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Astronomical growth: How a streamlining initiative kept one company on course


Eclipse Automation was growing too fast.

Sure, that’s a problem most manufacturers—particularly in Southern Ontario—would kill to have. Certainly the team at Eclipse certainly wasn’t complaining.

But the Cambridge, Ont.-based machine builder started out a decade ago as a company with four employees and had grown to one with more than 130. After it acquired another automation company in early 2011, it certainly did experience a few growing pains.

“We needed another level of management due to that growth,” says Steve Mai, president and CEO of Eclipse Automation. “It was time to re-evaluate our whole company and have a look at what our processes were so we could streamline them.”

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The company underwent a massive streamlining initiative to ensure every process—from the moment an order comes in until it’s installed at the customer’s location—is automated, standardized and as efficient as possible. The initiative was important to get everyone on the same page, Mai says, particularly with regard to processes and procedures.

“Everybody’s trying to work towards a goal—which is creating machines—but everyone has their own perception of what that is and how that is to be done,” he says. “We had to figure out how to leverage that.”

 

Mapping the process

Mai and his team started the streamlining process by creating a giant map of every single department in the organization, along with every single process. That map, which started out on a giant whiteboard, was the jumping-off point for examining the entire organization.

Once the initial map was done, Mai brought in every member of the management team and asked them to review the processes and make changes to them, looking at how each process affects each department.

In parallel with that, each manager was asked to put together a training manual for his or her department. With 10 departments, including sales, applications, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, fabrication and the machine shop, this was a huge undertaking.

Those manuals—documented in presentation form in PowerPoint—looked at everything from quality control to security to safety, and everything in between.

“We put each manager to task to put together this training manual for their specific department and how it cross-functionally works with our software, our quality control system and our staff, as well as how it interfaces with other departments,” Mai says. Then the departments would get together and see how their work affected each other and tried to streamline the process in a way that would make the most sense.

The next step was to revise the manuals based on that feedback, then document continuous improvement and open issues. Since the company uses a home-grown ERP system with in-house programmers, implementing the changes was done in-house.

 

Streamlining processes help manage growth

The initial streamlining initiative took about four months, and Mai says it asked a lot of the staff. They committed to having training sessions on the process at least two days a week. The meetings couldn’t interrupt production, so they either ran from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., requiring participants to come in early, or from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., and participants had to stay late.

“There was a four-month commitment of extended hours and time for everybody,” Mai admits, “but when you compare that to the frustration of trying to run your department inefficiently, the upside is far greater than the downside.”

One of the benefits of the initiative is improved morale, Mai says. “There is frustration in growth, period. That’s the way it is,” he says. “But people are happier now.”

The company is also seeing a number of financial improvements since undertaking the initiative. “We’ve been able to streamline certain processes within the company. There was a lot of redundancy, so we’ve been able to identify that,” Mai says. “Because we moved responsibilities from department to department, we basically were able to place some of them where they were most efficient. It saves time and it saves money.”

The initiative also gave everyone in the company visibility into the entire operation, something that gives Eclipse a competitive advantage. “There are very few companies that can, with confidence, answer certain questions about the process flow and have documented it to that level,” Mai says. “A lot of companies have one or two individuals who know the answer, but not everybody else knows the answer.

“If you ask me a question about our process right now, I know the answer. But you should be able to walk out anywhere on our floor and ask anyone the same question and they should know the answer. Now they do.”

Of course, like any good program, the work is never really done. Mai says the goal in 2013 is to automate the entire process in the ERP so that staff don’t have to physically go through manuals.

“You’ll be able to go into our ERP system and scan through where you are in the process—like what the tasks are in there—and it will give you hyperlinks to every single tool,” he says. “That’s the next step.”

The end result is that Eclipse Automation doesn’t just have a streamlined, efficient production process, but everyone in the company knows it too. If he had to go back and do it over again, Mai says he wouldn’t change a thing.

Well, maybe one thing, he adds. “I would have done it sooner!” he says. “We had a very aggressive period of growth, and if we had this process in place before the acquisition, the focus of everything that happened would have been that much better.”

 

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.