The challenge was clear enough for John Anker. He wanted to increase operational efficiencies in his company, AnkerPak, the manufacturing and packaging company he founded in 2004, based in Columbus, Georgia.
“We’re a young company and costs are critical,” he said. Competing against other manufacturing and packaging companies, particularly from Mexico and China, adds even more pressure, he added. “We’re always looking for ways to reduce our costs, increase efficiency, and implement strategies that result in a real and meaningful monetary tangible return, and I think that’s most important to a young company, tangible returns such as cash flow.”
So Anker did what most executives in his situation would do: Seek the advice of an outside consultant. The first organization he worked with was a firm based in Chicago, but it wasn’t exactly a good fit. Sharing his situation with fellow entrepreneurial CEOs in Columbus, he asked for recommendations.
“I said, ‘Who have you used that showed they cared about your business and gave you a good result,’” Anker recounted. “Somebody in that peer group said, ‘You really ought to talk to Derek Woodham at Georgia Tech.’”
Woodham serves West Georgia as a region manager for the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP). A federally funded program of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, GaMEP is part of the National MEP network and is supported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
GaMEP’s mission since it was established at Georgia Tech in 1960: To be a resource and partner available to help manufacturers across Georgia, said Karen Fite, GaMEP’s director. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia is home to about 7,300 manufacturers.
“Our goal is to be able to help them grow and remain competitive,” Fite said. “For us, that means we want to meet them where they are, we want to understand what their current needs are, and we also want to help them look beyond their immediate challenge in order to think strategically not only about operational excellence, but organizational excellence.”
Manufacturing is an important component of Georgia’s economy; in fact, it’s the second-largest private business industry after agribusiness. Manufacturing employs 365,000 people across the state and accounts for about 11 percent of Georgia’s $493 billion economy.
Karen Fite is director of the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) at Georgia Tech.
‘A Great Resource’
Anker, the Columbus business owner, had two initial goals he hoped Woodham could help him with: One was to increase operational efficiencies and productivity in the manufacturing plant. The other was to plan the layout of AnkerPak’s separate packaging facility to maximize utilization of the space in that building.
That Woodham lives in the Columbus area (all GaMEP region managers reside in the communities they serve) was a critical difference, Anker said. He saw it as reflective of a deeper commitment toward a partnership.
After he laid out the operational challenges he wanted GaMEP to address, Anker said, the results were immediate.
Morning meetings with senior managers at the plant changed and were structured in a way that allowed for more individual accountability and reduced the extra labor costs connected to planning and setting up on the plant floor.
“It was more fluid communication,” Anker said, adding that the changes saved money — a tangible result — but they led to other benefits, as well.
“The changes in morale led to better productivity. That saved us money and that money is real,” he said. “Because of that relationship we started building with the MEP, the barriers were lower and results were higher on my side. It’s a great resource to have — a great university with representatives living and working in the regions they represent.”
‘It’s a Partnership’
Fite, GaMEP’s director, stresses that the organization’s approach is collaborative.
“The people in MEP are passionate about serving. Everyone here wants to serve manufacturers and help them grow,” she said. “When we go into companies, we’re not just going there to provide a solution, we want to create a long-term, meaningful relationship. It’s a partnership.”
That’s how Scott Bunn views GaMEP’s work with his company, Groov-Pin Corp. in Newnan, Georgia. The company manufactures threaded inserts, groov-pins, and engineered fasteners and components.
Bunn, who is operations manager at Groov-Pin, said the company first approached GaMEP about six years ago to incorporate some lean manufacturing processes — methods designed to reduce operational waste.
“They started looking at our issues internally,” Bunn said. Key areas of focus included scheduling, cutting the lead-time between orders, and shipping on time to customers.
“We immediately saw results,” Bunn said. “Our on-time performance had been in the 78 to 85 percent range. Just last year, our average on-time performance was 95 percent.”
‘Challenged to excellence’
From there, Groov-Pin tackled cutting the lead time between customers’ orders and actual shipping. The company incorporated a number of practices using the “kaizen” model, which encourages cross-functional teams within companies to continually look for areas of operational improvement and efficiency.
“Our lead time was 45 days prior to implementing kaizen. After that, it was in the 20-day range. It was a significant improvement and had a big impact on sales,” Bunn said.
The company also looked at creating more opportunities for staff — particularly those on the shop floor — to share their ideas. That led to regular brainstorming sessions where employees were encouraged to submit ideas to improve operations.
Scott Bunn is operations manager at Groov-Pin in Newnan, Georgia.
