Operations Improvement at rms
Right diagnosis and proper prescription end paper pain for medical parts maker
By Chris Wacker
Executive Vice President
Long Beach, CA
It is hard to imagine work that requires more precision, more attention to detail or more obsession with perfection than that of medical parts maker rms Co. of Minneapolis (and yes, that’s “rms” uncapitalized). The brains, hearts, spines and other body parts that rely on the parts rms makes to support and hold them together demand perfection, and rms has met that demand since 1967.
It’s all the harder to imagine how, in this age of government and insurance company scrutiny, rms met those standards with the highly imprecise, paper-based record-keeping system it relied on for over 40 years. As the company expanded to occupy 155,000 ft2 (14,415 m2) of manufacturing space stretched across two offices 700 miles apart, it was becoming increasingly clear there was too much paperwork traveling too many miles, both inside those offices and out. If rms wanted to keep meeting those demands, something had to change.
“As a contract manufacturer we fulfill many jobs every year, some highly technical involving many stages of refinement,” explains rms information systems coordinator Michael Eklund. “Every step has to be documented. We used to place all of the order information into a file folder and physically pass it around to multiple teams throughout the machine shop and even between our offices. As you can probably guess, documents went missing and people spent a lot of time tracking them down.”
So rms, a member of the Cretex Medical group of companies, called in Egan, MN, document solutions company Crabtree, which installed a suite of Laserfiche software solutions called Rio. That installation started a multi-year evolution, with one improvement leading to the next as one software package after the next took over operations at rms. Today, rms is on the edge of being completely paperless across every area of operations, manufacturing, and back office. It was a long journey, but one Crabtree Solutions Manager Clay Baer says is easily taken when taken one step at a time.
“When your aim is to improve operations at a manufacturer as established as rms, you have to think a little like a doctor,” says Baer. “You start with where it hurts most.”
For rms, the pain came from piles of paperwork kept in folders called shop packets, which meticulously document every step of the many stages involved in making spinal fusion cages, bone screws, hip, knee and small joint parts. The packets are created as each customer order makes its way through the manufacturing process, picking up documentation every step of the way. Just as lives depend on rms devices, so rms depended on those shop packets to prove those devices were made correctly. Yet, the packets were physically passed around from workstation to workstation and from department to department, potentially making them difficult to find when needed in a hurry. For Crabtree, the diagnosis was simple.
“The biggest pain at rms was the shop packets,” said Baer. “There were folders on everyone’s desk. There was no consistency. They struggled to find them and often couldn’t tell where in the process something was.”
The cure was a little more complex. It started with the installation of the Laserfiche Client records management software into rms’ computers. That done, all of the paperwork involved in every customer order—the purchase order, part designs, quotes, and manufacturing data needed to build a device—could now be scanned into that system creating electronic images as well as fully text-searchable text files of each. Next came installing and using the Rio software suite to turn those images and text files into the lifeblood of manufacturing at rms.
A Rio product called Workflow was configured to automatically email the purchase order documents to every department involved in the manufacturing process of that particular order. Next, scanners were installed at every work station allowing the work and/or inspections done to then be scanned into the Client, creating new, electronic versions of the shop packet. The new system also uses another Rio software component called Audit Trail, which tracks who looked at what document and when.
“Now, not only does rms have its own search engine built specifically to find rms documents,” says Baer, “it also has a system that automatically moves and updates those documents through the entire manufacturing process.”
The impact on efficiency, according to Eklund, was measurable and immediate. Putting in Workflow saved hundreds of hours in order turnaround time: from eight-to-10-weeks to 72 hours for repeat orders, Eklund says. More savings came with the automation of what is called a device history record or DHR: the folder holding all the order specifications and the shop packets detailing how the order was filled. Previously, rms sent all of that paperwork out to a vendor to be scanned and stored on CDs. Now, the DHRs can be instantly compiled through the use of barcodes on each document and another Rio software called Quick Fields. As the documents are scanned into the system, Quick Fields instantly recognizes and indexes information in prescribed areas in the documents specified during the software setup, including the barcodes.
“Quick Fields has saved us $70,000 on the DHRs,” said Eklund. “Using Workflow in our manufacturing system has saved us tens of thousands of dollars more. The return on our investment in that system took approximately one year. It’s impossible to say how much money we’ve saved overall but it increases every year as our operational efficiency keeps improving.”
In addition to using Quick Fields, Workflow and Audit Trail, to automate and streamline key business processes rms installed an internet portal software package called WebLink to provide employees with immediate access to job-critical information from any location. WebLink is a secure Web publishing tool that distributes information to authorized users. Designed to protect the core content repository, WebLink provides remote access to records while preventing users from altering, deleting or tampering with them. At rms, WebLink has made life much easier for machinists who now have instant access to engineering blueprints and specs from virtually any computer on the factory floor.
“Prior to WebLink, our machinists had to wait for engineers to show them the prints and specs for the various parts the former were responsible for producing,” explains Eklund. “Today they can access that information directly. It saves a lot of time.”
Getting wins like that under your belt makes expanding into other parts of the business irresistible and rms was soon talking to Crabtree about moving beyond the manufacturing floor, according to Baer. In doing so, rms’ assault on paperwork came to include, in Baer’s words, “anything you can think of.” Business records were scanned, followed by accounts payable and human resources. Now rms is pondering putting the CAD information into the system.
“I think the last hurdle is the engineering files,” says Baer. “If we can accomplish that, rms will be a virtually paper-free.”
The fast-growing medical-device manufacturing industry is poised to become the next major testing ground for digital document storage, a market Crabtree is focusing on, Baer says. While comprehensive change such as at rms is time-consuming, choosing the right systems and giving employees the support they need as that system is being put in place can make it a fairly painless process, according to Baer.