5316 W. State St., Milwaukee
Beyond Vision is much like any other Milwaukee-area manufacturer, offering such capabilities as CNC milling, CNC turning and manual machining.
The difference is the majority of the work at Beyond Vision, a 501(c)3 nonprofit company, is done by blind employees. About half of its approximately 90 employees are blind, one-third of whom are completely blind and the other two-thirds of whom have varying degrees of blindness.
Beyond Vision, formerly called Wiscraft Inc., is part of a national network of about 100 companies that employ the blind. First known as the Wisconsin Workshop for the Blind, the company started in 1903 as a state agency with the mission of providing employment opportunities to the legally blind.
“They recognized there were a lot of blind people who didn’t have a job,” said president and chief executive officer James Kerlin. “And unfortunately it’s the same today. It’s really hard for people who are blind to get a job.”
In fact, 70 percent of working-age Americans who are blind are unemployed, according to the National Industries for the Blind. Here in the seven-county Milwaukee area, where there are 41,000 blind people of working age, Kerlin said that amounts to tens of thousands of blind people who do not have a job.
At Beyond Vision’s 40,000-square-foot facility, however, blind employees are responsible for 90 percent of direct labor. They do everything except drive a forklift, Kerlin said.
Although the company initially began primarily as a basket weaving operation, today its work is focused on machining, assembly and packaging, operating a call center, and providing office supplies.
Workers in Beyond Vision’s machine shop make parts for a wide range of manufacturers, including Mequon-based GenMet Corp. and Milwaukee-based P&H Mining Equipment Inc.
Beyond Vision also makes three lines of products for the U.S. government: computer privacy filters; floor mats and anti-fatigue mats; and the recently launched tool kits made through a partnership with Kenosha-based Snap-on Inc.
Overall, Beyond Vision serves the U.S. Department of Defense and the industrial, commercial and residential markets.
Although much of the work is done by the visually impaired, the employees are able to run the machinery and complete other tasks through training and a variety of adaptive technology including talking micrometers, talking scales and stationary magnifiers.
They also employ Poka-Yoke quality assurance techniques that make processes mistake-proof. Examples of that include 3-D printed fixtures and the Go-No gauge inspection tool used to check a work piece against its allowed tolerances.
Finally, employees who need to use the computer might use a computer screen reader program called JAWS (Job Access With Speech) or a video magnification device that allows the user to adjust the brightness and size or reverse the color of the text and background.
Safety, especially in the manufacturing facility, is also of importance to Beyond Vision. For instance, the yellow lines commonly used on manufacturing floors to demarcate walking paths are raised and tactile. In addition, the paths are polished to create a different feel from the rest of the manufacturing floor.
In the past five years, two work-related injuries have occurred, according to Beyond Vision, and they both involved sighted individuals.
Despite Beyond Vision’s mission and nonprofit status, Kerlin insists that it operates just like any other business. Plus, Beyond Vision has to compete against thousands of other companies for work.
Beyond Vision has been ISO 9001 certified since 2002, it boasts a 96 percent on-time delivery rate, and its quality is rated at 99.95 percent.
It grew approximately 10 percent over the past year, and in 2015 its annual revenue is expected to be $25 million.
Beyond Vision just happens to be a business focused on helping those in need, Kerlin said.
“Everyone who works here gets hooked on the idea that it’s not just about making a buck – it’s about making a difference, too,” he said.