Best Practices -- Rapid Response

When a new market opportunity opened for a fire-equipment manufacturer, the National Composite Center came to the rescue.

It pays to read the paper. That's what Andrew Schwartz, one of Lion Apparel's owners, was doing when he came across a story about the National Composite Center (NCC) in the Dayton Daily News. The timing was perfect: Lion needed help with its fire helmet line, and NCC (www.compositecenter.org) had the right expertise.

More than a century old and more than a thousand employees strong, Dayton, Ohio-based Lion is a leading supplier of clothing and personal protective equipment for firefighters. Lion's clients include the fire departments of Los Angeles, Dallas, Philadelphia, London, Paris and Berlin.

Lion had been having problems with helmet quality ever since it started selling helmets in the mid-'90s to complement the firefighting uniforms on which it had built its reputation.

"The helmets sold in the marketplace, but they were not a real focus for the company. They were just an accessory item," explains Teresa Lawson, Helmet Product Manager for Lion. "As time went on, we realized that we had to focus on helmets to give firefighters head-to-toe protection."

That's when Lion heard about NCC, based in Kettering, Ohio. A tax-exempt, nonprofit applied development organization, NCC has been applying the latest advances in composite technology to the problems of aerospace, defense, automotive, commercial and infrastructure clients since its creation in 1996.

But NCC isn't just an R&D shop -- it has process experts who can consult on existing manufacturing lines, plus a product development arm that can take an idea from concept through a pilot test-run and all the way to full-scale production within NCC's 200,000 square-foot facility using state-of-the-art devices including chopped fiber preforming machines and fiber impregnation equipment.

Lion asked NCC to help it to reduce waste at its existing helmet suppliers. Process improvements recommended by NCC led to cutting waste levels from 40% to 25% of raw material, a level that NCC President and CEO Lou Luedtke calls "still objectionable, but a significant improvement."

To reduce scrap further, NCC told Lion it would need to upgrade its production processes completely. The old method used by its suppliers inevitably produced composite fiber alignment problems that weakened the structural integrity of helmets, leading to breakage and scrap.

Lion ultimately decided to take complete control over helmet quality by purchasing one of its local helmet suppliers. Lion then turned again to NCC, asking the nonprofit to redesign the manufacturing processes using the automated composite manufacturing method known as Rapid Fiber Preforming in which fibers are precisely chopped and sprayed with uniform consistency. The result -- helmets that were 15% lighter and 15% stronger. The company's delivery rate improved 80%, throughput improved 35% and raw material and labor costs fell 40%. Scrap levels now remain consistently below 2%.

The Lion-NCC collaboration has worked so well that Lion has kept its helmet manufacturing line within a controlled-traffic area of the NCC facility. The arrangement saves the headache of trying to shoehorn helmet-manufacturing machines into Lion's textile factories, while simultaneously preserving close links to NCC scientists with attendant opportunities for continual improvement. Lion is in the midst of patenting one such improvement -- an additive to the production process that gives its helmets added heat protection and strength.

"We are not unique from a basic research standpoint. Our uniqueness comes from our equipment and the breadth of our expertise in full-scale production manufacturing," says Luedtke. "We can take a product from university-type research through to full-scale commercialization. NCC can be a node in that development." For its services, the non-profit NCC essentially charged Lion its costs plus 11% for overhead.

Luedtke believes that the Lion-NCC team achieved in one year what it would have taken Lion two to three years to accomplish on its own, but he's not satisfied yet. "We have to speed up even more," he urges. "We are not optimized yet. If we want to stay competitive in America, we have to incorporate new value-ads more quickly into our product chain."

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