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Sheet Metal Fabricator’s Side Business is Helping Other Manufacturers

When it couldn’t find an acceptable digital work instructions solution, CMP Advanced Mechanical Solutions in Quebec developed one in-house: Visual Knowledge Share (VKS). The spinoff business earned CMP a prestigious best-practices award from the provincial government.

Posted: February 10, 2020

Canadian job shop CMP Advanced Mechanical Solutions had the same difficulty finding skilled employees as any manufacturer. In the late aughts, the company hired software developers to develop a program that would help achieve a companywide zero-defects performance goal by walking employees through standardized processes. Detailed instructions supplemented by videos, photos, and annotations combine to ensure high first-pass yields.
Gerber Gear introduced Visual Knowledge Share (VKS) to standardize assembly of each model of its hand-crafted knives. “The data we collect gives us an understanding of how well an employee comprehended an instruction set and helps us identify how to better train our trainers,” says Process Improvement and Logistics Manager Jeanine Burket.
Visual Knowledge Share (VKS) focuses solely on work instructions; it isn’t an enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform or a material requirements planning (MRP) system or a manufacturing execution system (MES). The software does, however, integrate with other platforms to provide 100% traceability and operator accountability.

In the late 2000s, CMP Advanced Mechanical Solutions was having the trouble that plagues many manufacturers at one time or another: losing business to less-expensive overseas suppliers. Launched in 1969, the Canadian sheet metal fabricator’s 700 employees make cases for the medical device, light rail, automotive, homeland security, and industrial and warehouse automation industries from facilities in Châteauguay, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal; and Binghamton, N.Y.

Getting an unskilled workforce quickly up and running is one of the biggest obstacles to driving wasted time and effort out of high-mix, low-volume (HMLV) manufacturing and assembly. To reach his zero-defect goal, President and CEO Steve Zimmerman realized his company would have to make it virtually foolproof for any employee to follow instructions for any job that might enter their workstation.

When he and his team couldn’t find software they felt would meet their needs, they decided to reverse-engineer a solution.

“Our goal was to create an intuitive system that would connect our employees to the machines and information they needed,” he told the local newspaper Le Soleil de Châteauguay in early 2019. “We started by identifying the key challenges: standardization, communication, and traceability.” 

Standardization in flexible environments is no easy task. Fortunately, his son Ryan, though not a software engineer by training, was interested in spearheading a solution. He knew that in a low-volume environment, there may not be enough data to make statistical process control feasible.

And so it began.

Evolution of a HMLV Tool

Ryan’s team first created step-by-step instructions for employees to follow at their work stations, then used images and video to capture and share essential quality techniques and productivity control methods.

In 2012, CMP spun off software-development activities into a business called Visual Knowledge Share (VKS). Housed in the Canadian facility, the company employs 60 people. Over time, they’ve moved the platform toward an intelligent solution that captures quality and productivity data in real time, connects with third-party devices such as assembly tools to record data such as torque value, and  integrates with other software such as integrated management systems (ERP).

Operators show up to their work station in a machining cell, fabrication line, or at an assembly bench and log into the browser-based application with a username and password or by scanning a barcode. They can find instructions using a search filter or scan a barcode off a traveler document.

Once the instructions open, the operator is asked for work order number, quantity, and standard takt time. The information can be entered by scanning a barcode off the traveler document, or VKS can be linked to an ERP system so the information is automatically loaded and displayed with instructions.

As the operator works, the software displays number of units completed vs. the number required to complete the order and how much time the operator’s taking vs. the standard time the job is supposed to take. In this way, the software monitors their efficiency and productivity without distraction.

Companies can create and imbed forms, process questionnaires, or inspection checklists.

Test Case: Hand-Crafted Knife Manufacturing

This is what Gerber of Portland, Ore., does. Founded in 1939, the company makes hand-crafted knives for hunters, soldiers, and tradesmen; multitools; and other cutting tools and equipment. The company implemented VKS to ensure build consistency and streamline training.

