Engineer gives manufacturers tools to succeed

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Bill Nicholson, field engineer for Montana State University College of Engineering, recently moved his Montana Manufacturing Extension Center office to Flathead Valley Community College.

No matter what an entrepreneur is manufacturing, the process can always benefit from what Bill Nicholson calls the “grandma’s cookie recipe” principle.

Nicholson, one of five field engineers working for the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, aids manufacturers in creating the most efficient operation possible. Coming up with standard work procedures is a big step toward that goal.

“Grandmas have this recipe that they use to make cookies with every time,” he said. “They know the ingredients, they know how many ingredients, how to set the oven and how long it will take. They’ll have a predictable, quality product at the end.”

Nicholson said this is exactly what he wants to help a businesses achieve.

“In manufacturing, you try to get consistency, a high-quality product with dependable lead time. You want to do it the same way every time. Some things are common to all manufacturing, no matter what you’re producing.”

Nicholson, who is employed by the Montana State University College of Engineering, said he’ll do consultation work with anyone.

“No matter what product you’re building, from cupcakes to cabinets, we want to make that operation as efficient as possible.”

Nicholson has a mechanical engineering technology degree from Montana State University. He worked in production capacities for Boeing in Seattle for 15 years and then moved on to Honeywell.

He has been helping boost the success of manufacturing companies in four counties of Northwest Montana since 2004.

Nicholson recently moved his office from the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce building to the campus of Flathead Valley Community College in the Arts & Technology Building.

He said the on-campus base is a natural fit, especially after the college secured a federal grant in September worth almost $3 million toward an advanced manufacturing program. Nicholson potentially could be an instructor in an advanced manufacturing degree program, and he is already slated to head up courses in lean administration and strategic planning for FVCC’s spring semester continuing education schedule.

The Small Business Development Center also is located on the FVCC campus and Nicholson said the two entities often work together.

Melanie Nelson of 5 Sparrows, a local coffee products manufacturer, was referred to Nicholson through the Small Business Development Center a few years ago.

Nelson said Nicholson’s consulting services have been invaluable to the success of her business so far. He helped 5 Sparrows develop a kanban inventory plan. Kanban is a system devised by Toyota in the 1950s to create production according to the demands of customers.  

The system “helps us use exactly the right amount of ingredients for what we’re producing now, without having too much sitting on the shelf,” Nelson said.

Nicholson also gave 5 Sparrows a plan to develop maximum production efficiency.

“He created this model that allows us to evaluate to the penny what all of our products cost to make and the percentage we use for resale of the products,” Nelson said. “I can go into the model and tweak everything if our prices change, so I know exactly what products cost to make and how much it costs to have employees create them.”

A growth calculator also is helping 5 Sparrows “grow smart,” as Nelson said. The company is working with importers in Dubai and South Korea, and interest is growing rapidly in its gourmet cocoa, chai and frappe mixes, especially in the sugar-free cocoa powders.

Eliminating potential problems with growth is a big part of his job, Nicholson said.  

“A big problem companies have is that they grow so fast they don’t have time to take the necessary steps to be efficient, because they have a big order to fill,” he said.  

Another avoidable common growth issue involves companies trying to squeeze the production facility into an already-built or preplanned space, rather than making production needs the priority.

“You have to design the internal components first,” he said. “I’ve had clients build and then outgrow their buildings in a year.”

 

Though the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center is state and federally funded, businesses do have to pay for Nicholson’s consultant services to cover costs, he said.

Though sometimes a business hesitates at the $95-an-hour fee, Nicholson offers a thorough personalized analysis demonstrating how his streamlining expertise makes the investment worthwhile.

“We’ll walk around the plant, talk about issues you might have,” he said. “I’ll typically ask if you can fix one thing that would have the biggest impact — safety, quality, morale of people. What keeps you up at night if you’re a business owner?”

After the initial consultation, Nicholson said he’ll come back again with a “menu” breaking everything down, then write a contract demonstrating the value of what a business should expect to receive.

About 12 to 16 months after a project is closed, the business will receive a questionnaire asking for an evaluation of how Nicholson helped the business achieve its goals.

“It’s how we maintain our federal funding,” Nicholson said. “I need to do a bang-up job, because I don’t want to risk you giving me a bad survey.”

For more information on the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, visit www.mtmanufacturingcenter.com, call Nicholson at 756-8329 or email bnicholson@coe.montana.edu

Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or by email at hgaiser@dailyinterlake.com

 

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