up quite well to tackle the job,” explained Miguel. “We have a unique training space consisting of a fully functional assembly line with all the tools and equipment we could need. Because training was temporarily halted due to COVID-19, the space was available, and the cast iron team was ready and willing to take on the task.”

One of the first volunteers to step up was Sean Murray, iron foundry operator, who began running initial trials with the new materials. The team started by disassembling the example and reverse engineering it to determine how best to assemble face shields by the thousands. Within only two days, they were sending samples to the engineers for approval.

“We saw the great need in our community, and this drove our desire to make it work—quickly and effectively,” said Sean, a fourth generation Kohler associate. “We started out with an assembly process that takes one minute and thirty seconds for an individual but got it down to 40 seconds with an assembly line set up. Working together always makes a difference.”

Once the operation was up and running, Sean, Miguel and the team did what they do best—kept fine-tuning to make a better process and a better product. For example, they adjusted how the elastic straps are attached to the plastic to make the shields more comfortable and added dividers in the packaging to ensure they wouldn’t be crushed in transit. Drawing on expertise from maintenance, purchasing and quality helped them along the way.

“Our foundry team had to learn on the go—they’re used to pouring melted iron into huge molds. Going from that to assembling the delicate details of a face shield had its challenges, but the motivation was definitely there,” said Miguel. “We knew that those shields were going to help people, and we began to hear encouraging stories of the impact they were already having.”

What started with the cast iron team quickly spread to other divisions raising their hands to volunteer. They even started drawing people from other Kohler plants, as well as family members and friends. When the project team started, they were assembling about 80-100 masks per day. But with the growing help, they eventually got to around 1,200 per day. At last count, the cast iron team (and friends) produced nearly 60,000 face shields for area hospitals, fire departments, nursing homes and clinics.

“This project really emphasized what we can do as a team and the scope of our capabilities,” added Sean. “It’s amazing how we can call upon each other’s skills to get a project done and how quickly we can do so. An extraordinary effort by extraordinary people to accomplish something extraordinary.”

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