WMEP bridges productivity gap for small manufacturers
SBT Associate Editor
Before he heard about a program that helps businesses improve their manufacturing operations, Richard Pettibone says the lead time at Drewco Corp. in Franksville used to be three to four weeks.
Through a business associate, he heard about the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP), which provides small manufacturers with a low-cost assessment of their operations.
After Drewco received guidance in how to set up cell manufacturing, the maker of special holding fixtures for machine tools has seen its lead times reduced to one week.
“Before, all of our manufacturing areas were separated from one another,” says Pettibone, the president and owner of the 28-employee firm. “All we did was rearrange the machines. Because the machines are so close together now, communication has improved. So if there’s a problem, they can correct it immediately. The results have been very, very good.”
Aside from the manufacturing improvements, WMEP advisers helped Pettibone establish a five-year business plan, with the goal of doubling business over that time period. The plan takes into account everything Drewco will need – from equipment, to floor space to managers and computers.
“Now we have a plan, and some sequence of events that have to happen to make this business grow,” Pettibone says.
As crucial as smaller manufacturers are to the economy, the productivity gap between large and small firms is growing. According to a National Research Council report, many small firms are operating far below their potential, despite using modern manufacturing equipment, methodologies and management practices. Limited resources, lack of in-house expertise and lack of access to the newest technologies are some of the significant barriers faced by smaller manufacturers.
WMEP aims to bridge the productivity gap by working directly with manufacturers to provide expertise and services tailored to their most critical needs, which range from process improvements and worker training, to business practices and applying information technology. Solutions are offered through a combination of direct assistance from WMEP staff and assistance from outside consultants, many of them from technical colleges.
WMEP has its own field staff, and is supplemented by the resources of area technical colleges, says Mike Klonsinski, executive director of the private, not-for-profit organization which started in Wisconsin in 1995, and is part of a national network of manufacturing assessment centers linked to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
“We come to small companies with small-company expertise, but with the larger knowledge of what they need to compete,” says Gina Catalano, regional manager for WMEP in southeastern Wisconsin. “Because we do this a lot, we can marshal resources faster than a company can do it themselves.”
Based on their findings, WMEP advisers offer follow-up advice and on-site assistance. The typical engagement period for a manufacturer with WMEP is six to nine months, although it can be longer, Catalano says. It’s not unusual for WMEP to start working on a project with a company and then find that additional projects crop up.
That was the case with Milwaukee Precision Corp., a manufacturer of precision machined parts and measuring instruments. The company’s challenge was to eradicate the Year 2000 problem from all of its systems by April of this year. WMEP assisted in the selection of a Y2K software system. The process also led to re-evaluating numerous other operations within the company, including replacement of long-outdated program language.
WMEP helped Milwaukee Precision Corp. form a cross-functional team to evaluate its operating methods and helped the company make changes to incorporate along with its software. Beyond the Y2K problem alone, WMEP’s helped Milwaukee Precision revise its goals to improve operations companywide, Catalano says.
“These are people who have been in manufacturing for a long time, and who have a wealth of experience,” adds Drewco’s Pettibone.
Of the eight full-time WMEP field agents in southeastern Wisconsin, each one has no less than 25 years experience in his field, Catalano says. The agents have backgrounds in engineering, manufacturing management, labor-management relations and finance.
Jordan Controls on Milwaukee’s northwest side has always been interested in process improvements. But the manufacturer of electric actuators met with mixed success in those efforts, says president Bob Seidell. (Electric actuators take a signal and tell a valve on a boiler to close, for example).
Enter WMEP, which assisted Jordan Controls in determining the most critical areas that required improvement. At the outset, WMEP brought in a team of five people who went around the company and interviewed employees. That was followed by an assessment, which recommended the formation of cross-functional teams to determine and solve the problems.
The company was then assigned a facilitator from MATC, who conducted a series of offsite meetings with the company’s entire management team and supervisors.
Jordan Controls used the prioritization techniques suggested by WMEP in order to break down the problem areas. That involved forming seven process improvement teams.
The areas that were addressed included improving internal training, scheduling and delivery, improving sales order entry, setup reduction in the machine shop, making the transition to cellular manufacturing, and mapping the information flow of an order all the way to shipment in order to reduce lead times.
While it’s still a little early to see results, Seidell says the product scheduling team that ordered a new front-end order system has realized instantaneous results, as on-time deliveries have improved.
“The soft benefits are that it certainly helped us analyze, distill and focus on the most important areas for process improvements,” Seidell says. “They taught us a methodology of how to form our own cross-functional improvement teams. The model that WMEP taught us is one we will probably use forever.”
While WMEP has been involved with Jordan Controls for well over a year, consultants are always available. According to Seidell, the $3,000 cost for WMEP’s involvement was “astonishingly low.”
“In fact, it was so low, we thought it couldn’t be any good at that price,” he shrugs.
Evidence suggests that the manufacturing extension partnership is a bargain. A report by the Center for Economic Studies at the Bureau of Census showed that 1,559 firms which used the MEP service realized an growth of anywhere from $9,017 to $2,334 per employee. That compares to an average growth rate of $508 in added value per employee for non-MEP client firms. Using the most conservative estimates, total impact on the economy from 1,559 firms in two states over a five-year period resulted in additional economic output of $1.268 billion, the study said.
“One client who came to us by word-of-mouth told us we’re like a best-kept secret, that we need to start advertising our services,” Catalano says.
To request the help of WMEP, call the WMEP regional office at (414) 906-9637.
WMEP bridges productivity gap for small manufacturers