Small Technical Assistance Grants Yield Big Impacts

In September 2020, the Vermont Legislature allocated $2.5 million of federal CARES Act funding for small business technical support in Act 137. Governor Scott and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development announced that the RDCs of Vermont (Regional Development Corporations) would be tasked with deploying $1,400,000 in technical assistance funding for small businesses across the state under the Restart Vermont Technical Assistance Program (ReVTA). 

The RDCs of Vermont used this award to contract with hundreds of Vermont small businesses and nonprofits who in turn were compensated to provide technical assistance (TA) to Vermont businesses who have been negatively impacted from COVID-19. Once the work was completed, the TA provider was paid by the grant program. 

VMEC had the opportunity to work with 5 VT-based businesses who took advantage of this program. The projects ranged in value from $2,200 – $3,500.  Two of those businesses focused on their equipment automation and evaluation process for future automation potential, two others set their sights on the evaluation of their business systems and the fifth company focused on the value of remote learning. 

Chocolate Hollow, operating as Schmilk Chocolate, has been in business since 2013.  Located in Colchester, their mission is to provide cashew-based goods under subsidiary brands.  Last year, they expanded their online channel, making unique and select dairy free milk chocolates only available on their website. Currently the Siegel’s, co-owners and founders, work together to make the world’s first premium vegan milk chocolate.

For the ReVTA project, Chocolate Hollow worked with VMEC service provider Isaac Dupre of Dupre Solutions to evaluate their efficiency, ergonomics and safety concerns to address areas of bottleneck in the packaging and processing of their chocolate.  The first area that was evaluated was the packaging of small nugget products. Labeling, filling and sealing were discussed.  Chocolate Hollow has a legacy flow wrapper that was purchased previously and required some guidance and evaluation of the machine.  The second area that was assessed was the formation of their cashew flour, a vital component to the process of creating dairy free milk chocolate.  

Dupre Solutions recommended to Chocolate Hollow the purchase of new equipment which would a) provide consistent and expedited packaging to address their current growth in sales and b) increase productivity, addressing the safety issues of repetitive motion and workstation improvements. This coupling would identify the low hanging fruit and biggest bottlenecks in the packaging process.  Once a path is established, new line layouts and packaging can be sourced that will drastically increase product flow, eliminate excessive product handling and streamline production. 

VMEC’s Director of Client Services Lisa Henderson states, “When VMEC brings expertise resources to a company, it  means their return on investment is measured in months, not years.  By targeting key obstacles, Chocolate Hollow’s upgrades will align with their business operations, resulting in measurable operational improvements.”  As well, Madeleine and Adam Siegel added, “Thanks to this opportunity, we’ve been able to move forward with two projects that promise to help us very significantly in our production for Schmilk Chocolate. With the recommendations from Isaac in place, our operations will be greatly improved, allowing us to supply new customers with organic, fairly traded vegan milk chocolate.”

With Dupre’s specialization in automated solutions catering to small developing businesses and businesses well established in the packaging manufacturing industries, it was a natural choice for VMEC to connect Global Village Cuisine with Dupre Solutions to evaluate their automation process.  

Business and life partners, Damaris and Mel Hall created Global Village Cuisine “to share the warmth and comfort of fresh-made African inspired dishes with the ease and convenience of  ‘Ready-to-Eat’ frozen meals.” Having a child who had severe food allergies, they realized how challenging it was to find flavorful, nutritious, good food options.  They re-imagined traditional African favorites as allergy-friendly, with vegan and gluten-free meal options. Global Village Cuisine was born in Windsor and employs 4 FTE. 

The Hall’s knew what was not working in their current automated condition, but what would a major change to their small operation entail?  And better yet, was it worth their ROI? 

Dupre evaluated their bottleneck areas as well as safety and potential inefficiencies in the processing, cooking and packaging of samosas, a food which is highly labor intensive and time consuming. The goal was to seek ways to minimize workload and increase efficiencies 

Dupre provided an assessment with recommendations that went beyond just replacing a piece of equipment but looked at process and flow to potentially change process or equipment up or downstream.  With this new-found knowledge of potential increased efficiency, GVC gained the confidence to prioritize next steps. Dupre also provided research as well as individual connections to help facilitate change and support them moving forward.  Providing an automated portion filler would eliminate individual filling, therefore increasing speed and decreasing excess time of handling each tray. 

Citing the benefits of the funding for this project, Mel Hall states, “This assessment confirmed much of what we already knew about the challenges in our current production system. What we now know, however, is that there are specific steps within reach that get us on a pathway towards resolving the constraints and significantly growing our business.”

The third and fourth companies we worked with had projects underway in early 2020 but COVID-19 interrupted and halted those plans until the ReVTA grant gave them the opportunity to regain momentum and pick up where months of project work had been stalled. Bill Kuhns, formerly with VMEC and now a VMEC Service Provider with his business Cedar Lake Design was brought in to assist both companies. 

Located in Waterbury, Super Thin Saws produces thin circular saw blades for woodworking applications.  What sets them apart from others in their industry is the company’s technology packs more stiffness into a thinner package allowing some types of woodworking operations to save money by making more product from less raw material therefore improving productivity.  They employ 19.5 FTE. 

