Case History Feature
Case History Feature for Norton Company written by Richard Stewart
K2 Ski Makers Team With Norton Company to Lift
Quality to New Peaks and Slash Production Costs
A new style of ski became the rage on the slopes a little over
a year ago. The cap ski, with its rounded sides, was winning
skiers away from the traditional straight sidewall ski. For K2
Corporation, the largest U.S. manufacturer of Alpine skis, the
trend spelled changes in production methods that had been
perfected over three decades.
Ski making is a complex, multi-stage process that involves
molding and shaping the product with a variety of abrasives
and finishing materials. Initially, the company was rejecting a
third of the new skis for quality reasons. To get back on track,
K2 formed statistical process control (SPC) teams and turned
to its suppliers, including its primary supplier of abrasives,
Norton Company, for assistance in improving quality and
Converting the Plant
"We went from making skis the way we did for 32 years to
making them in a way we never had before," recalls Matt
Chambers, senior production manager at K2's Vashon Island,
Wash. plant. "We converted our facility without shutting it
down, and basically had a brand new plant running at the
beginning of this year."
But the going was rough during that changeover period.
On one January day a year ago, K2 shipped 800 pairs of skis
— while discarding 35% of the total production run. A year
later, on the same date, the Vashon plant shipped 2,000 pairs,
with only a 2% fallout, Chambers reports. He attributes the
phenomenal improvement to following an implementation
plan with goals for safety, quality and productivity and
developing close working relationships with suppliers to help
achieve those goals.
"Our SPC teams meet twice a week and report on their
to-do's and to-done's — what we need to do and what we
were supposed to have done," explains Chambers. "In those
meetings, we look closely at any incidents involving safety in
the plant as well as issues affecting quality. We figure that if
we're running quality, we're running productively."
Drawing from the technological expertise of its suppliers was
part of the plan. "We wanted our suppliers to become more
like partners with K2," notes Chambers, who is responsible
for the plant's molding, sanding and finishing operations.
"Norton Company sent us people who practically lived with
us for three months, showing us new grinding and sanding
processes. We also visited their facilities back east and talked
to their head engineers."
Brian Wahl, a Norton Company representative who has
been working closely with K2 for several years, attributes the
excellent relationship to good communications between
supplier and user. "They were able to tell us their problems
and we went in to help them find solutions," says Wahl. "We
tried to be responsive to their needs by providing engineering
help and technical resources to improve production processes
and reduce their finishing costs."
Norton Company supplies K2 with a variety of coated
abrasive sanding belts and bonded abrasive grinding wheels
to shape the skis, and Bear-Tex® disks for finishing the
surfaces and deburring the steel edges. Norton diamond
dressing tools are used to put a form in the face of the grinding
wheels, which is transferred to the base of the ski to help
improve skiability and trackability.
"We told the Norton people about our goals for reducing
off-quality products," recounts Chambers, "and we explained
our production processes, the materials we use, the hardness
of our steels, and basically opened up our books — in complete
confidentiality — and asked them for their recommendations
on how to get better."
A very extensive testing program focused on the manufacturing
processes. In K2's sanding operations, operators we were
having to do extensive belt passes. Norton brought in different
belts and different grits to try. Grinding stones were being
dressed after every five or six skis. Norton experts explained
why the stones were breaking down and suggested trying
A multitude of factors in K2's grinding operations were
tested over a three-month period, including turning speed of
grinding stones, feeding speed, coolant pressure, and frequency
of dressing and truing stones. The same testing processes were
used in K2's sanding operations to evaluate different grits, belt
types and other factors. After the tests were completed,
Norton Company engineers made their recommendations on
product and process changes to reduce off-quality.
Unlike some European ski makers who inject foam into the
core of the skis to facilitate production, K2 continues to use its
respected torsion box construction, which involves hand-
wrapping fiberglass around a laminated wood core. A
polyurethane base and cap are applied to top and bottom, and
the package is baked under pressure to form a ski.
At the end of the production process, each ski is inspected
and paired by weight, flex, tip height, placement of graphics
and a host of other things that are considered in the matching.
The skis are all warranted by K2.
Explains Chambers, "We are interested in making the best-
performing, best-quality out there, not in being the biggest
manufacturer of skis in the world. We've stayed with the kind
of construction that has proven to give our customers the best
performance they can get in a ski. And we're not about to
K2 skis are renowned throughout the industry for the quality
of their construction and their performance on the slopes. The
ski magazines have honored K2's products with awards and
top ratings. And the company's SPC teams have been selected
as national finalists in the 1995 Quality Cup competition s
ponsored annually by the Rochester Institute of Technology
and USA Today to recognize excellence in quality improvement.
This year, K2 Corporation expects to produce about
400,000 pairs of skis at its Vashon Island plant. Production
costs have been brought in line and waste reduced significantly
since the days following the changeover at the plant. Competi-
tion is stiff among ski makers, and reducing costs was a top
Chambers credits the Norton Company for helping make a
difference. "They're the grinders and we're the ski makers," he
says, "and we wanted them to team up with us to show us what
works in the grinding industry and how we could use it to
improve our production and control costs," says Chambers.
"They brought their expertise to the table, and when we applied
what we learned from them, the improvement was very
significant. And they're still here, working with us. It's a real
For more information on Norton coated abrasives, Norton
bonded abrasives, Norton diamond dressing wheels, Bear-Tex
disks or other products, contact your local Norton Company
representative or distributor.
Norton Company is a worldwide manufacturer serving a
broad range of industries. It is the world's leading manufacturer
of abrasives, and produces technologically advanced ceramics,
plastics, and chemical process products. The company employs
16,000 people and operates 88 plants in the United States and
19 other companies. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of
Compagnie de Saint-Gobain, headquartered in Paris.
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