Vermont Composites, Inc.
Product: Carbon fiber and fiberglass composite structures
Number of employees: 260
Years in business: 28
Location: Bennington, VT
Vermont Composites designs and fabricates custom, advanced carbon and fiberglass composite structures serving the medical imaging, aerospace, military and industrial markets.
For diagnostic imaging, Vermont Composites manufactures carbon fiber structures providing strength, stiffness and chemical resistance along with exceptional clarity for radiological transmission. Typical product packages for this application include tables for diagnostic imaging along with various accessories. The production sequence starts by cutting resin impregnated fabric on a computer controlled table and laying up many layers of fabric around a foam core. The assembly is sealed in a mold and cured in a nitrogen filled autoclave under high temperature and pressure. The resulting components are trimmed, further, assembled, and finished into final products.
Not only is the process complicated and tightly controlled, but Vermont Composites’ growth necessitated distributing the steps between separate facilities. As customer demand increased, the company asked the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center (VMEC) to help smooth production activity and ensure that customer needs were met.
VMEC began by working with the Vermont Composites staff to develop a simple Value Stream Map of the diagnostic imaging product flow. Hand-offs between departments were identified. A key element of maintaining even flow was to send signals when more parts were needed and to ensure that those parts were replenished. A simple kanban (pull system) was established. Every day, a container was sent to the cutting table for each set of fabric components needed. When a container was received, parts were cut. No container, no parts were produced. This ensured sufficient components were on hand for lay up during the next shift, but only what was needed – as the cut parts had a limited shelf life.
Another issue was to ensure that the production of laid up and cured parts were in the right balance. Each week, a specific number of tables, headrests and footrests were required. Making sure the mix was correct involved some managing. To simplify this process, a production chart was adopted showing the cumulative production of each component for the week. Any of the lay up staff could refer to the chart and see what parts needed to be produced next. By cross training all the staff in the different lay up tasks, the team could manage the production process themselves.
Further along in the process, similar efforts were made in the sanding and finishing steps. The key is to provide clear visual signals, so everyone knows the status of the workflow. If the needs are clear, the team can mange the process themselves.
By implementing kanban systems and visual controls in the production process, Vermont Composites has been able to significantly reduce lead time and work-in-process. Customer satisfaction has risen due to the improvements and the company has seen a significant increase and retention in sales dollars. The reduced work-in-process made defects easier to detect and problems were solved more quickly. Daily morning meetings provided the staff with a clear sense of direction and identified what was to be completed that day.
Improvements at Vermont Composites are ongoing. Soon, production will be consolidated under a single roof. This will significantly shorten work flow and streamline logistics. More refinements to the visual signals are in order as the process becomes more compact. All efforts have the underlying goal of improving flow and eliminating waste caused by poor communications or excess handling.