Updated: Jan 23, 2019
Article by Tim Siniard of the Cleveland Daily Banner
Although a catastrophic explosion at Wacker Polysilicon’s Charleston plant resulted in shutting down operations for several months, company leaders lost no time embarking on a continuous improvement plan that empowered workers, enabling them to develop innovative solutions to improve production processes.
One of those leaders is Mary Beth Hudson, vice president and site manager at Wacker, who immediately spearheaded the effort to begin continuous improvement training not long after the smoke from the explosion had dissipated and wreckage cleared away from the stricken plant.
“It was a great opportunity to get a lot of team members training on continuous improvement,” Hudson said.
Hudson made her comments during a keynote speech at the Fourth Annual Peak Performance Symposium held Tuesday at Cleveland Country Club.
“It was a catastrophic incident,” Hudson said of the explosion. “It shut down operations and we were faced with challenges.”
She said it was the most challenging time in her 30-year manufacturing career.
According to a report conducted by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the September 2017 explosion, which resulted in two injuries, as well as closed roads, took place when a piston in a compression room became “structurally compromised,” the report noted. As a result, hydrogen gas entered an adjoining room. In addition, the explosion “damaged surrounding piping and equipment.”
The TDEC report noted that “evidence suggests that the September 7 event was due to a sudden and unavoidable failure of process equipment.” In addition, the report found that “it is unlikely that public health or the environment were impacted” due to excess emissions. The report also stated, “no enforcement action would be taken for the excess emissions resulting from the event."
Hudson said the biggest challenge was what to do with the employees while the plant was being rebuilt. While some 200 employees were involved in operations, the remaining 400 or so employees were sidelined while the plant was temporarily shuttered.
“We knew we wanted to rebuild,” Hudson said. “We did not want to lose talent.
Some managers suggested employees participate in tasks such as painting as the plant was being rebuilt. Hudson had other ideas, “I wanted to invest in training and reap the rewards of their additional skillsets,” Hudson said.
The employees were then given crash courses in production methods such as Six Sigma – a statistics-based methodology used to develop efficient manufacturing standards, producing higher quality products.
“We trained 350 in lean Six Sigma yellow belt,” Hudson said.
The training helped provide employees with increased knowledge they may not have ordinarily received while the plant was in production. The benefit, according to Hudson, created excitement with team members using their training to improve safety and quality, as well as cut production costs.
While some employees chose to leave the company during its downtime, most chose to stayed on. And when they plant reopened in April, the remaining employees were ready, as well as excited about the opportunity to apply their new skills. In addition, some chose to further their knowledge by returning to college.
“The training helped retain customers and remain in business long term,” Hudson said. “The tools we gave employees helped us be better and faster. They love participating in solving problems.”
Hudson graduated from the University of Kentucky 1989 with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. She began her career at Air Products and Chemicals in Calvert City, Ky. She joined Wacker in 1998 as a plant manager. In 2008, Hudson was promoted to vice president of the Polysilicon Division in 2016, which is located at the Charleston plant.
Other speakers at event included Peak Performance's Joey Stokes, Will Ford from Bayer, Gordon Michaud from Waupaca Foundry, Nicole Koesling from Volkswagen and Denso Manufacturing's Crystal Renner.