“It was a way to empower the people on the shop floor. There’s now a microphone for them to get their ideas out,” Bunn said. Staffers now receive a $5 gift card just for submitting an idea and an additional $50 if it is implemented. The company posts all the ideas in the staff break room for visibility.
“We’ve come up with some great ideas,” Bunn said. For example, one staff suggestion involved changing the tap welding process. Prior to the change, employees had to walk from their workstations to another part of the plant to fuse the materials. Another employee designed a special wrench to make faster adjustments to some machines on the shop floor.
“We like working with the staff from GaMEP,” Bunn said. “They challenged us. No matter what we come up with, they continually say, ‘What can we do that’s better than that?’ They would challenge our capabilities and push us to come up with the best solutions.”
The Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP), part of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, serves all of Georgia, as illustrated by this map. In 2015, GaMEP worked with 1,929 Georgia manufacturers to create or retain 2,149 jobs, save more than $25.3 million, invest $160 million back into their plants, and generate sales of more than $205 million.
‘Exactly what I needed’
Though GaMEP is primarily focused on Georgia, occasionally its efforts with in-state manufacturers lead to select projects in neighboring states.
In Murphy, North Carolina, just north of the Georgia state line, Moog Components Group is part of a multinational manufacturing conglomerate that spans a number of sectors, ranging from medical devices and defense to aircraft and industrial components.
Moog, which also has an engineering office in Kennesaw, Georgia, has worked with GaMEP for the past two years to improve its product development and innovation management systems.
“We were working on a major product with our largest customer,” said Terry Martin, general manager of the Murphy operations. The project centered on high-performance medical motor/blowers, and to secure the order, his team needed to map out a plan to meet critical deadlines.
“The reason why I engaged with GaMEP and Georgia Tech was to help us meet this deadline,” Martin said. “If we hadn’t met the date, we wouldn’t have been awarded this large order.
“I sent an email to Bob Wray, the GaMEP project manager, and he had exactly what I needed. He gave us the lean product development tools that were needed to expedite this project.”
Martin said Moog scrapped its traditional method of having a project manager go to everyone involved to get updates. Instead, with GaMEP’s guidance, the team created a deliverables road map, which allowed everyone on the team to see what each member was responsible for and the areas where potential snags might occur.
“Now, we had everyone in the same room, everyone could see their own little bit of the puzzle,” Martin said. “The deliverables road map is not just a rolling action item list. It’s very visual, and by looking at the timeline, you see what each person on the team has to do and how the project is supposed to move forward. They really just broke open the bottlenecks for planning the project.”
With time being a critical component, the team also adopted 15-minute standup meetings, which kept members focused on the project, helped them make decisions quickly, and empowered them to take action. The changes freed up project managers to take on more responsibilities, Martin said.
“We are adopting that as our standard product development project process, and we have other groups within our sector that are starting to do this as well,” he added.
'Keep Jobs in the Plant'
As manufacturers look to GaMEP to help them create efficiencies and manage and maximize operations, the result often is overall increased productivity, Fite said.
“Process improvement efforts help keep jobs in the plant,” she said. “What GaMEP does is work with manufacturers to identify and maximize their capacity. We help them cut their costs, but by doing so, they increase capacity, so that they can grow.”
Indeed, the changes implemented at Groov-Pin increased productivity and efficiencies to a level where the company had to create new positions to meet growing demand.
“In some areas we tackled, our productivity increased 30 to 40 percent,” Bunn said. “It’s allowed us to add some jobs, because when you do things efficiently, you improve your margins.”
Those savings not only led to new jobs and equipment purchases, they allowed Groov-Pin to be competitive with others in the sector, particularly during the economic downturn.
“We have been able to remain competitive by matching pricing with our domestic and off-shore competitors,” Bunn said. “That’s one of the things that sustained us during the downturn. We were able to continue based on the efficiency levels we were able to attain, which gave us a competitive advantage.”
Anker, the Columbus manufacturing and packaging plant owner, said another competitive advantage of GaMEP is its structure. The fact that it is part of an internationally recognized research institution that is committed to the state is a business differentiator, he said.
“I believe having it attached to Georgia Tech does make a difference,” Anker said. “That means a lot. It’s not a sales approach; the GaMEP isn’t coming to me trying to woo me.
“I valued that I had someone in my community — a neighbor — with the expertise and experience in manufacturing plants to come in and say, ‘I want to help you dig deeper roots here and have more success in our state. How can we help?’”
Péralte Paul is a business and technology writer in Georgia Tech’s Institute Communications and the Enterprise Innovation Institute. He is a former newspaper reporter.