Orthotics Company Regaining Its Competitive Edge

In 1992, Karen Bonn left behind a nursing career to start a company that manufactures restorative splints and braces in Brandenburg, Ky. She began Restorative Medical in her basement and funded the business with her husband’s retirement savings and a second mortgage on her home.

“While working as a director of nursing in a long-term care facility, I was disheartened at the limited and inappropriate selection of orthotics available for restorative type patients,” she recalled. “While most of the medical community still thought these types of disabilities were inevitable and not able to be corrected, I decided to design my own braces.”

Orthotics are custom-made appliances that stabilize and protect fragile joints and can also keep a joint properly aligned to improve functioning. The splints and braces that Restorative Medical manufactures treat patients who, due to illness or injury, are unable to relax their muscles. Although the organelles in the muscle tissue are still active, the relaxation message is not received from the brain and the body ends up in a hyper extensive mode, twisted and deformed.

As president and CEO of the eight-employee company, Bonn said that she often relied on word of mouth to market the company’s products. Such success can be short-lived when competing in the global marketplace.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make an impact on the world, and we struggle,” she admitted. “Our biggest competitor, a firm in Costa Rica, cut its price to the absolute bottom, so we had to lower our price and fight very hard to stay in business.”

To address some of her concerns, Bonn began working with specialists from the Southeastern Trade Adjustment Assistance Center (SETAAC), based at Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute in Atlanta. Serving the eight-state region of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, SETAAC helps manufacturers develop and implement turn-around strategies to better compete with imports.

“If a company’s sales and employment are down as a result of imports, it probably qualifies for the program,” said project manager Mark Hannah. “We conducted an initial review of Restorative Medical, and helped them prepare an application for the U.S. Department of Commerce. Once they were approved for the first level of funding, we developed a diagnostic and adjustment plan in order to address issues to help the firm improve its competitive position.”

Firms that are accepted into the SETAAC program pay for 25 percent of the diagnostic visit and report. The government generally pays half of the cost of project implementation for activities to benefit the company. Following the diagnostic and adjustment plan, Hannah had private sector consultants submit quotes for implementing the identified projects. Bonn then selected the consultant and together they implemented the changes.

Typically, companies that are involved in the SETAAC program receive assistance in marketing consulting, manufacturing improvements, information systems improvements, employee training and maintenance and quality systems improvements. SETAAC helped Restorative Medical with developing a DVD that could be used for marketing purposes and for training nursing home and health care personnel.

“The DVD will be an awesome thing for the future of our company and our marketing efforts,” noted Bonn. “The ultimate goal is to send the DVD for training purposes instead of having to get on a plane to explain the products to someone.”

Another area in which Restorative Medical received assistance was the patent of a new product, Hyper Hands. This brace helps to treat typical conditions like neurological tone, arthritis and ulnar drift, in which the fingers all bend toward one side of the hand. Bonn said the assistance she received from SETAAC was critical.

“We could not have afforded to submit a patent for a new product without the assistance of SETAAC,” she said. “Our representative was wonderful to keep in touch, aware of deadlines and very organized.”

Bonn said she expects additional jobs to be created in the future, once sales have taken off from the company’s marketing efforts. Currently, she is applying for the next phase of funding available through the SETAAC program.

Last year, SETAAC helped more than 30 companies. On average, these companies received $42,000 in matching funds. In the last three years, SETAAC’s overall client base has increased sales by 26 percent and improved productivity by 28 percent.

About the Enterprise Innovation Institute:
The Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute helps companies, entrepreneurs, economic developers and communities improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation. It is one of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation.

Research News & Publications Office
Enterprise Innovation Institute
Georgia Institute of Technology
75 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 314
Atlanta, Georgia 30308 USA

Media Relations Contact: John Toon (404-894-6986); E-mail (john.toon@innovate.gatech.edu).
Writer: Nancy Fullbright

Newnan Aluminum Extruder Implements Lean, Increases Productivity

Rick Miller, process optimization manager with Bonnell Aluminum, discusses the impacts of the lean implementation with Georgia Tech’s Jennifer Trapp-Lingenfelter and Derek Woodham.

As process optimization manager for the William L. Bonnell Co., a full-service aluminum extruder and a division of Tredegar Industries, Rick Miller saw first-hand the effects the recent slump in home building has had on the Newnan, Ga. plant that makes products as varied as hurricane shutters, tub and shower fixtures, louvers and vents.

