Braun Corporation: Mobility in motion

With a new fleet of tuggers and carts, the updated storage system at Braun Corporation’s manufacturing facility gets more done in less space.

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Inside the Winamac, Ind., manufacturing facility for Braun Corporation, there is a real connection between the workers and the work. As makers of wheelchair- and scooter-accessible vans and lifts, the facility’s 250 employees recognize they are providing goods that improve the lives of their customers. Workers are regularly reminded of this fact because the company’s founder, the late Ralph Braun, was the very first customer.

Under Braun’s guidance, the company grew rapidly, but the manufacturing facility’s material flow and assembly processes started to strain under the weight of incoming orders. Undisciplined storage practices and the habit of physically carrying parts to and from the line were cutting into productivity, crowding the storage area and testing workers’ stamina.

(See how Braun Corporation uses smart storage and retrieval to replace brawn with brains.)

In 2010, the company launched a project to streamline the 200,000-square-foot facility. Concepts such as 5S (sort, straighten, sweep, standardize, sustain) were introduced to streamline storage and delivery processes to the line. “Until then, things were changing so fast they were never able to stop and re-evaluate anything,” says Ken Morgel, purchasing and supply chain manager for Braun Corporation, who joined the company at the start of the project.

Over the course of the project, tuggers and cart trains (tugger: Columbia Par-Car; carts: Creform, Topper, Braun Corporation) replaced one-off trips to storage for items carried by hand, reducing traffic in and around the warehouse area. Smart slotting replaced the hunt for lost items in storage. By the end of the project, nearly one third of the 34,000-square-foot storage space was handed over to manufacturing for an expanded assembly line, and 17% of warehouse workers had been redeployed to more value-added areas.

“The warehouse area is now an enabler for manufacturing to improve,” says Morgel. “We’re not a liability, and my main focus is to stay off the radar. I don’t want to be the issue holding up production.”

For the customer, by the customer
Before Braun Corporation was founded in 1972, Ralph Braun designed and built his own powered three-wheeled scooter in the 1960s. Driven by his need for mobility, Braun used the scooter for his daily commute in Winamac, his hometown. When he changed jobs and that commute lengthened, he simply modified a postal van by adding a ramp to accommodate his scooter.

Word of mouth spread the news and Braun Corporation ultimately developed a line of scooters, wheelchair lifts and conversion vans. The company saw rapid growth in the 1990s when two forces converged. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act created standards for accessibility in employment, public transportation and other public accommodations. At the same time, the minivan as we know it became immensely popular. These days, the company’s continued growth is attributable to a growing customer base of veterans and aging baby boomers.

As his company grew from one employee to 800, Braun worked to stay personally involved. “I was incredibly inspired by Ralph,” says Morgel. “He was here practically every day, out talking to folks on the floor. By seeing what we do and who we help, at the end of the day I know I’m putting something good into the world.”

This feeling was shared by many of the assemblers in the facility, who put their share of elbow grease to use as the company expanded. A strong work ethic, however, was not enough to overcome the increasingly evident shortcomings of the facility layout and the flow of parts to the line. In addressing these problems, the company’s 2010 lean project had three major objectives:

1. Reduce or eliminate the need for line workers to retrieve their own parts from the warehouse space, carrying them over their shoulders or manually pushing heavy loaded carts.
2. Improve storage efficiency in a random-location warehouse with no first-in, first-out (FIFO) capabilities.
3. Increase the use of reusable containers and negotiate in-sequence parts from suppliers.

Morgel teamed up with materials handling supervisor Tim Kasten and materials manager Ben Hitchens to tackle these problems one at a time.

Increasing storage accessibility
When the warehouse project began, a lean initiative was already underway in the nearby manufacturing space. This provided a clear goal in terms of layout. In fact, the 34,000-square-foot warehouse space would need to be reduced by 10,000 square feet to make room for an expanded manufacturing line.

“The first step was housecleaning, in line with the 5S methodology,” says Morgel. “We finally started looking at stuff we had been tripping over for a long time.” Morgel and his team set about segregating productive inventory from non-productive inventory, such as maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) supplies.
“Both were in the same warehouse, even though they flow completely differently,” says Morgel. “We never knew who was going through the most gloves, weld-wire or helmets. The overhead was spread across all workers evenly.” The MRO inventory was segregated to free up space, and scanners were deployed so that when someone asked for another helmet it was attributed directly to that person. Morgel says, “There was probably a six-figure savings, just because of that visibility and the new report-running capabilities.”

