The team at Fastener Engineering is interested in learning about how essential manufacturers are coping with the current challenges, given the COVID-19 pandemic. To this end, we are interviewing companies to find out what precautions they’re taking, how they are managing and keeping up with work demands, as well as any potential tips they may want to share with others.
In this audio interview, Christie Jones, the VP and director of marketing with SPIROL, shares her experience. SPRIOL is a global manufacturer of precision engineered components for fastening and joining — this includes critical medical components, such as the pins and threaded inserts for ventilators.
Learn more here.
The following is a lightly edited transcript…
Fastener Engineering (FE): Hello everyone! Thanks for listening. I’m Michelle Froese, an editor with Fastener Engineering. I have Christie Jones on the line with me today. She is the VP and director of marketing with SPIROL, a global manufacturer of precision engineered components for fastening and joining.
Given the current global health challenges and fight against COVID-19, we at Fastener Engineering are interested in how companies are coping, what precautions they are taking, and any potential tips they may have or want to share with others. Although many companies have been forced to shut down or work remotely, others are deemed essential to critical industries and are still open for business.
To this end, Christie has kindly agreed to jump on a call with me and share her experience at SPIROL so far. Christie, thanks so much for your time!
Christie Jones (CJ): Thanks for yours too, Michelle.
FE: Absolutely! Can you first please tell us a little bit about SPIROL in terms of its purpose and the work the company provides?
CJ: Sure. As you mentioned, we design and manufacture a diverse offering of engineered components used for joining an assembly, so that’s what we make. What we do is we work with companies in the design stage and we help them design not only the engineered fastener, but we also make the critical recommendations for the interface between our product and their assembly — so that their products go together and stay together for the intended life of the assembly.
It’s more than just making and supplying fasteners and shims. It’s about partnering with companies to make sure that they are equipped with the right fastener or right shim to meet or exceed their expected expectations.
FE: Got it. You have manufacturing facilities in the U.S. but are a global company, is that right?
CJ: Yeah, and I was going to say, we do that all over the world. We have facilities in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, England, France, Spain, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, China, and Korea. We are all over the world. It’s not unlikely for us to work with engineers that are designing the product in the United States. But the product will actually be assembled in either Mexico or China. Sometimes we do it all at one facility with a company and other times it’s a coordinated effort across the world. And sometimes, as in the automotive industry or even the medical industry, we’ll design a component in the United States, and the assembly of that product is actually done where it’s going to be consumed by the local market.
FE: For sure, that makes sense. I know we’re in tough times right now, but SPIROL is still operating as an essential service. Am I right?
CJ: Yes. You’re right. We’re designated as a critical manufacturer as we do supply engineered fasteners for the medical industry, and we also supply in government and defense. But within the medical industry in particular, because we’re in a critical stage right now. We have millions of pins that are used in surgical equipment, hospital beds, and examination tables. We manufacture threaded inserts for plastics, coiled springs pins, and slotted pins that are used in ventilators and respirators. You know these are in super high demand right now, and companies around the world are scrambling to manufacture these desperately needed pieces of life-saving equipment.
FE: How have you had to change your routines or schedules then, and what safety precautions have been put into place at your manufacturing facilities?
CJ: Out of an abundance of caution, we’ve significantly reduced the number of employees in the factory to keep them safe. But we have enough staff so that we are able to continue to manufacture and ship product to our customers when we need them. At the same time, we’ve mobilized the majority of our efforts and our office staff to work remotely. Again, this is to significantly reduce the number of people in the office. But we’re still 100% available to work with customers, answer questions, and schedule orders.
Of course, the challenge is that we have companies that are dropping in orders for these desperately needed pieces of medical equipment on a daily basis right now. We’re balancing the number of people that are required to produce the product. But I’ll tell you what…our employees do come first. It’s tricky because, unfortunately, sometimes you get this order and it takes a little while to figure out. Like how are we going to get this done?
Sometimes some of these employees are working 12 to 14-hour shifts but, fortunately, we have enough people that are dedicated employees. They’ll rotate in and out so that we don’t exceed the number of people that can safely work in the facility but still be able to meet our customers’ delivery expectations.
FE: Of course. And I imagine you’re following the protocols with social distancing and such, so it’s a bit of a challenge.
CJ: One hundred percent, yes. I’ll say one other thing. I’ve seen a lot of automatic messages from other companies in responses to emails that I’ve sent and it says, essentially, “Be patient as I’m working from home. So my responses may take a little longer.”