“Bonnell serves a lot of customers in the commercial and residential building and construction markets. The Newnan plant is particularly tied to residential building so when the housing market slows down, it slows down Newnan’s business,” he said. “Last year we were in a bit of a crisis mode, and started looking for outside assistance.”

That assistance came from David Apple, northwest Georgia region manager for Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. According to Miller, Apple was a real cheerleader for lean manufacturing principles, a process management philosophy derived mostly from the Toyota Production System and known for reducing wasted time and effort to improve overall customer value.

“Historically when we’ve had high volume, we could usually make decent money, but the real problem was the cost creep of utilities, labor rates, benefits and other costs,” Miller recalled. “In a year where we had all the volume we wanted, we still didn’t make much money. That’s what showed us we needed to do something.”

In February 2006, Georgia Tech lean specialists Jennifer Trapp-Lingenfelter, Derek Woodham and Tom Sammon conducted an assessment at Bonnell, and led initial training for management. Miller said that it was important to have external people be a part of the project since they can bring a different perspective and challenge the status quo.

According to Miller, the A1 packaging area was the most complex and offered the most opportunity for improvement. The team developed a value stream map and standardized the layout of equipment to improve the process flow — not only of product but of people as well.

“We’re always focused on machine utilization and automation, but Derek, Tom and Jennifer didn’t even look at machine pace or speed while they were in here — they were looking for waste,” Miller said. “I used to think the best we could do was incremental improvement, but there’s a lot of opportunity out there.”

Some of the waste observed in the A1 packaging area included an imbalance in production between extrusion, anodizing and packaging; multiple schedules; scrap and quality issues; and disorganization of work in progress.

“There was no flow through the packaging line, and that was a problem in terms of ergonomics and safety. There was excessive walking, excessive material handling and underutilized space,” remembered Trapp-Lingenfelter. “It was our goal with this project to educate all levels of the organization about lean tools, develop a culture of continuous improvement and assist in achieving a cost reduction plan.”

In addition to the introductory training on lean principles, other projects included multiple kaizen projects to improve product flow, reduce work in process, develop standard work, and incorporate 5S (sort, straighten, shine, systemize and sustain), point of use storage and visual controls.

As a result of the lean implementation, Bonnell has achieved outstanding results. The A1 packaging line has experienced an 18 percent increase in productivity since early 2006, and this steady increase in productivity has spanned high- and low-volume business cycles and different staffing levels. Those productivity improvements have reduced the annual operating costs by $330,000. Work in process levels have been slashed by 200,000 pounds on the floor, resulting in
a $350,000 reduction in working capital.

“The first hurdle was like being underwater and being unable to breathe. But once we get some oxygen, we’re going to figure out how to grow this business. If we’re not growing and increasing shareholder value, what are we doing?” asked Miller. “If we can demonstrate that we’re really good at what we’re doing, it may open us up to new opportunities such as minor fabrication that our customers would like for us to do.”

Bonnell is not merely interested in its bottom line, however. In an effort to make the Newnan plant the preferred place to work in the region, the company conducted a survey to reduce turnover and absenteeism among employees. The seven aspiration statements that resulted from the inquiry included: facility upgrade/facelift, effective shift schedule, leadership training, staffing to full-time process, team member development, family atmosphere and better pay through incentive recognition.

“This is the sign we’re always looking for. If we’ve got people thinking on their own, that’s when the company is starting to become a lean organization,” explained Woodham. “We’ve got to get more converts out there and you get converts by doing projects.”

One such convert was Louis Bell, anodizing manager for the Newnan plant. He said the biggest overall improvement has been being able to keep material flowing through the department without stopping. He also noted that the decreased congestion has also decreased the injuries recorded: last year there were 12 injuries whereas the year before had 24.

“It’s been a learning experience for everybody. It’s sometimes hard to see that it’s actually going to work until you try it,”said Bell, who is described as a “poster child for lean” by Woodham and Trapp-Lingenfelter. “Knowing that it’s my idea, I have to make it work.”

About Enterprise Innovation Institute:
The Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute helps companies, entrepreneurs, economic developers and communities improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation. It is one of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation.

Research News & Publications Office
Enterprise Innovation Institute
Georgia Institute of Technology
75 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 314
Atlanta, Georgia 30308 USA

Media Relations Contact: John Toon (404-894-6986); E-mail (john.toon@innovate.gatech.edu).

