By Tom Loveland
Stu FitzGibbon is about to mark 25 years at Domino Sugar in Baltimore. As refinery manager, he’s seen automation accelerate over the decades and continue to this day. But while some see technology and global economic forces pushing American manufacturing into the past, FitzGibbon is busy encouraging innovation by empowering people in every part of the plant.
Sitting right across from the Inner Harbor tourist hub, the huge Domino Sugar sign and the plant’s smokestacks symbolize Baltimore’s industrial history. And FitzGibbon says the transition to knowledge-based work is just as relevant in manufacturing as it is in tourism, high-tech healthcare or service industries. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what manufacturing is like today,” he says.
IT can turn factories into places where computing power and human creativity join to achieve a level of innovation that wouldn’t have been possible with either one alone.
What automation removed from the process left Domino with analytical jobs that require computer literacy. Above all, those analysts need practical know-how and keen critical thinking to solve new problems. As automation changed the nature of many production jobs, Domino established a higher pay grade with the plant union.
“Employees are going from task-doers to users of information who make decisions on what to do,” FitzGibbon points out. “There’s a very big difference.”
FitzGibbon has a background in software engineering and management, but he isn’t the type to lean too heavily on algorithms or C-suite decision matrices. “The logic behind how a manufacturing plant works can only come from the people who understand the process,” he says.
“If we use technology to inform the upper leadership team of what’s going right and wrong and think that’s going to drive improvement, that’s absolutely wrong,” FitzGibbon adds. “We have to make technology a tool to the person at that site doing the work. I want technology used so that the machine or forklift operator — or me — is empowered to do a better job. We learned that the hard way here.”
One of Domino’s first large automation projects involved its giant centrifuges. Audible alarms and lights that once alerted technicians to mechanical problems were replaced by computer-based alarms. But the computer alerts were four floors away from the machines, so workers were no longer aware of issues right in front of them. FitzGibbon and his team learned and shifted, moving the computers down to the technicians.
They didn’t just solve the alarm issue — the new computer setup enables those same floor workers to see trends and attend to the machines that most need it, instead of blindly following a maintenance schedule.
FitzGibbon tells another story, of a blue-collar worker who had been begging his foreman to bring his laptop from home, with little success. The worker had detected a problem with sensors and gathered data to prove his point — he just couldn’t crunch it at the plant. It turned out that he was right and the sensors were wrong. Data analysis wasn’t in his job description, but that worker’s observations added huge value.
“This is the stuff you don’t read in textbooks,” FitzGibbon says. Of course, education plays a huge role in the future of Domino and manufacturing in the U.S. Domino has worked with the Community College of Baltimore County to hone a curriculum that suits what manufacturers need right now, with classes offered on an accessible schedule for industrial workers.
Domino holds regular State of the Refinery meetings, including one at midnight the night before FitzGibbon and I met. Those meetings often turn into dynamic conversations about how to innovate solutions. FitzGibbon has worked hard to make goal alignment a pivotal part of the innovation process, and that shows up at the meetings. “If I ask, ‘Why are we here, as a company?’ today, they say, ‘We’re here to make money — that’s what companies do.’ If I had asked them six years ago, they’d [have said,] ‘We’re here to make five-pound bags.’”
Having demonstrated that the plant team can bring down unit man-hours, slash energy costs and cut out unnecessary steps through innovation, workers feel empowered to keep improving. They know that when the plant produces sugar more cheaply, more orders come in. Still, FitzGibbon has just scratched the surface when it comes to what’s possible at the plant and what personal success means for him.
If innovation becomes a day-in, day-out cultural attribute at the plant, instead of being the exception, FitzGibbon says, “I’ll consider myself a success for that.” CEO