One thing that I can honestly say is that SPIROL’s team has adjusted very quickly to telecommuting and we are ultra-responsive to our customers’ needs. I think that’s really important for our customers to know that we’re available. We’re here, we’re open for business, and we’re ready to help you.
FE: Well, it’s excellent that you’re still able to provide critical components, but I know…I hear you in terms of it being a balancing act with your employees. How are you managing overall? We mentioned the mandated restrictions and social distancing, but are there any other major challenges that you’ve had to face at this time in terms of what you’re doing at your facilities?
CJ: Well, let me tell you first how we’re really managing it. On the factory floor, it’s certainly a challenge to run a mega-manufacturing facility with a significantly reduced crew. We’re very, very fortunate that one of the major initiatives of the management team over the last few years has been cross-training of our employees. Therefore, we have a very flexible workforce on the factory floor that’s not only able to operate multiple pieces of equipment. But they’re 100% skilled in running those pieces of equipment because the quality is important. We wouldn’t sacrifice quality for output. These are skilled, certified people that are running these pieces of equipment.
CJ: One other thing I can say is that with some of these radical changes that we’ve made in the staffing levels, we are hitting just about 100% of our on-time shipment rates. This is absolutely due to the rock stars that we have on the production floor. I can’t say enough about our amazing team and how grateful our entire company is for their dedication and the willingness to carry us through this.
FE: Right. When you say cross-training, it’s basically that employees are capable of doing multiple tasks just in case of events such as this…where there is a crisis situation or something like that comes up. Is that correct?
CJ: Yes, absolutely. And the way we did that…well, it’s one thing to train somebody on a piece of equipment, but if you don’t use it you lose it. So, one thing that we’ve done is throughout the years, we have made sure that the people work a certain amount of hours on the different pieces of equipment that they’ve been cross-trained on. So that when the time comes, like now, they can seamlessly step in and operate it.
One other thing I’ll say, too, is that we also had a very strong initiative. When the virus came about and it really looked like it was going to start taking over the country, we started reaching out to all of our customers. And this was a few weeks before it really started to hit the fan, so to speak. We talked to them and we asked for their help to partner with us in firming up orders several months out and more than what they normally would. This was so that we could plan, accordingly, to have the product and staff in place to ship the product when they need it.
What that means to us is when a company will firm an order out a few more months than normal…this means that we can set up a machine and have that machine running more products. Rather than setting it up, letting it run for a short period of time, breaking it down, and setting it up for something else. That means we have higher productivity on each machine, and give us a little buffer in inventory, to be able to supply product when they need it.
FE: Right. So you were quite intuitive and forward-thinking, which was smart. Any other tips or final information you’d like to share with others at this time, Christie?
CJ: Well, I would say first and foremost if you haven’t already, putting together a contingency plan because, unfortunately, we’re looking at this potentially coming back again in the fall. As the virus starts to die out, we don’t know to the extent that it’s going to happen, but if it is a cyclical virus, then we’re all going to be in the same boat again. I just don’t know to what extent.
One of the challenges that we had in terms of our remote field was simply setting people up to work from home who had never intended to work from home before. Unfortunately, we had a lot of our team that has desktops instead of laptops, and those certainly weren’t equipped with VPNs because they were never going to be taking them home. So, we had to scramble and get those people set up with VPNs and then, those people that didn’t have laptops took their desktop home so they could work from there.
If people haven’t done that yet, I think that’s a really important thing so you could mobilize a remote workforce to thin out the number of people into your facility. I do think that whatever happens, the safety of your employees is paramount. Anything that’s done has to ensure the safety of employees. For those companies that do have people working remotely, particularly people that aren’t used to it, it’s important to keep everyone engaged and positive. And communicating more often with them and offering a heightened level of support to the team, on the same line as keeping people’s spirits up. These are rough times and it’s easy to sink into a little bit of a depression because we don’t know when it’s going to end.
One of the other things that we’ve been doing is circulating success or feel-good stories every couple of days. Whether it’s explaining to all of our employees how SPIROL products are used in life-saving medical equipment, sharing a new piece of business that we’re working with, or even some special awards that we have received through these times. It’s just important that our employees know that while the world may be turned upside down right now, there are some great things that are happening every day, too. We just have to keep reminding them of that.
FE: That’s wonderful. I like your positivity, especially in these challenging times. You made some great tips there, Christie. If listeners would like to learn more about SPIROL, where can they go?
CJ: You can go to our website, www.spirol.com. If you have any particular questions, you can email us at info @ spirol.com.
FE: I appreciate the conversation and your time, Christie. And thanks to everyone else for listening today. This is Michelle Froese with Fastener Engineering.