The existing storage system loosely tracked parts locations in a dynamic storage setup with random putaway into cantilever racking, a mezzanine, floor storage and pallet rack. “It was haphazard,” says Morgel. “There wasn’t a defined standard on how we needed to store anything.” The accuracy of the storage was driven mainly by the integrity and discipline of individual employees.

One big change with the new system is the creation of dedicated storage for fast-movers. “We realized we had slow-moving inventory in our pallet racking and on the floor, and we had fast-movers up on the mezzanine, which was hard to access,” says Morgel. “We did a fundamental, ‘Storage 101’ slotting. Slow movers went in reserve, fast-movers in front.”

In addition to adding 2 feet of height to each aisle, aisle widths were also standardized from roughly 12 feet to a consistent 10 feet. Rack bridges in the middle of each aisle were removed, increasing storage density and reducing the number of blind turns for lift truck operators.

Partners in success
With storage methodologies updated, it was time to look at how parts moved in and out of the new system. On the inbound side, Morgel and his team approached their largest parts supplier, a fabrication shop across the street. “We pushed back to them to request items be containerized so we could make better use of space in the warehouse,” says Morgel. “We asked, ‘If we give you bins and tell you what we need in them, can you do it?’”

The supplier agreed, and a series of A, B, and C-sized reusable totes were rolled out. The tote sizes were based on ergonomic weight limits for lifting. They housed both loose parts and an increasing number of kitted in-sequence parts. Labels were applied to totes that could then be scanned to signal a replenishment or next order.

“That helped the other thing we weren’t doing well, which is FIFO,” says Morgel. “Now, we put totes on gravity fed racks and load from the back and pick from the front.”

The streamlined product flow enabled an increase in items delivered to the line just in time. Once a sequence had been defined, Morgel and his team worked with suppliers to receive parts in order. Large, unwieldy and expensive plastic parts were the hardest to store and handle, so Morgel requested they be painted in sequence and put into a cell pack. “One day’s worth comes on a truck and is delivered directly to the line, just in time and in the sequence they will be used on the line,” he says. “We have greatly reduced the amount of storage needed for those items, while reducing damage resulting from handling and storing.”
Morgel estimates they have reduced inventory of painted exterior plastics by at least $100,000. Inventory of interior plastics has been cut by “easily double or triple that,” he says.

Powered mobility
The final step involved the retrieval of parts from storage and their delivery to the line. “There were instances where people at the manufacturing line would write down in a notepad all the things they needed from the warehouse,” says Morgel. “They’d go get as many as they could carry, bring them to the line, then go back for more.”

The small number of carts in use had to be pushed manually. “Since we didn’t have cut-throughs in the line,” says Morgel, “they would have to push carts all the way down and all the way back to where they had just been. I saw some of the things the materials handling guys were expected to do and it did not look very pleasant.”

If parts weren’t manually carried, or pushed on a heavily loaded cart, they were delivered lineside by a forklift, creating too much combined pedestrian and equipment traffic. “We knew we needed to restrict and minimize forklift movement on the manufacturing floor,” says Morgel. “We also wanted to eliminate the inefficient and unsafe manual tote movement, where associates often carried items hundreds of feet.”

The solution involved a fleet of four tuggers and carts to satisfy the majority of parts movement between the warehouse and the line. “It was as easy as that. By combining several trips into one it reduces the number of people needed, reduces the number of trips, and keeps people out of the aisles.” Three of the 17 materials handlers were redeployed to value-added areas, including one who became the dedicated manager of the tool crib and new MRO space.

Each tugger has a three-cart limit, and each cart typically has one day’s worth of production loaded onto it. The new fleet of carts is modified to reduce parts damage by keeping them separate. Andrew Roberts, the manufacturing engineering manager, also helped with a redesign of the manufacturing lineside display to facilitate cart movements and part retrieval for assemblers. The facility now operates more smoothly with one less forklift. 

“The carts shorten walk times, address ergonomic issues at the line, and allowed us to reduce our forklift fleet from five to four,” says Morgel. “It created less traffic and a safer environment throughout the facility.”

System suppliers
System integrator: Braun Corporation,
Tugger: Columbia Par-Car,
Carts: Creform,; Topper Industrial,; in-house
Pallet Rack: Ridg-u-Rak,
Lift trucks: The Raymond Corp.,
Mobile computers: Glacier Computer,
Handheld scanners: Intermec,

About the Author

Josh Bond, Senior Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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