Writer: Nancy Fullbright

Georgia Tech Engineer Wins Manufacturing Assistance Award

The Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) has named Ed Hardison as a “Practitioner of the Year,” one of only five to be chosen nationwide. A principal research associate with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, Hardison accepted the award at MEP’s recent national conference in Orlando, Fla.

Part of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, MEP is a national network of not-for-profit centers in nearly 350 locations that helps U.S. manufacturers compete globally by strengthening supply chains and increasing productivity. The practitioner award recognizes individuals whose leadership and contributions have made a significant impact on small and medium-sized manufacturers.

This past year, Hardison completed energy assessments for 11 manufacturers in seven different states that resulted in more than $7 million in energy savings opportunities. Hardison, who is based in the Georgia Tech Albany office, has expertise in quality issues, energy conservation and management, environmental management and community economic development.

“Ed has demonstrated a commitment to lifelong learning and a pursuit of excellence in the delivery of service and technical assistance to manufacturers. He has always been a team player and worked effectively in both leading and supporting roles in manufacturing assistance projects,” said Chris Downing, director of industry services for the Enterprise Innovation Institute. “His heartfelt efforts have helped many Georgia manufacturers adopt new technologies and business practices that have allowed them to remain competitive in today’s global marketplace.”

Hardison has been employed at Georgia Tech since 1979, where he holds one of the Institute’s highest research titles, Principal Research Associate. He is a registered professional engineer in Georgia and Florida, and is also a Certified Registrar Accreditation Board Quality Management Systems Lead Auditor and Environmental Systems Auditor.

“To win this award at a national level is a direct reflection of the work we do at Georgia Tech and the impact we create. To continue winning these awards is a reflection of the high standards we have as an organization for ‘just doing our jobs,’” Hardison noted. “Over the last 27 plus years at Georgia Tech I have worked with a lot of good people and it’s their support and assistance that have allowed me to contribute to the impact that Georgia Tech is making in business and industry.”

In addition to his work in energy assessments, Hardison has also successfully helped companies obtain quality and environmental management system registration; conducted environmental compliance audits; and published a program guide for communities on developing an existing industry program. He received a Bachelor of Science in engineering and a Master of Science in engineering from Florida Technological University, now University of Central Florida.

Enterprise Innovation Institute

Georgia Institute of Technology

75 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 314

Atlanta, Georgia 30308 USA

Media Relations Contact: John Toon (404-894-6986); E-mail: (john.toon@innovate.gatech.edu).

Writer: Nancy Fullbright

Explosive Growth: Georgia Tech Helps Small Ammunition Maker Get on Track to Become Military Supplier

Polywad Inc., a small middle-Georgia ammunition manufacturer, is poised for some rapid growth thanks to a recent Department of Defense contract — and broad-ranging assistance from Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute.

Macon, Ga.-based Polywad, maker of patented Spred-R ammunition and other shotgun products, is gearing up to make specialized rounds for the U.S. military. Critical to the move are a pair of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants totaling $1.9 million.

That funding is helping Polywad build and equip a new manufacturing plant in Roberta, Ga., near Macon. Company officials expect to transfer operations to the new site soon and to increase their work force significantly.

“We’re excited to be moving into a new purpose-built shop that’s going to have all the safety and security features the Department of Defense requires,” said Jay Menefee, Polywad’s founder and president. “We expect to soon be making these custom loads in quantity, and we’ll be employing more Macon-area workers to do it.”

SBIR funding comes from federal agencies such as the Department of Defense; its purpose is to use small businesses to develop new technologies and products that the agencies need.  In Polywad’s case, the grants were facilitated by the Enterprise Innovation Institute, a business-assistance and economic development group based at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The Enterprise Innovation Institute has also supported Polywad by providing advisers in business planning, quality control and manufacturing technology.

“Polywad is among the Georgia companies that the Enterprise Innovation Institute has been able to assist on multiple levels,” said John Mills, manager of the SBIR Assistance Program for the State of Georgia, a division of the Enterprise Innovation Institute that helps companies win SBIR grants. Mills and other Enterprise Innovation Institute staff members helped Polywad with SBIR applications and in developing the means to manufacture the company’s innovative products.

