During the past three years, more than two dozen small industries in South Sound have seen their federal tax dollars at work for them through Washington Manufacturing Services. And the results have been impressive.

“They helped us eliminate non-value-added activities and helped us create a production flow,” says Dick Clarke, president of Amtech Corp. custom fiberglass and vacuum formed parts in Yelm. “There has been a 25 per cent increase in productivity and a 30 to 40 percent reduction in the cycle time—how long it takes to build a product.”

“We merged three separate operations,” recalls S.C. “Steve” Spear, president of Davidson Plastics Corp. in Tacoma. “WMS provided the resources we needed to streamline our operations by helping us understand how the pieces fit together.”

“What we do for industry is orchestrate consultants,” explains WMS Project Manager Chuck Lazzaro, who has an office at Pierce College in Puyallup and oversees WMS activities in Pierce, Thurston, Mason, Lewis and Kitsap counties.

Lazzaro has the pedigree to help solve many of the problems himself. He has a bachelor of science degree in operations management from Cal State Northridge and an MBA from the University of Puget Sound. He also has 15 years of hands-on manufacturing management experience with a number of high-tech companies, including Data I/O, Spacelabs Medical, Augat Communications and Advanced Digital Information Corp.

After five years as a professional consultant, he says, he accepted his current position with Washington Manufacturing Services, where most of his activities involve letting manufacturers know of the assistance programs available through WMS, identifying which of its programs best suit their needs and arranging for specialists in those areas to help resolve problems the companies are grappling with.

The concept traces its roots to the 1980s, when the federal government chartered a number of nonprofit corporations around the country to provide outreach primarily to small manufacturers—those with fewer than 500 employees. The reasoning was that such companies seldom can afford expensive consultants to help them become more efficient, more productive and more valuable as a source of jobs in the communities where they operate.

Today, there are 70 such agencies are scattered throughout the United States. Most function in much the same way as Lazzaro.

“Chuck called and shared what WMS did and described a variety of programs available to us,” recalls Clarke, whose plant produces a range of molded plastic products such as spas and shrouds for construction equipment. “We were most interested in Lean Manufacturing. Most of us had read about Lean, but Chuck’s consultants showed up how to apply it to our operation.”

Lean, he explains, is the system of limiting production to the volume that is needed to fill orders—thus reducing manufacturing and warehousing costs— and at the same time maintaining the sort of production efficiency that guarantees orders can be filled on short notice.

Lazzaro’s services were free, but Amtech paid the fees for the consultants WMS brought in to help the company implement the Lean system. It was money well spent, says Clarke.

“One of the real accomplishments,” he says, “was that everyone took ownership of the process. Before WMS, everyone blamed everyone else along the production line for problems. Now, they are empowered—required may be a better word for it—to solve those problems. Everyone now feels as if they’re part of a team.”

Clarke was so enthusiastic, in fact, that he gave a presentation on WMS at a manufacturers breakfasted hosted by the Thurston County Economic Development Council. The EDC itself also has been very aggressive in introducing WMS to manufacturers in the area, Lazzaro says.

Spear is equally enthusiastic about the impact WMS had at Davidson’s.

“There was a lot of the kind of suspicion that comes with a merger of this sort,” he says. “Middle management was uncertain about upper management’s motives, the workers were suspicious of middle management.”

WMS consultants—members of the technical staff at Pierce College—worked with everyone, from Spears to assembly-line personnel to engender trust, improve communications and integrate the various processes and machinery involved at Davidson, which manufactures products ranging from the devices used to separate customers’ items at the grocery counter to orange cones used to divert traffic from construction sites.

Small business and industry are the backbone of the American economy, says Lazzaro. That’s why there is an agency devoted exclusively to helping small manufacturers succeed.

By George Pica, Business Examiner staff