By Eileen Dallabrida
Masley Enterprises Inc. is on a mission, designing and manufacturing highly specialized gloves for the U.S. military.
Based in Wilmington, the company has annual sales of $2.9 million and is owned by Donna and Frank Masley, who launched the business in 2000, a time of peace for America.
In the beginning, Frank, who had developed military gloves for 11 years for W.L. Gore & Associates in Elkton, Md., served as a consultant to glove makers. Donna, a pediatric intensive care nurse, worked at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to provide a steady income and benefits for the couple and their three children.
The business evolved into manufacturing trial gloves for the military, as well as gloves for individuals and small military units.
“We felt that we would have a distinct advantage over other manufacturers who don’t have their own design capability,” Frank recalls.
In 2005, the company took the next step, winning its first big order, a $1.3 million contract to make 22,263 pairs of fuel-handling gloves for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Donna continued to work full time as a nurse, taking long shifts on weekends, and also assumed a more active role with the company as human resources director. Both Masleys worked without pay, channeling resources into operations.
To fulfill their personal commitment to providing jobs for low-income people in Wilmington, the couple recruited workers from low-income housing within walking distance of the 2,500-square-foot factory they leased in Germay Industrial Park. They also contacted local job programs to identify people looking for work.
“Our founding principle is respect for the end user and respect for the employees who make the product,” Donna says. With Frank’s innovative designs and a willing workforce of 20 employees in place, the Masleys felt poised for profitability.
They set up a batch manufacturing system, in which goods are produced in groups, rather than a continuous stream.
But the workflow wasn’t efficient and the number of worker hours required to make a profit eroded the already-slim profit margin associated with government contracts.
Plus, mistakes might not be discovered for a day or two, as gloves sat in boxes waiting for testing. In theory, that meant workers could continue to make the same errors multiple times until they were caught and corrected.
“We had boxes of wasted product at the end of the contract – just heartbreaking,” Donna says. But Frank, a 10-time U.S. champion in the sport of luge and a three-time Olympian, is accustomed to fierce competition. He knows that the key to winning, in business and in sports, is finding ways to reach the finish line faster.
In order to prepare for the company’s largest order so far, a $7 million contract for 100,000 gloves, the Masleys turned to the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership (DEMEP), which helps businesses put best practices in place to boost productivity and quality control.
This time, Masley was manufacturing a cold weather flyer’s glove with a GORE-TEX® insert. The glove – CWF in military speak – is waterproof, yet breathable, and the lining will not melt. It can stand up to wind and weather, yet maintain the dexterity required to accurately fire weapons. To date, it is the only comfortable, fireresistant combat glove that can be used both inside and outside a vehicle and withstand a soaking rain.
John Barone, DEMEP manufacturing specialist, encouraged the couple to rethink their processes.
“He said lean manufacturing is the way to go,” Frank recalls. Lisa Weis, a DEMEP field agent, evaluated the way workers had been assembling, testing and packing gloves.
She analyzed each step of the process, mapping the workflow and performing timing studies. She developed a lean manufacturing plan, a strategy that focuses on eliminating waste. That includes not only scrap, but all steps or processes that do not add value to the final product. For example, Weis rearranged and redesigned worktables to shorten the time workers spent moving between stations, shaving wasted minutes off the clock.
“Thanks to Lisa, there is much less walking to and from stations,” Frank says. “Those kinds of efficiencies help us to get the job done with fewer people.”
Frank had promised to fulfill the contract in 12 months or less, which would require beefing up the workforce to 40 employees, all of “Lean manufacturing has a magical feeling, a balanced workflow,” he says. “It’s a more comfortable environment for the worker.”
Instead of turning out gloves in batches, the lean process takes each pair from start to finish, from assembly to testing to packaging.
Assembly is broken down into 11 different tasks, with employees trained to handle each task on the line. Workers rotate positions every hour, rather than the previous system of twice a week.
Because sewing is such a specialized skill, there are designated workers for that task.
“But they all work on the same size glove, which is more efficient, where before they would work on different sizes,” Frank says.
Thanks to lean manufacturing, the worker hours needed to produce gloves has been reduced by 20 percent.
“The gloves don’t sit around in piles,” Frank says. “We know if a mistake occurred in the hour before – and precisely who was working on that task the hour before.”
Previously, one employee worked full time to repair gloves with minor mistakes. Lean manufacturing reduced the time devoted to repairs to two or three hours a day.
“We have better quality because we catch mistakes quicker,” Frank says.
The company has set a lofty goal for its defect rate, less than 1 percent for every 700 to 800 gloves that are made. As a further incentive, employees are offered a reward.
“If we make our goals, everyone gets a gift card to Walmart,” Donna says.
The efficiencies created through lean manufacturing also enable the Masleys to channel more money back into the business, installing air conditioning on the factory floor.
“This new way of doing things has transformed our business, greatly increasing our productivity – and greatly reducing our headaches,” Frank says. “It’s even more rewarding because it has helped us to make work a better and more comfortable place for our employees.”
The Masleys’ hard work, tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit was recently recognized by the Small Business Administration. They are the SBA’s Delaware Small Business Persons of the Year and were among the small business owners and champions at the Delaware Small Business Week awards dinner on June 8 at the Waterfall Banquet and Conference Center in Claymont.