SPECIAL REPORT/ADVANCED CERAMICS: A Little Elbow Room
PremaTech Advanced Ceramics had settled into its leased 12,000-square-foot facility barely 18 months before it became obvious that space was becoming an issue. “We brought in machines that were so large that we actually had to take off the garage doors to fit them into the building,” says company owner Mona Pappafava-Ray. “They dwarfed the largest piece of equipment that we had at that time.” By the end of the company’s five-year lease, “we had expanded so dramatically that we were like sardines in that facility,” she says.
Location, Location, LocationThe company realized it would need to move, but it wanted to stay in the same general area in order to maintain its skilled workforce. “If it didn’t really matter how far out we went, it would have made the search a little bit easier,” says Pappafava-Ray. “But we really wanted to stay close to home because one of our real strengths is our workforce.”
A three-year search culminated in last year’s purchase of a 27,000-square-foot building that was indeed very close-right across the street, in fact. “We haven’t had any problems with the workforce,” chuckles Pappafava-Ray. The close proximity also helped in more ways than one, since PremaTech had only a few months to renovate the new facility and finalize the move.
“The building was bought in August, but by the time we got through all the red tape, we really didn’t start renovations until October of last year,” says Doug Ickert, vice president. “Since we needed to be out [of the original facility] by the end of December, it was a very accelerated renovation and move.”
Planning for SuccessThe new building had originally been a warehouse, not a production facility, which gave PremaTech a lot of flexibility. “We didn’t have to be stuck with what someone else had done before, so it was much easier during the renovation to focus on our needs,” says Ickert.
In order to improve its manufacturing processes, PremaTech organized the space to utilize cell manufacturing techniques. According to David McBride of the EMS Consulting Group, “A cell is a group of workstations, machines or equipment arranged such that a product can be processed progressively from one workstation to another without having to wait for a batch to be completed and without additional handling between operations.”1 When properly implemented, this lean manufacturing technique can lead to reduced waste and improved productivity.
“We’re constantly looking to decrease lead times and increase throughput,” says Ickert. “Because of the economy, a lot of customers want to have less inventory, and they need to receive their product more quickly. We’ve been putting in a lot of lean manufacturing and other techniques to decrease lead times and get work done in days, not weeks.”
At more than double the size of the previous building, the new facility provides PremaTech with plenty of room. “Because it’s so big, a lot of people might tend to fill out all of the space,” explains Ickert. “We decided not to do that. We set up the building to use about 70% or less of its capacity. That leaves us another 30% we’re leaving empty so we can put in new cells based on new markets or customer needs.”
“This building should be able to sustain us for quite some time into the future,” adds Pappafava-Ray. “During our search, we also looked for an area with some land behind it. If we need to expand the building, we’ll be able to do that.”
Customer FocusDespite the current economic climate, PremaTech continues to look for opportunities to grow its business, including expanding its presence in solar and other green-related technologies. The company also has plans to target new markets. “We consistently meet and talk about what’s on the horizon,” says Pappafava-Ray. “We always want to be as close to the ground floor as we can in moving into any new technology or new market that’s out there.”
Having the right equipment is key to PremaTech’s strategy. “We’re very aggressive and ambitious about purchasing equipment,” explains Pappafava-Ray. “If we see there’s a new market that we can get into, we’ll go out and get whatever equipment we need so that we’re not just a ‘me, too’ player in that market. We want to be able to show our customers-and potential customers-that we have better technology than anyone else, and we can apply it in a much more efficient manner.”
PremaTech also continues to focus on helping its current customers weather the recession. “We have engineers and people who have a lot of experience and are well-trained in the industry,” says Ickert. “We work with our customers to develop the best type of materials to use, along with other design issues, to get their products to market. We also do a lot of R&D and prototype work with our customers, so they can get into other markets as well.”
The Long RunOne gets the feeling that it’ll take a little more than a recession to get the pragmatic Pappafava-Ray down. “We know, at some point, that everything’s going to come back, and we want to be ready when it does,” she says.
She and everyone at PremaTech have worked hard to ensure the company’s success, even in tough economic times. “What helps us is we’re ISO certified, we’re a woman-owned business, we have excellent vendor ratings from our customers and some of our customers are very big,” says Ickert. “All of that helps us get into new markets because we have a good reputation.”
“The recession is going to affect everybody for a long time,” says Pappafava-Ray. “We have to be prepared to be in this industry for the long run. The culture of continuous improvement is something that we embrace on a daily basis. We want to make sure that we’re always finding the most efficient, most cost-effective methods so we can stay in the game.”
For additional details, contact Prema-Tech Advanced Ceramics, 160 Goddard Memorial Dr., Worcester, MA 01603-1260; (508) 791-9549; fax (508) 793-9814; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit www.prematechac.com.