Super Thin Saws identified improving their inventory system as critical to responding to customer demand and achieving business goals including On-Time-Delivery and profitability. CLD helped the company achieve this goal by analyzing their options and determining the method of inventory management (how to handle inventory transactions) that would work best for them as well as provide a plan to implement the new inventory management system, including policies and procedures that will need to be developed and implemented, ERP implementation considerations (current and future), and training.  By implementing this Inventory Management System Plan, which includes enhanced policies and procedures, Super Thin Saws can achieve and maintain inventory accuracy.  

“Super Thin Saws has been aware for some time that we had several issues with how items were entered and removed from inventory as part of their journey through our production process. The ReVTA grant not only allowed us to successfully tackle this project but allowed us to work with VMEC, who is always our first choice for such projects”, shared John Schultz, President of Super Thin Saws. 

For 130 years, Trow & Holden, located in Barre, has produced world-class stone cutting and masonry  tools.  From forging and forming to heat treatment and finish grinding, all of their tools are made on site. Each employee completes a four-year apprenticeship in tool making. Family owned, T&H employs 15 FTE.  

As mentioned previously, the pandemic interrupted the testing and implementation of improvements to their Lean Pull System which had just been completed with the assistance of VMEC.  The Pull System improvements would allow for increased flexibility to ramp production up or down based on customer demand and resource availability.  When the company shut down per the Governor’s Executive order in March, the project was placed on hold.  This made the task of planning and adjusting production schedules to respond to a backlog of customer demand due to lost production time a much bigger task requiring frequent manual adjustments to the “old” Pull System.

The ReVTA grant made it possible for Trow & Holden to bring VMEC and Cedar Lake Design back in to resume the testing and implementation of the improved Pull System.  The excel spreadsheet based Pull System is designed with a user interface that makes it easier for employees to make adjustments that accommodate a wide variety of variables such as a spike in orders for certain products; in this case, the system can prioritize those orders and push off others such as requests for lower demand products. The new optimized Lean production planning tool will allow them to run their manufacturing operations in the most efficient way possible and remain flexible in the face of fluctuating market demand.

We can always count on VMEC to connect us with the best resources to meet our business needs”, states Gina Akley, President of Trow & Holden. “Bill really got what we were trying to achieve, and helped us develop an internal tool to increase our production flexibility and scalability. We look forward to our increased ability to effectively plan production during uncertain times.”

NRG Systems, Inc. revolutionized the way wind resource assessment was done beginning in the early 1980s. As climate challenges became more numerous and complex, they expanded their offerings to include systems and sensors for a range of wind, solar, and meteorological applications. The company is dedicated to designing and manufacturing high-quality technologies which can be found in more than 170 countries.  At 95 FTE, NRG is one of Hinesburg’s largest industries.

NRG Systems has been a long-time client of VMEC’s, so it was natural for them to communicate with us regarding their most recent manufacturing hires who had not yet been offered the “Principles of Lean 101” training. The company has their own Lean introductory course and in-house trainers; however, because of resource constraints due to COVID-19, the company requested that VMEC provide delivery of the Lean 101 workshop so new employees could receive proper training despite COVID challenges.

Due to the pandemic, VMEC has transitioned training that would have been done in a conference room to live online events. The most challenging of these was the Lean Manufacturing 101 workshop with the famed Buzz Electronics simulation. VMEC has developed a new simulation called SEWBIZ™ that is uniquely designed to be delivered in a hybrid model that allows social distancing and no passing of parts, or in a fully remote delivery with each participant using a laptop with a camera. NRG Systems was the first company to experience the new SEWBIZ ™ simulation delivered in a hybrid model. They were learning about Lean practices and continuous improvement while also participating in a continuous improvement cycle of the new remote Lean 101 simulation.  Five (5) NRG employees were successfully trained and provided positive feedback and improvement ideas for the new simulation.   

As Shawn Snider, NRG Systems Production Manager, states, “The Lean 101 workshop is a great training for any manufacturing business. I took this training 20 years ago and it still incorporates the methodology in any new product that we release to production. The fact that VMEC could do virtual training and we could get funding to help make this happen because of COVID, really makes a difference with our newer employees. They now have the knowledge and understanding of Lean principles which will enhance our production department. We will definitely continue to lean on VMEC for future training.”

As the fiscal agent for the ReVTA grant, Adam Grinold, Executive Director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, shares this experience: “The ReVTA program was wildly successful in the breadth and depth of engagement across geography, industry and sectors.  Built on awarding businesses a technical assistance funding allotment, each business came to the program with an idea of what help they needed. From that the RDC network grew to find the TA resource with 98% of contracts going to Vermont-based technical assistance providers.  The BDCC was able to bring project development and financial management to this program for statewide implementation with the magic potion being the extensive relationships all of the RDCs have across the state with small and medium size businesses owners who were both recipient and TA providers in the program.”

And Bob Flint, Executive Director of the Springfield Regional Development Corporation and RDC representative for the grant program adds, “ It was heartening to see a program like ReVTA provide an opportunity for businesses in our region, and throughout the state, to think past the pandemic and how to strengthen their operations for the future.  The RDC’s of Vermont were grateful to provide support, facilitate technical assistance and, yes, provide hope for small businesses during this challenging time.”