Ed Kinsella believes that small businesses can stay one step ahead of their large customers, improving the bottom line for everyone using a technique called agile manufacturing. With fewer than 100 employees at plants in Piqua, Ohio, and Easley, S.C., JM Mold Inc. implemented the technique originally designed for large firms.
Kinsella, sales and marketing manager for JM and son of JM President Robert Kinsella, became interested in the concept after reading the book ``Agile Competitors and Virtual Organizations: Strategies for Enriching the Customer.'' He was looking for a way to solve the dilemma of too much work and not enough mold makers to handle it.
``We saw our market taking off in December of 1994,'' Kinsella said. ``With the influx of work we tried to recruit more toolmakers and machinists, but with nearly 400 mold shops in this general area we were having trouble finding employees.''
With so much talent in the Dayton area, Kinsella knew there had to be a way to tap it without luring employees from other shops.
Reading the book inspired Ed and his brother Mark, also a manager at JM Mold, to attend last year's Agility Forum conference. The Agility Forum, located at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., is a national clearinghouse for information on all aspects of agile manufacturing research and application.
Although JM was the smallest company in attendance, Ed Kinsella said he walked away with a new vision for JM Mold. The company soon got an opportunity to try out the concept when it won a Whirlpool Corp. contract to develop a high-capacity lint filter in half the normal product development time.
``They were essentially skipping the market testing and prototyping, and designing it on the fly,'' he said. ``We soon realized this is the way everyone is going to do it from now on to save time and money.''
Agile manufacturing means cutting out unnecessary or time-consuming production steps, reacting quickly to unexpected changes in scheduling and forming mutually beneficial partnerships with other companies, even competitors, to enhance relationships with customers.
``It's the ultimate outsourcing,'' Ed Kinsella said of the idea of the virtual organization. ``You keep your core competency in-house and outsource everything else.''
He now uses competitors with available machine time to complete various phases of a project. For example, he found a small, one-man machine shop down the street whose shop rate was low due to low overhead. JM entered into an agreement with the firm to purchase machine time and schedule its equipment into JM projects.
``If things get slow, we take him out of our schedule rather than laying our people off,'' Kinsella said.
JM modeled its agile manufacturing program after the Flex Cell group, a formal network of metalworking companies in Southern Indiana that outsource work to each other and share projects. JM is now a satellite member of that group.
The Whirlpool project, done in conjunction with Encor Technologies, a custom molder in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, involved the design and mold manufacture for five parts of the Easy Clean 100 dryer's lint bin.
JM thought the job would be a simple matter of taking Whirlpool's blueprints on the database Pro/Engineer, and making the mold from them. But, as is typical of many large OEMs, JM found out two or three weeks into the process that Whirlpool did not know what it wanted the part to look like, according to Kinsella.
Engineering changes came at a rapid-fire pace, frustrating the designers and mold makers, who sometimes thought it futile to make one change to a specific area of the mold when the possibility existed that another change would be ordered the next day.
``One of the ways we've addressed these frustrations is to stress the benefits of agile manufacturing to Whirlpool and Encor,'' said Kinsella. ``We stress to our people that [agile manufacturing] enables Whirlpool to get their product to market faster than ever before.''
Kinsella said Whirlpool's original goal was a 30 percent faster time to market. When JM completed the project, it had achieved a 40 percent faster time to market for Whirlpool.
One of the time-saving methods JM implemented involved dealing directly with Whirlpool engineers rather than have everything routed through Encor.
``This was quite a bit different for us,'' said Kinsella. ``We learned there has to be a lot of trust developed between the two companies.''
JM kept Encor informed about the project every step of the way. On mold design changes that might affect processing, Encor engineers were called in for input. Encor also asked JM to sample the mold at JM's facility, provide sample parts and the cooling fixtures needed.
In the case of one part, the handle, Whirlpool discovered through consumer testing that users could pull the handle off the unit. This discovery came three days before the mold was scheduled to be shipped to Encor. Whirlpool paid for the mold, then issued orders for a new design.
Because JM worked with one Whirlpool engineer throughout the entire project, there were no management layers to slow things down.
``When the handle was taken out ... and a different design brought in that involved two more molds, there were no competitive bids, not even a quote from us,'' said Kinsella. ``Just the go-ahead to start the new molds. [Whirlpool and Encor] had a lot of trust in us.''
Kinsella said putting out bids on every project might help companies save some money because they'll ``always find someone to do it cheaper,'' but they also lose time. ``What excites us is that we're essentially competing against Whirlpool's budget, and it eliminates a lot of extra quoting that is time-consuming,'' he said.
Using a video camera to film the progression of the mold build is another time-saving measure JM implemented.
``We learned the importance of [Encor] and their customer seeing the steel in progress,'' Kinsella said. ``They want to change the radius of a corner in a marketing meeting and know how that change would affect the overall mold build, but don't know whether we've already cut that corner or not.''
Using computer photography, JM sends the video photos of each phase of the mold, along with a progress report.
``Anytime someone wants to see what their tool looks like, I can take a video and put a picture on the computer,'' said Kinsella.
Agile manufacturing is being used on another project between JM and Futura Plastics and Engineering Inc. involving a dispenser for industrial cleaning solutions. JM has been a mold vendor for Futura, a custom injection molder in Louisville, Ky., for the past two years. The companies plan to use their combined expertise to obtain work that neither could land on its own.
Ed Kinsella is scheduled March 6 to make a presentation at the Agility Forum conference in Boston. His topic? ``Size Doesn't Matter: How a Very Small Business Used Agile Practices to Help Whirlpool Corp. Launch their State-of-the-Art Dryer in Record Time.''
The Agility Forum is studying the JM Mold/Futura alliance to see how well small companies can adopt and adapt to agile techniques.
Kinsella credits agile manufacturing for JM's 31 percent growth in sales last year. To accommodate more growth this year, JM plans to add 7,000 square feet to its plant in April and hire 10 employees.
Kinsella said he believes that agile manufacturing can work for any company, regardless of its size.
``It involves setting up your organization to enhance your customers' business,'' he said.