Polywad’s business began in 1985 when Menefee started selling a unique device he’d invented to people who reload ammunition by hand.  The Spred-R, a plastic insert that makes shot pellets spread quickly, found a market with sportsmen.

Menefee ran the business out of his home until 1995, when he plunged full-time into making specialty shotgun rounds along with hand-loading supplies. Today Polywad manufactures many shot-shell products available to the public.

But the company also makes a special round, the Polyshok, that’s available only to law enforcement and similar agencies.  The unusual shell unites Polywad’s shot-spreader device with a metal-powder slug, also known as an impact-reactor projectile, or IRP.  The law-enforcement shell is sold through an associated company, Polyshok Inc.

The Polyshok round devastates its target, but only in a limited area. The metal-powder slug’s energy disperses so quickly that it’s usually harmless even to persons in close proximity or immediately behind the target, according to Menefee.  Police sometimes even use the round to blast through doors because it’s effective yet has minimal ricochet risk.

The Polyshok shell is the brainchild of Charles Glover, a North Carolina-based inventor who saw the Spred-R’s potential in developing limited-damage rounds useful to law enforcement.  Glover, Menefee and Jim Middleton, Menefee’s brother-in-law, formed Polyshok Inc. in Panama City, Fla., in 1998.  By 2001 they had perfected the Polyshok round and were manufacturing it at Polywad’s Georgia site.

“If a Polyshok slug misses its intended target and hits a wall behind, it becomes non-lethal within two feet from the point where it penetrated the wall,,” explains Middleton, who worked for many years as a DoD civilian manager. “It has as much power as a 12-gauge slug, but without the over-penetration problems.”

Relatively light recoil and low cost add to its utility to law enforcement, he added.

Menefee and Middleton stress Georgia Tech’s role in helping Polywad’s progress.

John Mills provided extensive help in preparing Polyshok’s SBIR Phase I and Phase II proposals, Menefee recalls.  And several other Enterprise Innovation Institute employees have also provided key expertise and assistance.

George Lee, of the Macon Regional Office, provided noise measurement assistance and other help.  Alan Barfoot, of the Dublin, Ga., Regional Office, helped Polywad find a new manufacturing site.  And Don Betts helped develop a joint research project between Polywad and the Center of Innovation for Manufacturing Excellence.

On the technical side, Dennis Kelly of the Enterprise Innovation Institute’s Industry Services Division is working with Polywad to develop a manufacturing quality-control system that will meet DoD requirements while Mark Heflin will help Polywad automate the manufacturing process.  And the Center of Innovation for Manufacturing Excellence will support the automation process by supplying expertise in programmable logic controllers.

“We’ve got a year or so left to work on this project before we begin manufacturing,” Menefee said. “It’s going to be a really efficient setup for high-speed, flawless loading of a military cartridge.”

Research News & Publications Office
Enterprise Innovation Institute
Georgia Institute of Technology
75 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 314
Atlanta, Georgia  30308  USA

Media Relations Contacts: Rick Robinson (404-694-2284); E-mail (rick.robinson@innovate.gatech.edu) or John Toon (404-894-6986); E-mail: john.toon@innovate.gatech.edu).

Writer: Rick Robinson

Georgia Tech Packages Workflow Improvements to Help Alcan Increase Sales and Employment

R.J. Reynolds is one of a number of consumer product manufacturers that increasingly rely on customized packaging to reach different market demographics. The trend heralds a significant increase in business for Alcan Packaging Co.’s Peachtree City, Ga., printing plant, which mainly produces packaging for R.J. Reynolds’ numerous cigarette brands. But to take advantage of the opportunity, Alcan management had to figure out how to tighten their processes, and for that, they turned to Georgia Tech.

Typically, Alcan’s rotogravure press operated long continuous runs of up to 20 hours per job, according to general manager Chris Turk. R.J. Reynolds’ new approach meant that while the aggregate number of cigarette packages would be about the same, the total would be divided among several shorter runs, one for each different wrapper design. So the first key issue to be tackled for increasing capacity was how to reduce the time-consuming press set-up required for each new print job.

“Strategically it wasn’t a cost-reduction initiative,” said Turk. “We were trying to get ahead of where our customers are going.” The number of SKUs – manufacturing parlance for individual items – ordered by customers has doubled and sometimes tripled in recent years, he added.

