Posted January 3, 2012 LaGrange
Research News & Publications Office
Contact John Toon
OrthoCare Labs was preparing to move into a new manufacturing facility when it contacted Derek Woodham, a Georgia Tech regional manager who serves west Georgia companies. The collaboration that resulted helped the company expand its sales by more than $1 million per year, add seven jobs, save nearly a quarter million dollars -- and make a big investment in the LaGrange, Ga. community.
The seven-year-old company, which makes custom orthotics -- shoe inserts -- for athletes, diabetics and others, is now poised for additional growth.
"We would not have been able to grow at the rate we have grown if we were still making our product the way we did before Derek helped us," said Dr. Ric Hollstrom, the company's owner. "Derek helped us change the complete flow of our process to make it smoother."
Orthotics are by their nature custom products. Physicians make molds or take three-dimensional measurements of patients' feet, then send the casts or data to OrthoCare. The company's first production step is to carve a wooden replica of each patient's feet using a precision router. From a variety of orthotic-grade polymer sheets, the devices are then vacuum-formed around the replica feet, finished and packaged for shipping.
Prior to the move, Dr. Hollstrom's five staff members produced the orthotics in a departmental-type flow, in which one person was responsible for each aspect of the production, and would pass the products on to the next department in batches. This batch process created the potential for quality issues, and sometimes order confusion, because hundreds of individual products had to be kept separate.
"One of the issues was consistency of our product," said Dr. Hollstrom. "Maintaining consistency when each product was custom-made was difficult. It was also difficult to judge if the required consistency was there every time."
Woodham, who is part of Georgia Tech's Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP), visited the company's old facility to learn the production process and talk with the staff. He listened to Dr. Hollstrom's concerns and heard his interest in adopting lean processes, which systematically reduce wasted time and resources. And Woodham understood the company's potential for growth.
What he recommended was a complete change in the organization of the manufacturing process. Instead of producing the orthotics departmentally and in batches, Woodham recommended creating flow cells in which a small team works together to complete products in one continuous operation.
Because a pair of orthotics could be made by the same group of workers in a continuous process, quality issues could be identified and addressed immediately. Having fewer products in process reduced the potential for mix-ups. In the new system, most orders were completed and shipped in a single day, besting the old process, which could take a week or more.
"The flow cell creates a better communications path from the beginning to the end," explained Woodham. "It's easier to keep up with custom orders because you don't have a large number of products waiting to be completed."
For a fast-growing company, switching to manufacturing cells also had an important benefit: production could be ramped up simply by adding cells following the plan Woodham designed.
"The company felt an urgency to get this right before they moved into their new facility," he explained. "Our work was a matter of understanding their processing steps and developing what would be the best layout for the equipment and the best way for the staff to work together."
Dr. Hollstrom said the flow cells allowed the company to expand production from approximately 80 sets of orthotics per day to 250 -- a more than 200 percent increase. The improved product quality reduced the number of products returned by the doctors ordering them, and faster turnaround time increased customer satisfaction.
The improvements also caught the attention of a company that sells footwear for people who have diabetes. That customer has already sent some business to the company, and is discussing the possibility of expanding its orders. If that happens, OrthoCare's sales could again grow dramatically, putting as many as 25 more people to work.
Dr. Hollstrom believes that growth can be accommodated without changing the processes Woodham established. He'll just add more workers and cells.
Not surprisingly, he is pleased with the work done by Georgia Tech and Derek Woodham.
"We added more than a million dollars worth of business to the company as a result of Derek's work," Dr. Hollstrom said. "Derek always told me what I needed to know, even though I didn't always want to hear it. For instance, I thought batching was better than the cell process, but he timed it and convinced me otherwise. What we are doing right now works very well."
About GaMEP: The Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) is a program of Georgia Tech's Enterprise Innovation Institute and is a member of the national MEP network supported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The GaMEP, with offices in nine regions across the state, has been serving Georgia manufacturers since 1960. With a broad range of industrial expertise, the GaMEP helps manufacturing companies across Georgia grow and stay competitive. It offers a solution-based approach through technical assistance, coaching, education, and connections to Georgia Tech, industry and state resources designed to increase top line growth and reduce bottom line cost.
Enterprise Innovation Institute
Georgia Institute of Technology
75 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 314
Atlanta, Georgia 30308 USA
Writer: John Toon