In 1997, the U.S. Air Force sought a technology firm capable of solving previously unattainable liquid crystal applications that it needed for use in high-tech pilot helmet displays. That need was the impetus behind the establishment of Kent-based AlphaMicron Inc.
CEO Bahman Taheri and COO Tamas Kosa developed a technology that manipulated the traditional manufacturing process in order to reach the Air Force's desired results. Using this process, AMI implemented the only liquid crystal product on doubly curved plastic that gives its user instant control over the tint and/or color of eyewear.
The technology met the military's needs, and now Taheri and Kosa are looking into the numerous commercial applications their technology has in the sports eyewear market and other industries where controllable eyewear is used.
Bettcher Manufacturing LLC
When Jerry Lynch's customers spoke, he and his team at Bettcher Manufacturing listened.
The CEO of the Brook Park-based precision metal stampings and four-slide parts manufacturer learned that his customers wanted to shorten the time-intensive and often cumbersome paper process required to work with Bettcher on custom-made orders.
So Lynch's team revised the company's Web site and added an online request for quote (RFQ) feature designed to streamline the process. Their solution included new applications that allow customers to provide drawings via e-mail or post them via an intranet. That allows Bettcher's engineers to respond more quickly and accurately and provide better answers to the challenges of the company's customers.
Previously, the RFQ process took an average of four weeks, five to 10 phone calls, mail and overnight packages for engineering drawings and questions regarding volume, materials and measurements. Now it takes less than two weeks (and in some cases, just hours), and drawings can be transmitted in minutes instead of days or weeks.
Gateway Safety Inc.
When you're a traditional manufacturer of personal protective equipment such as safety goggles and glasses, there's little question that technology is part of the manufacturing process.
But until recently, Gateway Safety Inc. viewed its corporate Web site as little more than a simple information center and online catalog.
Last year, the Cleveland manufacturer made a heavy investment in redesigning its site to better meet customers' needs. The move saves both time and money by reducing the number of internal customer service representatives needed to answer customer questions.
Instead, the company points customers to its Web site, where they can find solutions to safety problems, compare and identify the right products for their applications, get quotes and reduce paperwork.
Among the improved offerings, Gateway's product information pages cover every one of Gateway Safety's more than 50 products, and the literature download center is designed to make obtaining product information sheets an instant process. For prospective distributor partners, the distributor resource center processes requests for literature and product samples quickly and makes it easier to work with Gateway.
The revised Web site is part of the company's ongoing plans for better utilization of technology. Online purchasing capabilities are under development.
Keithley Instruments Inc.
Keithley Instruments' lean manufacturing initiative is an operational strategy that's designed to turn manufacturing into a competitive weapon.
For Joe Keithley, it's a management philosophy that allows his firm to provide superior customer satisfaction in the areas of product and service quality, delivery and cost.
One of the first steps involved in lean manufacturing is reorganizing operations into work cells that include all the resources (employees and equipment) needed to produce a specific family of products. Keithley is dividing its manufacturing operations into six cells.
The first cell implemented was the repair and service organization where, over the past six months, the company has reduced its average repair turnaround time from 16 days to less than eight. Previously, one of the major causes of delay was not having all the information or components needed to complete a job before starting it. Now, employees work together to map the "value stream," then identify and eliminate steps that don't add value.
The printed circuit board assembly cell was next . Early results show that Keithley has freed up about 25 percent of the manufacturing floor space associated with that process. Other cells are in the process of being formed.
Meriam Process Technologies
Building upon its legacy as a market leader in instrumentation products for flow, pressure and differential pressure measurement applications, Meriam Process Technologies last year developed a new handheld multifunctional tester that replaces multiple units required to do the same job.
The product, the MFT 4000, is a smart calibration unit designed for every manufacturing and processing industry. It allows users to measure pressure, differential pressure and temperature; measure voltage or current; and calibrate field devices from the palm of their hands.
More significantly, it is the first unit developed with the ability to poll, configure and maintain a specific digital communications protocol (HART) with one unit instead of what previously required up to three different types of units. That reduces the overall costs for Meriam's customers and helps forge stronger relationships between it and its clients.
OEM Labeling Systems
When John Heaney took over OEM Labeling Systems in May 2001, he engineered a complete turnaround of the Salem-based manufacturer that was so successful he purchased the firm in March 2002. OEM manufactures machines that apply pressure sensitive labels.
Among Heaney's initiatives were a Web site focused on better satisfying customer needs and the development of a new label applicator which would position the company to better compete against larger market players.
Because OEM sells exclusively through a dealer network, it does not have extensive direct contact with end users of its equipment. Recognizing this, Heaney designed OEM's new Web site to provide in-depth information about OEM's product line and details about its previous engineering successes. Dealers are encouraged to refer clients to OEM's site to learn about the company that will be manufacturing its products.
Heaney's second endeavor, developing a new label applicator, was a more intensive task. He started with a blank slate, solicited input from OEM's top distributors and designed a machine that requires 30 percent fewer parts, can be built either right- or left-handed, takes four hours less time to assemble, weighs 20 pounds less than its predecessor and is 50 percent faster.
The combined results of those initiatives have been impressive. Sales for 2002 were expected to be 50 percent greater than for 2001; the average machine order revenue has doubled; gross margins have increased more than 20 percent; and OEM won a hotly contested project valued at nearly $1 million.
Valtronic USA Inc.
Like its Swiss parent company, Valtronic SA, Valtronic USA Inc. designs and manufactures miniaturized electronic devices such as the world's smallest hearing aid, an electronic device smaller than a pencil eraser.
The Solon-based manufacturer maintains rigorously tight controls over its manufacturing production processes, to the point where it must achieve no less than 98 percent yields to be profitable. Lower yields result in increased scrap that reduces the profit margin.
Higher yields are accomplished through Valtronic's unique manufacturing processes. While some miniaturization processes provide for progressive testing and reworking, the near microscopic size of miniaturized electronic components makes this a tedious and time-consuming operation.
Valtronic's process is more front-loaded and involved the design and installation of $1 million in new equipment, as well as a continuous re-evaluation and improvement upon its manufacturing techniques.
For more than 80 years, Vita-Mix Corp. has manufactured high-performance blenders for home, business and commercial use. Its engineers continuously seek new technologies to design and implement for the manufacture of the company's line of blenders.
Vita-Mix's most recent product of its innovative techniques is the Portion Blending System, a programmable blender and ice shaver that measures ice by weight for consistent proportions. The PBS holds five gallons of ice cubes and automatically dispenses a precise amount of shaved ice.
It is capable of making up to four drinks at one time, and was developed in response to Vita-Mix's customers seeking solutions to labor challenges in the food service industry.
The impact of the new product has been significant to both the industry -- it saves restaurant chains from having to train employees on understanding blender portions -- and Vita-Mix, which has seen its sales increase as a result of the PBS.