Many of Suburban Manufacturing Inc.’s employees were initially skeptical of the company’s implementation of lean initiatives three years ago. “Our company has been around for 34 years, and we’ve had people who have been here a long time and were used to the way things were done,” CEO Peter Thompson says. “At our first few lean meetings, people said I was insane when I told them we were making investments in procedures that would reduce our setup time by 80 percent.”
That skepticism was quickly replaced by enthusiasm once the Monticello, Minn.-based company’s investments in technology, equipment and processes resulted in not only greater efficiency, but also a significant increase in its sales and capabilities. “The lean process was truly transformative once our staff was trained, got involved and saw results,” Thompson adds.
The company has significantly grown its marketshare and product lines in the past three years, and has a goal to double its size within five years. “We wouldn’t be where we are without taking risks and making investments,” Thompson says.
Suburban Manufacturing’s technology and equipment investments include a new horizontal mill with a pallet tool, robotic production cells, tool setter and coordinated measurement machine. All of the new equipment is programmable and integrated with the company’s ERP, design and machining software programs, which were also upgraded. These upgrades allowed the company to improve the quality of the instruction, installation and technical documents it provides employees and customers. Suburban Manufacturing also invested in enterprise product data management software, Thompson says.
The company’s lean initiatives include 5S, kaizen events and a kanban system. Many of Suburban Manufacturing’s vendors hold its raw material inventory on consignment and replenish items on a frequent basis. “We’ve become much more just-in-time when it comes to our inventory, and really rearranged our shop into a very lean and organized facility where people no longer have to walk for miles looking for things,” he adds. “Everything our employees need to efficiently do their jobs is right at their work station. We made a major investment in setup carts and quality inspection equipment located and dedicated to each work cell.”
In addition to its investments in equipment and processes, Suburban Manufacturing also invested heavily in its staff. Thompson in 2012 applied for a state grant, which the company received in 2013 and used to fund more than 40 hours of training for every employee. The courses ranged from quality and engineering skills to customer service and Microsoft Excel courses for front-office staff.
“We’ve made a concerted effort to invest in people, technology, equipment and lean processes to accelerate our growth, much of which supports our increased sales and marketing efforts,” Thompson notes. “We believe that if you have truly world-class quality, delivery and customer service you can truly differentiate yourself.”
An emphasis on engineering products to meet customer-specific applications also differentiates Suburban Manufacturing. “We’re an engineering company first and manufacturing company second,” Thompson says. “We try to engineer the best solutions in partnership with our customers to meet their needs.”
Approximately 50 percent of the company’s sales are for products that are customized specifically for its customers. The company serves the defense, hydraulics, oil and gas, agriculture, construction and utility and industrial markets. Suburban Manufacturing operates four divisions:
- > Tsunami Compressed Air Solutions, which offers products designed to provide dry, clean compressed air to clients’ facilities;
- > A lubrication system division, which offers a complete line of automatic chain oilers and grease systems;
- > A protective coverings divisions, which offers protective sleeves, straps and exhaust blankets manufactured from a variety of custom fabrics;
- > A contract manufacturing services division, which provides precision machining and assembly services.
The company’s customized projects include making hose wraps of specific lengths and sizes to fit a client’s system, creating custom grease systems for the U.S. Navy and railroad maintenance equipment, and building custom filtration and drying solutions. Suburban Manufacturing also has experience in designing and developing pneumatic valves both on its own and in conjunction with other companies.
In addition to its custom work, Suburban Manufacturing offers a line of standard products sold under the Tsunami, Protective Coverings and Lube Minder brands. “A lot of what we sell is standard products, but instead of just having that line and being inflexible, we have taken our business a step further and told our customer that if they need something unique, just let us know,” Thompson adds.
The Tsunami Compressed Air Solutions division will be spotlighted during the International Manufacturing Technology (IMTS) show Sept. 8 through Sept. 13 in Chicago. This is the company’s first year attending the event. “We typically attend 15 shows a year, and try each year to attend new shows in addition to the ones we’ve traditionally had a presence at,” Thompson says. “We want to gain exposure for our brand, and network with potential distributors and end-users who can utilize our technology to improve the performance of their equipment.”