By Eileen Smith Dallabrida
Founded In 1930, Arrow Safety Device Co. has a long, proud history in the transportation industry, beginning with the development of the very first practical turn signal.
“That taillight on the back of buses—that’s us,” says David Gerni, vice president of sales and operations.
Over the next two decades, Arrow expanded its product line and became one of the largest vehicle safety product manufacturers in the United States.
When the U.S. Department of Transportation was established in 1967, Arrow played a role in establishing Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) requirements that were adopted by the federal government.
By the early 1970s, Arrow had raised the bar on industry standards with such innovations as a patented all-aluminum housing snowplow light called The Sno-Laser.
New technologies in lighting propelled growth in the 1980s and 1990s. Arrow developed another snowplow light, still used by several plow manufacturers, as well as new LED lights. Arrow also launched the only manufacturer direct website capable of allowing the customer to order and purchase products online.
Arrow was sold in 2008 to a group of independent entrepreneurs. Facilities in Mount Holly, N.J., and Georgetown were merged and relocated in a new manufacturing and sales facilities in Selbyville.
In a down economy, Arrow reduced headcount to contain costs. To resume growing, the company needed to become ISO 9001:2008 certified, as required by a number of large, important customers, including U-Haul, Komatsu, Thomas Bus, Blue Bird, Navistar and Oshkosh. ISO 9000 is a family of standards and guidelines for quality in the manufacturing and service industries from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
Arrow also was looking for guidance on another major goal. The company, which had outsourced some of its production to China, wanted to bring jobs back to Delaware.
“If there is a problem with the products that are shipped over from China it can take weeks to correct it,” Gerni says. “By doing the work here, we can improve quality control.”
To lay the groundwork for training, Arrow obtained a grant from the Delaware Economic Development Office. The company then turned to the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership, part of a nationwide network of not-for-profit advisory centers. Accredited by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, DEMEP’s mission is to substantially improve the quality, productivity and profitability of manufacturers in the state by identifying, transferring and implementing best practices.
“At DEMEP, our entire focus is on teaching businesses to become more efficient at what they do so they can increase profits,” says Steve Quindlen, executive director. An important part of the ISO 9001 process was a gap analysis, in which Kit Eisel, a DEMEP consultant, trained the Arrow team on the ISO 9001:2008 standard requirements. She also performed an audit of the current system and practices in place at Arrow to identify where the deficiencies were and developed a plan for closing the gaps for compliance to the standard.
“It tells you where you are now—and where you need to go to get ISO 9001 certified,” says Kim Kilby, a DEMEP field agent.
A key step was documenting procedures that would become part of the company’s Quality Management System. With a workforce in which many employees have more than 20 years of service, Arrow had relied largely on its considerable base of institutional knowledge.
“A lot of the knowledge on how to do things was in people’s heads, instead of in writing,” Kilby says.
The implementation team was able to set and meet many stretch goals for procedure writing, training, setting business objectives and then auditing their complete system, Eisel notes.
“The company did a tremendous job of changing many old, timeworn processes into new, efficient processes that meet the requirements of ISO 9001 in a remarkably short period of time,” she says.
Now, procedures are clearly stated in electronic records. There is a sign stationed at each computer, with instructions on how to look up information. “Any time there is an update on procedures, it goes out to all the department heads, who are responsible for making sure everyone is aware and properly trained when necessary,” says Linda Fulkersin, assistant operations manager.
Arrow also cross-trained employees so that at least two people know how to perform each task, avoiding disruptions when key personnel are off. A new hire is a designated floater, trained in shipping, receiving, inventory and setting up dies.
The strategy paid almost immediate benefits when a key worker in shipping was unexpectedly absent after suffering an accident at home.
“Someone stepped in and took his place for the days he was out and we didn’t miss a beat,” Gerni says.
The entire workforce was trained in the principles of Lean Manufacturing, in which employees learn systematic approaches to eliminating waste.
“Lean opened everyone’s eyes to doing things in a new way,” Fulkersin says. “We had been doing things the same way for a long time just because that is the way they had always been done.”
After Arrow employees attended the DEMEP Principles of Lean Manufacturing workshop, the Arrow Team looked for opportunities in their processes to identify unnecessary steps and make the process faster and more efficient.
As a result, the workflow was reorganized from a large, cumbersome assembly line into smaller, more efficient cells.
“Parts are closer to the production line,” Fulkersin says. “Finished product is closer to shipping. Packing boxes are at the end of the line.”
The new configuration takes up 50 percent less floor space than the old assembly line, giving Arrow room to grow. Gerni estimates the new setup is about 25 percent more efficient.
As part of the ISO 9001 standard requirements, DEMEP also helped Arrow to establish a vendor rating system to rate its vendors. Which suppliers consistently provide the best customer service? Which vendors have issues with quality control and timely delivery?
“Vendor ratings gave us a much better idea of which vendors worked best for us,” Gerni says. “It also gave the vendors greater insight as to what we are looking for.”
After taking physical inventory and reviewing the sales history of products, Arrow decided to retire several products in incandescent lighting, which is rapidly losing market share to more efficient LED lights. To minimize waste, lights were disassembled to salvage parts that could be re-used. Other materials were recycled. As a result of ISO 9001 certification, Arrow has retained its business with important customers. The company has hired two new sales representatives and plans to create a marketing position.
Arrow also is going after new business, including opportunities in marine lighting and logging trucks.
“Now that we have our ISO 9001 certification, our marketplace is wide open,” Gerni says.
The company is partnering with local Delaware metal fabricator, Miller Metal Fabrication Inc., to roll out two new products, cage-like guards for clearance lights on trailers and brackets for taillights on buses.
Instead of maintaining the status quo, workers are actively engaged in volunteering ideas on how Arrow can become even more efficient.
“It isn’t unusual to walk by the production line and have somebody wave us over and say, ‘I think I see a way we can do this better,’” Gerni says.