Making It In Northern Michigan: Coding Products

coding-products-closeupWith a positive, 25-year record of production and jobs, folks at Coding Products in Kalkaska might be excused if they got a little complacent. But instead, they always seek to improve. And that goes for the front office just as much as the shop floor.

Such terms as Continuous Improvement, “80/20” and “5S” are part of the culture for all of Coding Products’ 75 employees.

One of the many divisions of ITW (Illinois Tool Works), Coding Products manufactures hot stamp foils and thermal transfer ribbons. The products are shipped throughout the U.S. and to 47 other countries. Customers then use the foils and ribbons to imprint information on everything from automotive wiring to workplace safety signs that warn, “Fork Lifts at Work,” or “Wear Goggles.”

Ever since buying the plant in 1991 from local owners Brent Bell and Ted Jacobs, managers at Coding Products have relied heavily on the training services offered by Northwestern Michigan College (NMC). That training has included various types of team building, statistical process control, root cause analysis and, more recently, Lean Manufacturing and Lean Office, both of which aim to avoid waste and streamline all sorts of daily processes.

Even though it is part of a large corporation, the Kalkaska plant has considerable leeway in how it operates. At the same time, Coding Products has benefited from ITW’s emphasis on “80/20” and “5S.”

Human resources director Sherry Browning said the 80/20 concept refers to the top 20 percent of customers who account for 80 percent of the plant’s business. Keeping that formula in mind, she said, helps prioritize resources and stay profitable.

Much of Coding Products’ business, for example, is with three very different industry sectors.
The company provides materials that help hospitals and clinics clearly identify IV bags, individualized pill units and certain types of syringes, among many other things.

Another major market is “card personalization,” a broad field that includes credit cards, insurance cards and membership identification cards. Browning said there is a good chance that many of the cards in your wallet contain information that is made possible by Coding Products.

The company also provides coding products that help clients provide information on various types of fiber optic cable and PVC pipes.

The other key term used at Coding Products is “5S,” which stands for sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain. It is a method for organizing work. It can, for example, improve work flows – sometimes in seemingly small steps, but in ways that can add up.

With so many improvement tools at its disposal, Coding Products comes up some dramatic cost savings. One example was reducing changeover times – the period when production shifts to another type of machine setup.

“Changeovers were averaging about 60 minutes,” said Browning. “So we videotaped it, examined every step of the way. Our goal was to cut that time in half, and we did it.”

Another, more subtle, but equally important advantage of continuous improvement is getting employee buy-in. After a while, employees realize their opinions count. They make a difference.

“Something that always sticks with me is that the average employee here has 17 years of service,” Browning said. “It’s a good place to work if you want a stable job and want to live in northern Michigan.”