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Sanford 'pens' an improved

Lauren R. Hartman

January 29, 2014

10 Min Read
Sanford 'pens' an improved

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It started out as a way to reduce the amount of heat-seal tooling required for packaging the hundreds of new stockkeeping units (skus) for writing instruments produced each year, but a recent and massive blister-pack tooling project conducted by Sanford, a Newell Rubbermaid company, has written itself into a most impressive lean-manufacturing implementation story.

The Oak Brook, IL-based company strives to dominate the writing instruments industry and has added companies such as Papermate (in 2000) to its already impressive roster of more than 3,000 products and brands. The recent streamlining project applied to carded blister-packs across all of its writing instrument brands (including markers and everyday writing instruments), with the exception of its Dry Erase products. Says Jon Bruser, director of marketing services at the leading manufacturer of writing instruments and producer of such well-known brands as PaperMate(R), Liquid Paper(R), Sharpie(R), uni-ball and EXPO dry erase products, "Most lean manufacturing is implemented from above. We empowered our people to find opportunities for improving our packaging processes and then gave them the freedom to come up with solutions. They managed to not only solve their own blister-pack heat-set tooling challenges, but also put into motion a series of packaging improvements that worked across strategic business units and our manufacturing facilities."

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Blister-cavity platforms on Sanford's carousel heat-sealers accept the thermoformed blisters from a magazine. Workers then load the pens and apply backing cards before sealing.

The lean-manufacturing project has a happy ending, which the company might consider the "write" way to finish up such a program, but it wasn't without its challenges. But they definitely made the outcome worthwhile. According to Bruser, there is an enormous complexity involved in getting carded blister-packs for pens, markers and Sanford's other writing instrument products designed and ready for market. When he first came to the company, he says he also realized the size of the company's blister-pack tooling inventory. "Two key tools of lean manufacturing are simplicity and inventory control. Marty Rakes, our commodity manager for packaging, pointed out that our packaging suppliers had suggested 'platforming' [or standardizing the packaging by developing more common blister heat-seal cavity platforms], eliminating several package sizes and streamlining the number of sizes as a way to reduce our overall tooling costs. Since that time, our packaging leaders have been steadily working to implement this process, which is not only eliminating the problems we saw, but is also revolutionizing how we do business [overall]."

Sanford knew it had to reorganize the packaging, both in terms of configurations and processes. Inventory was steadily climbing because there were so many packages for the numerous skus. With platforming, the company could standardize the size of the blister-card and the blister itself, and utilize them across the different pen brands and package counts. So in early 2005, the company established a team that went to work to find ways to implement just such a platforming process. With help from its preformed blister vendor and blister-packaging equipment provider, SCA Consumer Packaging, Inc. (www.scapackaging.alloyd.com), in 2006, Sanford accomplished its goal. It was able to jumpstart productivity, reduce the amount of changeovers necessary between sealing blister-pack sizes, slice labor and cut the time lost per changeover. Additionally, the project helped the company reduce speed to market for the pen products from six to eight weeks down to only two or three weeks.

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The new blister platforms work on SCA Consumer Packaging's Alloyd-branded heat-sealing machines, which automatically pull the thermoformed blisters from a magazine and load them into a multi-cavity nesting tray. Workers then load the pens into the blisters and the heat-seal machine automatically loadss the backing cards, seals the blister and card together and then ejects the finished package.

Identifying challenges in the first phase of the project, the packaging team found several issues to overcome. Every time a new pen sku was developed, the company basically had to start from scratch and develop a new package for it, including a blister-card with graphics, new blister tooling and a new set of heat-seal tooling, which took time and money. Says Jeremy McBroom, packaging leader for uni-ball and one of the driving forces behind the project, "To understand how our inventory of heat-seal tooling grew, you have to understand how we were structured. The skus were developed by different business units, often resulting in duplication of design and support services required. Adding to this was the challenge of keeping track of all of the different designs and tooling required for each sku. When a new design would be requested, there was limited visibility if a similar design was already created." Leadtimes for creating the backing-card portion of the packaging alone could often take a few weeks from concept to printed card. This created hundreds of tool sets that had to be changed over and be at the ready for every new production run. Changeovers added time and another expense to the packaging process. Each day, there were at least 10 changeovers, according to Sanford, with each changeover between package types requiring about 20 minutes of downtime.

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Preformed PVC blisters are placed in the magazine of one of Sanford's blister-pack-sealing machines.

