IW Best Plants Profile - 1995

By John H. Sheridan At A Glance

  • Production operations are grouped into "focused factory" teams, each devoted to a major customer or product line.
  • Brought specialized long-lead tooling capability in-house for proprietary casting and molding operations. This speeds transition from product concept to full production, contributing to 50% reduction in product-development cycle.
  • Productivity climbed 169% in five years.
  • Cost per unit reduced by 29%.
  • Scrap/rework costs slashed by 64%.
  • Finished-product "failure" rate is just 70 ppm.
  • Manufacturing cycle time reduced by 50%.
  • On-time delivery is at 100%.
A business researcher hunting down the secrets of innovation would do well to visit Symbiosis Corp., a seven-year-old Miami manufacturer of disposable medical instruments for minimally invasive "endoscopic" surgery. Acquired in 1992 by American Home Products Corp., Symbiosis' devices have helped to revolutionize many surgical procedures -- shortening hospital stays by as much as 90%. The company's formula for success includes a blend of creative engineering, a knack for rapid product introduction, ingenious adaption of hobbyists' skills, and an entrepreneurial environment where good ideas flow freely and people get the support they need to do their best work. But those aren't the only ingredients. Another is the willingness to rise to a challenge. Symbiosis was created in 1988 when two engineers -- Kevin Smith, its first CEO, and Charlie Slater -- left their jobs with another medical-device company to form a syringe-manufacturing business. Started in a garage on a shoestring, the company has grown into a $50 million business, which today commands about 72% of the world market for disposable gastrointestinal biopsy forceps. It also makes disposable laparoscopic scissors and other instruments used for abdominal surgery. A major turning point occurred in 1989, when the fledgling company's syringe sales were drying up. "That's when Boston Scientific threw out a challenge to us to find a way to make a low-cost biopsy forceps," recalls President Bill Box, another founder and former VP of manufacturing. "We took the challenge, mostly because we were starved." At the time, surgeons were using reusable forceps -- priced at $300 to $400 -- which are difficult to sterilize. Boston Scientific Corp., one of several Symbiosis partners that market the Miami firm's devices to the medical community, saw an opportunity to reinvent the market if a way could be found to produce inexpensive instruments that would sell as disposables. "We worked like crazy to develop a low-cost product," Box says. One of the keys was the refinement of investment-casting techniques, traditionally used in jewelry-making, to produce very small, but very precise metal parts that traditionally had to be machined. Oddly enough, the idea of using investment casting sprang from Box's fascination with model railroading. To support his hobby, he had learned the technique and owned some rudimentary equipment. On weekends, he and Tom Bales, the firm's former vice president for R&D, often would "sling hot metal in the molds to make parts for model trains." However, advances beyond existing processes were needed to achieve the precision geometry required for surgical instruments. "Since our product is very small, with minuscule detail, we ended up having to pioneer a lot of the [process-development] work ourselves," Box points out. Many of the people who've been instrumental in Symbiosis' success, Box notes, have drawn upon skills developed in the pursuit of hobbies -- including watch repair, auto racing, and model airplanes. "We all use our hobbies as a vehicle to develop certain skill sets," he says. "You try something new, you perfect a skill, and then you put it on the shelf with the idea that some day you may need that skill." Symbiosis' proprietary process refinements have pushed investmentcasting technology "to the limits," believes Scott Jahrmarkt, vice president of manufacturing. One advantage that microcasting offers is flexibility in making design changes, he points out, noting that metal stamping is an alternative approach to making certain metal parts. "Once you've got a stamping die, if you want to change a design, it will cost you another $50,000 or $60,000 to change the dies. But with investment casting, you can do multiple iterations of a design before you get to production." That's just one aspect of the agility that has become a forte of the Miami firm, which is known for its ability to quickly design highly engineered new products and smoothly transition into manufacturing. One wall in the second-floor lobby of its office/manufacturing complex features a display of plaques commemorating many of the 150-plus patents awarded to the young firm's creative engineering staff. Many of Symbiosis' new-product designs are created on a Pro/Engineer CAD system with 3-D solid-modeling capability, enabling designers to generate realistic views of products before physical prototypes are built. A complementary software system -- Autodesk 3D Studio -- creates "photo-realistic" print renderings of parts and finished products. "This lets us finalize the aesthetic properties of a part and show it to the customer, who will know exactly what the product looks like before we ever make one," says Peter Kratsch, senior product designer. Thus, fewer prototypes are needed, and product-development time is reduced. For plastic components, such as the scissors-action grips on its surgical devices, 3-D CAD models can be saved as stereolithography files -- and downloaded by modem to a service bureau to quickly produce prototypes. Time-to-production is shortened by building plastic-injection molds in-house. Software extensions of ProEngineer are used for mold design and to create toolpaths for the CNC machines that cut mold cavities. In producing certain molds that are difficult to machine, electric-discharge machining methods burn the mold cavities out of steel. Some molding capability was brought in-house in 1993, as part of a strategy to vertically integrate its processes and gain better control over component production. At the same time, it also adopted a focused-factory structure, integrating subassembly and assembly operations into customer-focused teams. "That enabled us to drive total manufacturing throughput time down because there wasn't a handoff anymore," Jarhmarkt says. Since 1990, manufacturing cycle time has been sliced by 50%. Meanwhile, spurred by volume increases and process improvements, overall productivity has soared 169%. The emphasis on agility has been important in enabling Symbiosis to cope with dramatic growth spurts. "We always have second and third sets of tooling built when we build the first one," the manufacturing VP explains. "We don't want to be in a situation where we have to wait to start up a second [assembly] line because of the leadtime on tooling. To meet customer needs, I want to be able to turn on a line overnight." Besides maintaining extra tooling and workstation equipment, that also means stocking certain long-lead components and cross-training assembly workers. "When we start a new line, we take people from an existing line and put them into key positions on the new line," Jahrmarkt says. "There, they can guide the new people -- who start on the simpler tasks." Underlying all of the technical prowess and adaptability that has contributed to Symbiosis' success is a corporate culture that discourages corporate bureaucracy while encouraging teamwork and open communication. "There are no hidden agendas here," says materials manager Tom Elwood. "No matter what level you are, you can speak your piece." Box sees "freedom for independent action" as one of the company's hallmarks. "People don't get into trouble around here for doing the things that they think need to be done." The 750-employee firm has implemented a voluntary "mentoring" program in which experienced personnel guide relative newcomers, helping to acclimate them to the company environment. And special provisions have been made to support the firm's 16 deaf and hearing-impaired workers. Marianne Stokes, a sign-language expert, was hired as an employee-relations administrator in the human-resources department. She serves as an interpreter when needed and also teaches sign-language classes for supervisors and other employees who want to communicate better with their deaf co-workers. In addition, the company installed a typewriter/ telephone machine known as a TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf). "We provide free telephones in the cafeteria for our other employees -- in case they want to call home to check on the kids," Stokes says. "Well, the deaf have their telephone, too."
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