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Lean in Aerospace Metal Finishing: From Industry Step-Child to Lean Poster Child


The Supplier Excellence Alliance teams up with A&D supplier for lean improvements, resulting in measurable improvements


By Douglas Greene
Hixson Metal Finishing
Newport Beach, CA


Metal finishing has historically been known as a messy, poorly organized and managed profession with little accountability and aggravation in spades for all stakeholders. But at Hixson Metal Finishing (Newport Beach, CA), we are working to obliterate that reputation and make it as sterling as our long-time home of Newport Beach is beautiful. Through a comprehensive lean program championed by the Supplier Excellence Alliance (SEA), we have become the poster child for lean in an industry that will accept nothing less. Our goal? To revolutionize the metal finishing experience for our customers, partners, and employees.A Hixson QC Inspector examines components to ensure perfect quality is achieved.
Hixson Metal Finishing is a premier processor of metal components for the aerospace and defense industry. With over 85 processes performed in-house (from anodize to vacuum cadmium and everything in between), we are one of just a handful of metal finishers in the United States that provide the full scope of “one-stop” processing for the A&D supply chain. Hixson’s reputation is built on a partnering philosophy with our 3000+ customers worldwide, big and small. Hixson’s vision is rooted in excellence, integrity, and accountability.

In April 2008, Hixson engaged in the SEA Lean Enterprise System in an effort to position the company as the best possible partner to the aerospace and defense industry. While we expected some improvement, we truly didn’t expect the wild success that was experienced throughout the company:

Sales. Our sales have increased 58.5% over the last six years despite a sluggish economy and government threats of sequestration and deep cuts. We simply refused to participate in an economic downturn. We knew there was work to be had and our keen focus on lean poised us to benefit from it.

Parts Per Million Defects (PPM). Quality is king in A&D. Understandably so, too. When you’re at 30,000 feet, there is very little tolerance for failures. Hixson’s PPM rate has plummeted 74.9% and continues to trend towards the ultimate goal of zero.

Revenue Per Employee. This measurement of a company’s efficiency is also a tricky one because it can be manipulated with layoffs or price hikes. Hixson has experienced a 30.1% increase in Revenue Per Employee while maintaining the same price structure since 2005 and increasing the workforce over 30% to accommodate the growth in sales.Hixson's vacuum cadmium chamber applies cadmium coatings to small components for lubricity and corrosion protection.

On-Time Delivery. Despite our rapid uptick in sales, a growth in complexity of processing, and a huge influx of workers, Hixson’s on-time delivery trend is just shy of perfect at 99.6%. 

Capital Expenditures/Reinvestment. As a result of our strides towards efficiency, Hixson’s capital has been liberated from the bonds of process waste, allowing us to significantly reinvest in our company’s and employees’ futures. From a state-of-the-art nondestructive testing line to a fully automated and nurturing learning center, to a new anodize line that promises to reduce utility demand and increase throughput, these investments constitute millions of dollars—money well spent for our partners, our team, and our role in the future of the supply chain. 

How It Happened

It all started with a shift in the mindset of our senior and middle managers, who sharply focused on leadership and culture.  Streamlining and formalizing everyone’s priorities through a series of collective strategic planning sessions, we were able to work together for common goals instead of fighting each other for resources. By expressing appreciation for the contributions of the workforce and seeking front-line input and buy-in on the company’s direction, we encouraged the valued employees of Hixson—the experts in the trenches—to own their processes. Hixson’s renewed commitment to targeted improvement guided us to measure everything, allowing for objective evaluations and focused troubleshooting in order to continuously qualify and strengthen processes. We essentially took a step back, decided our trajectory, and in a unified effort manned the helm to get there.

As the tone in the workplace started to change and become more optimistic with the increased sense of empowerment and structured progress, Hixson parlayed the energy into our operations and workforce development.  Improvement initiatives, such as kaizens and 6S visual workplace events, were conducted in every department. Front-line employees and customers alike had a forum to say what worked and what didn’t and from there, their collective resources were pooled to provide meaningful and lasting changes. Hixson’s Masking Department served as the pilot case for lean, undergoing a series of improvement events to achieve standard workstations containing zero clutter and maximizing workflow.

Highlights of our successes include increasing the Planning Department’s throughput velocity by over 25%, reorganizing the Anodize and General Plating Departments to optimize workflow, and instituting a “standard of appearance” that has been complimented and even modeled by some of our Fortune 500 customers. Of course, these events were also able to help identify bottlenecks in the processes which in turn guided cross-training and procedural improvement efforts.
While maturing our processes and gleaning a plethora of employee feedback, Hixson identified a major vacuum in the training practices of old. With the help of the SEA roadmap, we were able to fill this void with focused, homegrown training courses. We developed master trainers with the skill sets needed to connect with employees-turned-students and get a consensus buy-in to maintain the new systems once the training ended. We also used the wealth of knowledge and experience of our employees as a pool of subject-matter expert resources.

Weighing our internal knowledge with industry best practices, the master trainers developed training programs to help employees hone their technical and soft skills in what they have proudly dubbed Hixson University or HU. HU provides soft skills in a series of trainings conducted by master trainers in the realms of communication and time management. For technical skills, HU is piloting a competency-based training program, which is a self-paced, hierarchical curriculum with assessments, labs, and mentorship for the company’s value-added processes.

A Cell Lead inspects components to customer standards in one of Hixon’s dedicated customer cells. These work cells serve high-volume customers with highly complex work, providing one point of contact  and specially trained and certified operators for maximum efficiency and quality.The outputs of all these methods are clear in Hixson’s business results. Because we continually track everything (sales, internal and external rejects, OSHA incidents, customer satisfaction, efficiency, delivery, throughput velocity, profitability—you name it), we can slice and dice the data to show which factors are most impactful to the bottom line and trouble-shoot from there. The leadership also feels we have a much more sophisticated ability to identify issues early on and solve them before they have a chance to affect customers, and then the supply chain. In fact, that confidence is supported by several industry awards throughout the past several years: the workforce has been recognized for Operational Excellence (2011) and Supply Chain Innovation (2010), the leadership team was awarded the Stephen E. Barton Leadership & Culture Award (2009), and a key executive earned individual accolades with the Richard Hall Award for Leadership Excellence (2010). 

Given enough time, Hixson would have come up with many of the improvements they eventually made. But the industry is changing so rapidly there isn’t enough time to invent everything from scratch. Hixson acknowledged that SEA was integral to Hixson’s lean journey. SEA provided the A to Z roadmap, a committed and supportive staff to provide guidance and direction, and a platform for Hixson to present their progress to an expanded customer base. ME

SEA is an aerospace and defense nonprofit alliance founded in 2003 by prime and tier-one companies and led by sub-tier suppliers committed to accelerating supply chain performance. SEA provides a lean management system and a voluntary supplier certification program for enhanced visibility, performance, and collaboration. SEA is funded by supplier memberships and sponsorships.


This article was first published in the March 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF

Published Date : 3/1/2013

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