As with most companies that have yet to digitize a process, Process Improvement and Logistics Manager Jeanine Burket noted a fundamental flaw in written standards of procedure (SOP).

“The office team spent a lot of time developing instructions operators didn’t follow because they weren’t interactive and they didn’t understand them,” says the Six Sigma Black Belt with over a decade of experience in continuous improvement. “They’d read the words on a page, but it wouldn’t mean a whole lot for how they would do their job.”

VKS estimates the platform cuts the amount of time managers spend creating and maintaining work instructions by 50%. Following implementation, Gerber saw a strong increase in confidence by the shop floor.

That’s a huge win for Gerber. “When you deal with a hand-crafted item and you have a dozen people who are specialists in building it, they all are specialists in their own ways,” Burket says. “This creates quality challenges in the consistency of each produced item.”

By getting insight into how each employee works, the company’s been able to capture and standardize process knowledge. A skilled craftsman with 25 years of experience producing one knife can quickly become an expert in producing a new model.

Training time has fallen tenfold. Instead of intensive one-on-one interaction, the company shows a new employee how to use the software. On the shop floor, a questionnaire created using VKS Forms tests the employee’s understanding of a process; through VKS Rule Engine, managers learn the results based on answer accuracy.

Gerber also uses forms to monitor productivity by prompting operators to answer whether their designated product has been completed. “The increase in accountability is the biggest win,” Burket says. “We understand an employee’s skillset and capabilities and can compare them in an unbiased way to those of other employees.

“We can make changes to processes quickly, efficiently, and effectively. When something goes wrong, employees point it out. They want re-training done immediately. We use the system to help us identify where to train more.”

CMP’s goal isn’t to watch employees like Big Brother, but to improve productivity. “If we use this to attack the employee, it doesn’t work,” Human Resources Vice President Michel Labrecque told the local paper in 2018. “If there’s a drop in productivity, tell the employee they have to find the cause.”

“You could forget things on a product that has 5,000 bolts,” says 18-year CMP employee Martin Deschênes. “From memory, that would not be done. We avoid a lot of mistakes.”

The Never-Ending Task of Continuous Improvement

“Implementing a new technology doesn’t have a precise beginning and end,” Steve Zimmerman told the paper. “In fact, you have to see it as a series of hills rather than a big mountain. Once an implementation is ‘complete,’ the next stage of the journey begins: auditing to guarantee process compliance and identify new improvement opportunities based off the refined knowledge and industry trends and practices.

“Thanks to VKS, we can capture expertise and share it with new employees. Last year [2018], we hired over 100 employees capable of manufacturing high-quality products within a few weeks.”

As of that month/date interview, CMP had rolled out the platform to 90% of its operation. Its target is 100%. Faults have fallen by more than 95%.

In 2016, 50 local manufacturers toured CMP to learn about smart manufacturing. The meeting was organized by STIQ, a multisector association of Quebec companies whose mission is to spur economic development by increasing supply chain competitiveness. According to the group, companies transitioning to Industry 4.0 methodologies such as VKS have increased productivity by 60%, reduced operating costs by 50%, and improved overall product quality by 42%.

In late 2018, VKS earned CMP one of 10 Prix Performance Québec (PPQ) awards, the  highest distinction given annually by the Government of Quebec to private companies and public organizations for management quality and overall performance.

“The company can count on employees to be productive and efficient, to offer products free from defects, and to provide unparalleled service,” Quebec’s Ministry of the Economy is quoted as saying in the local paper. “The management team offers clear values, inspires staff, aligns everyone’s efforts, and sets itself high strategic objectives mainly focused on financial performance.

“Thanks to links of trust and the proximity of stakeholders on several levels, CMP knows how to establish value-added relationships with its customers.”

VKS – Visual Knowledge Share, 1241 Rue des Cascades, Châteauguay, QC J6J 4Z2, 855-201-4656,

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