ibMilwaukee addresses unique challenges while employing the blind

Made in Milwaukee

Julie Davis prepares boxes for packaging writing implements at ibMilwaukee.

445 S. Curtis Road, West Allis
Industry: Nonprofit manufacturer
Employees: 230

When Pat Crain saw a job posting promising a chance to “do well while doing good” he was intrigued, so he submitted his resume. After interviewing at ibMilwaukee, it quickly became clear the now-former Actuant Corp. customer operations leader could apply his manufacturing and distribution background there and he wanted to be part of the nonprofit, the mission of which is to provide employment to the blind and visually impaired.

“It is so inspiring to work with these folks,” said Crain, ibMilwaukee’s chief operating officer.

ibMilwaukee employee Timothy Adorjan operates a machine that attaches clips to pens at the company’s West Allis facility.
ibMilwaukee employee Timothy Adorjan operates a machine that attaches clips to pens at the company’s West Allis facility.

Formerly known as Industries for the Blind Milwaukee, ibMilwaukee was started in 1948 as a way for founder Paul Fryda to provide employment for his brother. The organization now employs 230 people, 110 of whom are blind or visually impaired.

Crain said the organization places an emphasis on giving employees an opportunity to grow, with many starting on the shop floor before moving into management positions.

ibMilwaukee takes several steps to safely incorporate visually impaired employees into the manufacturing operation. Those steps include instituting a strong quality assurance program, assigning tasks that match skill and ability levels, leveraging technology where possible and keeping production near the front of the facility, away from distribution. Some employees are limited to basic assembly, while others with the ability to make out shapes or shadows operate certain machinery.

The company currently operates from a 100,000-square-foot facility in West Allis and another 4,000-square-foot facility it recently opened in Janesville, with plans to open another 109,000-square-foot facility in Hartland in the near future.

It is a $100 million organization that has expanded its offerings beyond manufacturing to include assembly, kitting, office layout design and distribution. Its ibMade division manufacturers writing implements and brushes, many of which go to the U.S. government and military as part of Ability One, a federal program that encourages the purchase of goods and services from organizations that employ blind or significantly disabled individuals.

In some ways, ibMilwaukee faces the same challenges as other manufacturers. Issues related to the company’s workforce, machine maintenance and productivity all come up on a regular basis.

But with employees being blind or visually impaired, ibMilwaukee also has its own unique challenges that most manufacturers don’t have to deal with.

With unemployment in the blind community at around 70 percent, it would seem finding workers wouldn’t be a problem. Crain said the company has kept a lower profile, so many employees have been referred by word of mouth.

Julie Davis prepares boxes for packaging writing implements at ibMilwaukee.
Julie Davis prepares boxes for packaging writing implements at ibMilwaukee.

Having nearly half of the workforce and nearly all direct labor made up of blind or visually impaired individuals means limiting operations to one shift, because that is when public transportation is available to get employees to the facility. When the Hartland facility opens, Crain said employees will be shuttled out there from West Allis because no other transit options exist.

Like at any manufacturer, productivity matters at ibMilwaukee, but it is more about each employee hitting his or her own standards.

“Our mission is to provide blind employment. So as long as they’re doing everything they can, we can try to challenge them and push them, but if they’re physically not able to, that’s fine,” Crain said.

The limitations of some employees have also helped fuel some of ibMilwaukee’s growth. While fully blind employees may not be able to run some of the machinery, they are able to assemble tool kits that follow a set pattern.

ibMilwaukee is involved in the designing of the kit. It then sources the tools and a foam insert from other companies and its employees assemble the kits. Crain said the kitting is done at a higher price point than items like pens or brushes.

“We do have opportunities to expand on that as well,” he said, noting the Hartland facilities will largely be dedicated
to kitting.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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