“If we were to move from a relatively simplistic supply chain to a highly complex supply chain, from a few items to a very high-mix manufacturing environment, one of the things we needed to look at was set-up time reduction,” Turk said.

He contacted an old acquaintance, Derek Woodham, West Georgia region manager for Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Woodham visited the Peachtree City plant to outline Georgia Tech’s services and learn about Alcan’s needs.

“They recognized that to grow the business they had to look at their processes in terms of turning jobs around faster and freeing up capacity in the finished goods storage area as well as material handling,” Woodham said. “We conducted a kaizen related to setup reduction, and they took that training and application and applied it to all their presses.”

Kaizen is a learn-by-doing technique involving all employees and managers for implementing lean manufacturing and continuous improvement. The methodology focuses on process and results, systemic thinking and objectivity.

The reduction in set-up time was so successful in getting jobs through the press quickly that the pre-press work for new jobs couldn’t be ready fast enough, creating a delay. At the other end of the press, finished work quickly accumulated, creating a bottleneck. Workflow efficiency then became Woodham’s next target.

Finished goods come off the press and are stacked on pallets, which are then taken to a stretch-wrapping machine before going to the shipping area. It’s a straightforward process in theory, but had become a bit disorganized in practice.

“We created flow lanes for the finished goods area so the forklift drivers put material into designated locations instead of having things stacked all over the place randomly, ” Woodham explained. The new organization included a process for moving pallets to the stretch-wrap area that resulted in a steady flow of work to the machine, he noted. Previously, the haphazard material flow would leave the machine underutilized for periods of time, but double- or triple-booked at other times.

“They had been thinking about buying another stretch wrap machine to handle the crunch times,” Woodham said, “but by evening out the material flow, a second machine was not necessary.”

The value to Alcan of these changes and increased capacity is substantial, since they enabled the company to more than double its R.J. Reynolds’ account.

Alcan already had a little more than 40 percent of R.J. Reynolds’ cigarette packaging business when the company acquired the rest of the multi-million-dollar contract, according to Turk. “So we had to figure out how to fit more business into our existing plant until we could build a new one,” he said. “If we hadn’t been able to do that, I think we would have been in deep trouble because the contractual arrangements and agreements were fairly rigorous in terms of what would happen if you couldn’t supply the product – and more than doubling your business transcends just asking people to work overtime.”

The new business also added 25 new jobs, bringing Alcan-Atlanta’s total to 180, Turk noted.

With 31,000 employees at 140 sites in 30 countries, Alcan Packaging is a major player in specialty packaging for the food and beverage, pharmaceutical and medical, beauty, and tobacco markets. A company that size has extensive continuous improvement expertise available in-house, so why work with Georgia Tech?

The services offered by through the Enterprise Innovation Institute are, in a word, convenient, according to Turk.

“With Georgia Tech, we can tap into their lean enterprise programs when we want to, in whatever way we want, with as many people or as few people as we want,” he explained. “To me that’s a great opportunity. I might not know today that in a month I’ll need to take advantage of something they have to offer, but when that time comes, they’ll be ready to help.”

Another advantage, Turk noted, is that Georgia Tech experts like Derek Woodham bring an outsider’s perspective to the task. People within the company culture tend to think alike regardless of whether they work at a printing plant in Georgia or a printing plant in the United Kingdom, he noted.

“I think our kaizens were successful, at least in part, because nobody came in here with a pre-set notion of the way it ought to be.”

Corporate programs tend toward a one-size-fits-all approach and can be time-consuming as well as logistically inconvenient if a certain training session is held in a distant location.

“For the kaizen we ran last summer with Georgia Tech,” Turk said, “they came in, four days later they left, and we were done.

“I don’t think we even used 10 percent of what’s available at Georgia Tech to help us achieve what we were able to achieve. That’s the exciting part because from our standpoint here at Alcan Atlanta, this was a huge, huge success story for us.”

For more information on lean enterprise services offered by the Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute, contact Derek Woodham (706-881-0535); E-mail: (derek.woodham@innovate.gatech.edu) or Tim Israel (404-894-2272); E-mail: (tim.israel@innovate.gatech.edu).

Research News & Publications Office
Enterprise Innovation Institute
Georgia Institute of Technology
75 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 314
Atlanta, Georgia 30308 USA

Media Relations Contact: John Toon (404-894-6986); E-mail: (john.toon@innovate.gatech.edu).

Writer: Gary Goettling