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Go with the flow: iPads make assembly efficient at Racine Federated

By Michael Burke
The Journal Times

Paula Cacciotti assembles a flow meter Jan. 3 at Racine Federated in Mount Pleasant. Badger Meter Inc., which makes products that measure gas and water flow, is buying Racine Federated Inc. for about $57 million in cash. (AP Photo by Mark Hertzberg/Journal Times)

PLEASANT PRAIRIE (AP) — A brainstorm conceived during a snowstorm has put high technology into hand assembly at Racine Federated.

In March, the manufacturer moved from paper to iPads for most assembly operations. Since then, assemblers there never build a flow meter –  a device that measures the flow of liquid through a pipe — without an iPad within arm’s reach.

The change has been a tremendous success, both company officials and assemblers say.

“It’s the greatest thing,” assembler Sandy Erickson said as she put together a Hedland flow meter, one of Racine Federated’s divisions.

Erickson said she didn’t even have smart phone experience when the company handed all assemblers, about 22 people, iPads. But it’s simple to use, she said.

“At first, most people were nervous about being able to handle it,” company Manufacturing Manager Shannon Rollins said, “but it became second-nature very quickly.”

Before the iPads, explained Rollins and Racine Federated President Dave Perkins, for a single line item — for example, an order for five of a particular flow meter — first an order was taken and entered. Typically it would result in a seven- or eight-page printout of all the parts required. That packet was stapled and then carried to the appropriate division on the manufacturing floor. The worker would use it to pull those parts and begin assembly.

Now, with the iPads, the order is taken, the assembler can touch it to bring up that parts list and go to work.

First and foremost, the company can thank Rollins for his iPad brainstorm — born in a snowstorm.

About two years ago, while he was stuck in Denver during a snow-caused layover, he was thinking about the company’s manufacturing process.

“I thought: Why can’t we be more like McDonald’s or Burger King?”

It took Rollins and company Information-Technology Manager Terry McDonald about a year to put the entire program in place for all flow meter assembly. Racine Federated bought 26 iPads — enough for all 22 assemblers, and a few extras for managers.

They also recorded assembly videos. Under the old system, assemblers had three-ring binders totaling more than 10,000 pages of instructions and photos. If they hadn’t built a part in a few months, they’d go looking for the instructions.

With iPads, Rollins said, they can find instructions — with pictures and sometimes assembly videos — right with the parts list, “instead of flipping through hundreds of pages.”

There are many more iPad benefits, Perkins and Rollins said. The biggest involves change orders ó for example, when a customer ups an order from five product units to six.

Before, Rollins said, “We had to go find this piece of paper.” Now the revised order goes to the assembler in seconds.

The iPads also have slashed paper consumption at Racine Federated. Previously, “We had a skid of paper delivered every week,” Rollins said.

“Now it’s a small handful of boxes.”

Meanwhile, the system provides continuous inventory tracking so they know when it’s time to reorder parts.

“It also acts as a data collection system,” Perkins said, “so we know our labor costs for each item.”

And they color-code the steps to making and shipping each part, for instantaneous status information. White, for example, means not started; dark blue means assembled and awaiting testing; and green means finished and holding to ship.

The devices have held up extremely well, Rollins said. The iPads are held in mounts at work stations and carts used for collecting parts, so they’re nearly always stabilized and secure.

Only the company’s Wyco Tool concrete vibrators are not assembled with iPads, but that’s coming this quarter, Rollins said. Soon, they’ll also be used in receiving and shipping.

Hand assembly is as old as manufacturing, but at Racine Federated it’s also as modern as Apple’s latest products.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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