As a result, the team says, the packaging process gradually became more and more complex. Products were divided between different skus—each having its own team—but there was limited communication between teams. So Sanford consulted with SCA Consumer Packaging, which then began to compile a database of Sanford's heat-seal tooling in an effort to help Sanford move toward standardizing the packages and blister-sealing platforms. Sanford uses its existing multistation rotary and carousel blister-sealing equipment from SCA to package the pens in preformed vinyl blisters that are thermoformed locally. But trying to go back through all of the tools in the inventory—even through a database—was a bit daunting. "We needed to develop some standard platforms that could meet the needs of most of the skus," states Scott Gabbert, packaging sales consultant for SCA Consumer Packaging. "That way, when a new sku is developed, all Sanford has to do is to match up the pen product with a standardized packaging platform. And with a database, we set out to try and identify the common features and sealing areas in the packaging that would help us arrive at the package sizes that would work well with that particular platform."

This second phase of the project included eliminating packaging waste through standardization. The team leaders representing the different skus began to hold weekly, and soon, twice-weekly meetings, also meeting with SCA Consumer Packaging, to identify how they could reduce the number of heat-set tooling sets they each needed. As McBroom recalls, "At one point, we just spread hundreds of products out over some tables, along with blisters and cards, trying to come up with a way to standardize all of the sizes."

While it didn't change the basic blister-pack structure and materials involved, the team was able to shave the amount of package sizes it offers from several hundred to less than a few dozen by using definitive platform configurations. Instead of building new forming tools for each and every pen developed, SCA and Sanford pared down the blister-pack sealing tools so that tasks for each changeover have been sliced by more than half, in some cases.

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An overhead shot of one of Sanford's massive pen-production facilities where the new standardizing/lean-manufacturing processes have been implemented.

Instead of all new tooling, the blister-sealing equipment today requires a plug-rack device that pulls the blisters out of the machine's magazine and automatically loads them into the sealing-cavity trays. The plug rack costs a whopping 80-percent less than a full set of new blister-sealing tooling and takes half of the time to change over, saving an amazing 75 percent in tooling storage space. Only the redesign and purchase of the new platform nesting trays, plug racks and forming tools were required. Duplicate sets of platform tooling were created for Sanford's primary manufacturing facilities in Tennessee and also for plant locations in Mexico.

The team managed to streamline the packaging by narrowing down the hundreds of configurations to 15 blister configurations, saving 80 percent in heat-set tooling for "platformed" skus, 50 percent in setup time to package the pens and heat-seal the blister-packs and 25 percent in warehouse space for many of the packaged items. The company says the exact amount of the labor savings varies by product/package.

"It was really incredible," recalls Gabbert. "Platforming is all about standardizing basic blister-card sizes and heat-seal areas. Rather than create a new card and blister for each product sku, we narrowed them down with about fifteen interchangeable blister-sealing cavity platform sizes. On that set of blister-sealing platforms, certain products were arranged differently to maximize space across the different package skus."

SCA Consumer Packaging says the platforms will accommodate future pen packs having certain product counts. For example, if Sanford wants to design a new pen in a longer length, it can be contained in a two-pack, a four-pack or a six-pack, using a particular blister configuration.

Standardizing the heat-seal tooling was only half of the battle, however. Sanford also pared down the blister backing cards to about 15 different sizes. For that, it engaged its creative department and asked Mark Radoha, director of creative services, and studio manager Gordy Bartolomei, to join the growing project team. "At first, we thought it would be a matter of identifying a set of standard card sizes, but after we got going, we realized the benefits of standardizing the structural design process for the card and the card graphics as well," Radoha says. "Before, we had different graphic treatments for each different sku. Today, each brand retains its own identity, but all share a common set of features that show they are all a part of the same brand." The cards are now offset-printed with universal graphics instead of the hundreds of different designs used earlier (Sanford says it obtains its backing cardstock from several sources).

A third phase of the project involved reducing packaging costs and labor and simplifying the packaging process. Being more efficient upfront also expedites the production process, while the packaging engineers can work on designing the sealing machines' platform areas to accommodate the shape of new writing instruments. "Common, standard backing-card sizes and graphics frees up our designers to be more creative," says Radoha.

The project also had an impact company-wide, for things like corrugated shipping cases, off-shelf displays, ink manufacturing, raw-material components and more. Shipping cases were restricted to set configurations, saving 15 percent, Bruser points out. "Add to that more time to create and we can better respond to customers' needs more quickly, with more flexibility and agility "We accomplished our lean-manufacturing goals. Our productivity has shot up tremendously. That means we have more time to improve the products our customers need."

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