White Knight turns adversity into advancement

Pre-planning and coordinated response to disaster helps garment manufacturer speed return to productivity

The experience of White Knight Engineered Products (WKEP) in dealing with disaster is a textbook example of how proper upfront planning and an immediate and well-coordinated response can make the difference between an insurmountable situation and an orderly and rapid recovery. Just three weeks after a devastating fire destroyed the cleanroom garment company’s Childersburg, AL, manufacturing and distribution center, WKEP was back in production at a temporary facility. And, just a little more than 7 months later, the company’s employees were able to move back into their fully rebuilt, refurbished, and dramatically improved plant.

It was the afternoon of June 4, 2007, when an electrical short circuit spawned the fire between the roof of the building and the ceiling panels over the manufacturing floor. Jane Collier, WKEP Childersburg manufacturing manager, recalls, “Safety was our first concern, and thank goodness no one was injured. We had just practiced an evacuation drill the previous month, and it paid off, because it was a close call.”

Meanwhile, WKEP president Scott Banks was meeting with his management team at the company’s Charlotte, NC, offices when the call came in. “We received a call from Alabama saying that there had been a fire, but the scope and extent of the damage wasn’t immediately clear to our people on site.” By 5:00 p.m. that same day, however, Banks and his team were on site in Childersburg, and whatever early uncertainty existed quickly disappeared as it became clear that a major disaster had occurred, with most of the damage caused not by the fire itself but by the associated smoke and water. “In addition to the extensive heat damage to the building, we lost every bit of our inventory, both raw materials and finished product,” says Banks.

Not surprisingly, one of the first calls made on the day was to the company’s insurance carrier, Factory Mutual/FM Global Insurance (Johnston, RI). Banks was pleased with their responsiveness. “This is why you have insurance and the importance of a good carrier,” says Banks. “FM is used to dealing with big issues, and certainly, in our eyes, this was the biggest issue. Their number one concern was the same as ours: Get us back up and running as quickly as possible.”

Figure 1. Smoke and water damage after the fire at WKEP’s Childersburg facility prompted the company to redesign the entire building, not only considering further fire safety measures but other improvements for lean manufacturing. Photo courtesy of White Knight Engineered Products.
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The first thing FM recommended was to immediately get a disaster-recovery company on scene to prevent and/or minimize any additional damage. Servpro Industries (Gallatin, TN) filled that bill, with a team immediately beginning the initial clean-up process–for example, getting the water out of the facility to prevent further damage. After that, the priority turned to getting the machinery out, cleaning it, and putting it into temporary storage trailers until a temporary facility could be located. A second company, Disaster Services, Inc. (Atlanta, GA), was also brought in to assist with the process.

Overall, Banks says that FM Global connected WKEP management with the people and expertise they needed to put together a roadmap to recovery and rebuilding. “They always proposed two to three options and were instrumental in helping us find the best solution.” For example, Banks points to the redesign of WKEP’s sprinkler system, which now includes sprinkler heads both between the roof and ceiling panels as well as below the ceiling. “As the previous fire started above the drop ceiling, we wanted to ensure that this type of disaster cannot occur again,” says Banks.

FM Global also connected the company with Gilbane Building Co. (Providence, RI) for initial advice on the rebuilding plan. But again, Banks points out that FM Global allowed them to decide themselves how to best meet their needs, and they eventually brought in their own primary contractor–BE&K of Birmingham, AL. Says Banks, “Yes, we relied on and benefited from Gilbane’s expertise, but at the same time, we also needed to stand on our own two feet, which is why we got BE&K involved. We focused on what we wanted the plant to do and turned to them for the best way to get there.”

Figure 2. WKEP’s managers and employees participated in the redesign with feedback on features from the lighting and layout on the manufacturing floor to areas such as the cafeteria. Photos courtesy of White Knight Engineered Products.
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The end result was a complete renovation of the facility from floor to roof. As explained by Banks, the only thing that remains of the original building is its aluminum shell, some cinderblock walls, and the concrete floor. “We pulled out everything–all wood, insulation, every pipe and wire. We didn’t want to take any chance that there would be any residue of the fire. No odor or any kind of potential contaminant.”

As WKEP general manager Greg Winn notes, it was also at this stage that the company began to take advantage of this opportunity to rethink the entire layout of the building and optimize it for current environmental concerns, manufacturing requirements, and operating costs. “We had a clean slate and almost too many options, but ultimately, we were able to rebuild to better meet our customers’ demands as well as the realities of the global economy.”

One major accomplishment was the complete separation of the manufacturing floor from the distribution areas. In fact, this move was part of an overall focus on implementing modern lean manufacturing principles. Says Winn, “We took a hard look at our raw material and workflows, emphasizing our need for a highly flexible yet tightly controlled production environment.” WKEP’s Childersburg plant focuses on the manufacture of quick turnaround, short production runs of specialty, highly custom cleanroom and protective garments. These include special design, flame retardant, and ESD protective garments as well as more esoteric products such as wheelchair and equipment covers.

Winn says the focus on lean manufacturing principles led the team to many basic improvements in the plant’s layout that seem simple, like placing their laser cutter in close proximity to their plotter and having their QC department open directly onto the manufacturing floor. “The result is that we’ve reduced a lot of walking around, improved the efficiency of people, and provided a better working environment overall.”

In truth, however, WKEP was already well along in embracing lean manufacturing principles even before the fire. The company had applied for and received a grant from the State of Alabama for training on lean manufacturing concepts, and everyone in the building was taken through the 8 to 10 week training program. As noted by Collier, “This training provided us with a good streamlined framework from which to advance.” Wireless routers were connected through a new high-tech network, allowing warehouse data transfer throughout the facility for easy location of product and raw materials. Traditional phones were replaced with voice over IP (VoIP) technology, allowing for easy connections between WKEP’s other facilities.

A number of new physical improvements were also made to the facility. For example, a new sealant and floor finish was put over the raw concrete floor to help control particulate and other potential contaminants. And more efficient, brighter, and cost-effective lighting was installed throughout the manufacturing area. Winn notes that in addition to improving the working environment of personnel, this change also dramatically aids their overall quality control and inspection process.

Another extremely important factor in WKEP’s successful and rapid recovery operation can be traced directly to its early business history in the manufacture of medical devices. Now, although the company no longer manufactures these products and is therefore no longer audited by the FDA, it nevertheless still works to adhere to FDA GMP guidelines. As noted by Banks, adherence to the FDA’s GMP requirements offers many practical benefits to the cleanroom industry and contributed significantly to their being back on line quickly. “We maintain data to trace a garment back to its date and location of manufacture. Equally important, we back up and store quality, manufacturing, and specification data off site in the event of a situation like this, and it’s this infrastructure that allowed us to get back into production quickly.”

Finally, as observed by Banks, the only way they could approach a project and challenge of this scope with any hope of success was to subdivide tasks and responsibilities and to count on the dedication of their employees. Most of WKEP’s employees and managers have been with them for many of the 40 years that its Controlled Environments division has been supplying protective apparel for cleanrooms in the pharmaceutical, microelectronics, and automotive industries. “All of our people stepped up to participate in their own areas of responsibility, whether it was the warehouse, manufacturing, IT, and even how to best decorate our offices and cafeteria for our employees. Our vendors also met our needs as quickly as possible and our customers stuck with us through this crisis. In an economy where the trend is to close domestic textile plants, we’re proud that we were able to rebuild and re-establish this facility.”


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