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Growth Manufacturers Case Study

Product Diversity, Quality, Manufacturing Flexibility Lead to Growth in Down Economy

By Karen Myhaver, MassMEP

Curtis Industries is the leading designer, manufacturer, and supplier of weather-tight cab enclosures for commercial, specialty, and recreational vehicles from John Deere, Polaris, Yamaha, Kubota, Cub Cadet, and Kawasaki. They also manufacture snow and ice equipment like plows, blades, and spreaders. Curtis employs 140 employees in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Challenges of Rapid Growth
"While we did experience the macroeconomic declines in 2009, we were able to flex the organization as needed to remain fiscally solvent.  This was in a large part because we implemented continuous improvement activities and supply chain strategies that paid dividends even in the decline. We also had a constant pipeline of new products, and the addition of a few new customers that helped offset other drops in demand."
— Gabor Hajos, VP of Operations, Curtis Industries
By 2006, Curtis Industries had built a reputation for high quality products within their industry and OEMs orders were increasing. With a heavy focus on meeting production schedules, maintaining quality, and satisfying customer demand, little attention was paid to their manufacturing facilities. As a result, the operation became disorganized. As is typical during periods of rapid growth, Curtis Industries had fallen victim to the practice of locating machinery and items "wherever they fit" on the shop floor. Eventually this resulted in operational inefficiencies and quality issues, leading to customer and employee frustration. The situation also cost Curtis Industries money. They recognized the need to implement top-to-bottom quality and continuous improvement programs to manage their growth effectively.

CI & Workforce Development
The Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP) worked with Curtis in the areas of quality, systemic continuous improvement, and workforce development. These activities helped Curtis meet the demands of a product evolution, allowing them to efficiently and successfully increase and diversify their customer base.

The initial evaluation showed that the flow was terrible across all three of Curtis’ buildings. Issues were addressed – from front office and engineering to shop floor and shipping – by cross functional employee teams who studied each area and developed plans for new layouts. Six months of planning and another six months of moving went smoothly because the employees were involved in the projects and understood why changes were needed.

Efficiency and quality were further improved through process, and 5s Kaizen activities. Another critical strategy the company tackled during this period was evaluating their supply chain and individual vendors to determine where to reallocate or consolidate or make changes.

Independently, Curtis Industries worked to create a quality organization by establishing an internal team of key employees to focus on quality and continuous improvement. In 2011, the company decided to take their system to the next level by participating in the MassMEP ISO9001:2008 Collaborative program. They successfully passed the ISO audit and became certified early in 2012. The certification opened new doors for international business and allowed expanded opportunities with current clients.

Gabor Hajos, Vice President of Operations, mentioned that all of Curtis Industries’ employees were encouraged to attend round tables and other training events to gain exposure to new ideas and methods and observe other successful companies. Keeping employees involved and engaged helped with retention and demonstrated that they are valued and that their ideas matter. Workshops in Team Involvement Problem Solving (TIPS), shop math, and English as a Second Language (ESL) were offered to enhance other training experiences.

"Today you have to empower your employees so that they make a difference, so that they’re actually looking at what we call continuous improvement, which is one of our core values at Curtis," says Scott Nelson, the company’s new President and CEO. "But that means having visual metrics so that the worker always knows through communication what’s important and that what they’re doing makes a difference." 1

Layout changes and Kaizen activities took care of most of the older quality issues. "Now Curtis is doing a wave of higher level work focused on sustaining their improvements," says Hajos. "Safety is an integral part. Items are addressed as the company is able to prioritize them and devote time and resources, but there is always something being worked on."

Good process and procedural controls gave Curtis the ability to understand their business better and literally see what is going on. More effective production planning and enhancements and a new layout with improved flow allowed Curtis Industries to react to the flexing market. Enhanced efficiency meant the company was able to meet higher demand with the same number of employees. They could "right size" the organization as customer needs and volumes changed.

"The information helps us analyze situations and allows us to manage capacity and people more effectively," says Hajos. Continuous improvement and quality activities created additional opportunity for growth.

"Suddenly customers were asking for more cab styles to go with each new type of vehicle," explains Hajos. "It evolved from us producing one type of cab for a few client vehicles to producing a few styles of cabs for 30 types of vehicles for several different clients. We were agile enough to be able to meet the demand and produce new and innovative designs to satisfy our customers’ needs."

CI Program Results

  • ISO 9001:2008 certification received, producing new opportunities nationally and internationally such as the retention of $1.5 million annually from a current customer and addition of new customer with sales at $200k so far this year.
  • Development of quality management system and team
  • Addition of one employee and retention of eight
  • Added flexibility that supports quicker reaction to clients’ changing demands
  • Development of systems that expand or contract with the market
  • Ability to design and manufacture in smaller lots efficiently, which allows:
    –   Introduction of new products for new clients
    –   More diversification
    –   Profit gains rather than loses
    –   Investment in employee training, development and growth
    –   More effective management of capacity and personnel

Rick Saia, "Walking the Plant Floor Again," Worcester Business Journal, October 15, 2023


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