Events blur together through the spring - but a few stand out. Every year at the PowerPlex user event, Plex ensures the analyst contingent gets a first hand look at Plex in action.
This year was particularly special, as we had the chance to visit prosthetic limb manufacturer College Park Industries.
For all the talk about advances in personalized medicine, prosthetic limb manufacturing is where change is happening now.
Whether it's this five year old dancing in joy on his new prosthetic leg, or Blake Leeper breaking the 400m record for a double amputee - and running a lot faster than I could - this work really does change lives, no exaggeration needed.
Before we donned our shop floor goggles, we got the lowdown in the conference room. When someone loses a limb, they go over options with a prosthetist. That prosthetist orders from College Park Industries. As College Park IT Manager Matt Thorpe told us:
The prosthetist puts the product onto the patient and makes their life better, hopefully. That's what we're trying to do.
The prosthetic challenge - infinite customizations
And they've been doing it for a long time. College Park Industries is a privately-held company, incorporated in 1988. Prosthetic limb manufacturing has changed dramatically since then. It was fascinating to see older models on display, and see how modern prosthetics are so much more powerful (and, usually, lightweight).
College Park Industries has a deep view of Plex as well - they've been a Plex customer since 2006. Over the years, College Park has moved, added facilities, and acquired a joint venture from India (in 2016). We were on-site at College Park's current headquarters in Warren, Michigan.
College Park Industries CEO William Carver popped into the conference room and shared some prosthetic manufacturing challenges. One of the biggest obstacles? Each unit must be heavily customizable. He pointed to one model we were passing around:
That particular unit, you've got to have it for all the different foot sizes, right and left, and every different weight of person. So, in order to keep that customizable, there's probably about 1,200 parts on the shelf that are in different, various forms in thicknesses. It's right, left. It can come in 21 to 31 centimeters. It comes in different weight limits for people who weigh anywhere from 90 pounds up to 300 pounds.
With so much variation for each model, that puts pressure on College Park's inventory - and Plex - to get this right:
Plex has something special called an option configurator for us. Essentially, you can put in the weight of the patient, and it actually cross-references what we call a gait match chart and it says, "Okay, if you're 150 pounds, you get this firmness of composite and these two springs; a left, or a right," and then you have wide foot shell, sandal toe, not sandal toe, and so on.
Forecasting to achieve same day shipment
Then Martin Sternberg, Production Manager of College Park Industries, said something that got our attention:
The order size comes in one at a time. If it comes in before four o'clock, we ship it out the same day.
To make that happen, they have to nail the inventory problem. College Park relies on Plex for demand forecasting:
We use Plex to see what our sales history has been, so we can forecast how much to keep on hand. The Trustep foot itself has a couple hundred thousand different combinations it can be.... If we had to figure it out on paper every single time that someone placed an order, there would be no way we could support that.
College Park Industries in action
Time to hit the College Park shop floor (I can't show you everything on the floor, as some areas include trade secrets, such as customized product molds). You start by clocking in - but not with your grandpappy's punch cards. This biometric scanner is tied directly into Plex:
Part of the manufacturing process is a variation on injection molding, but with urethane foam. In some cases, the products come out looking like a filled-out human foot. Performance testing is rigorous:
For some products, final assembly can occur in less than 90 minutes. College Park works with around 660 different varieties of foot shells, spanning sizes and colors. Customer feedback matters. Reinforcement patches based on customer requests for durability are one example of how College Park has fine tuned the process. They have come a long way from the founder's garage, building a big metal foot on a CNC machine.
Sternberg says that Plex's traceability, document control and work instructions allow their Plex users to look back on prior iterations, all the way back to their origins. They can ask, "Why do we manufacture it this way?" or "Why did this design change?" That's invaluable when new managers come on board.
Then we got to a sign with the metrics that really matter, with data pulled from Plex beneath it:
Sternberg says that's more than just lip service:
Talk about punching above our weight, our quality and consistency is the main reason, from shipments being on time, to products functioning as they are supposed to, that really gives us a competitive edge.
Another differentiator is College Park's "Intelliweave" process. Sternberg says Intelliweave is at the heart of what makes College Park Industries different. It's their own proprietary process for how prosthetic springs are manufactured. Sternberg told us:
Because of the type of materials used, we can do things that none of our competitors can do. The process itself isn't so much the secret, as the detail of each individual spring. There is no way a competitor could exactly duplicate the function of these springs or the way that they could feel.
We asked Sternberg how Plex is used on the shop floor. He referred to Plex's work centers for production and said:
Traceability is absolutely required in every aspect, at every point of any kind of manufacturing that we do. We need to be able to trace any finished product all the way down to the bag of screws that we bought to put that thing together, all the way out to their records for that serial number.
Sternberg pointed to a rack of materials and said:
I can actually go back to the manufacturer's testing records of that roll of material to find out what the resin to fiberglass ratio was, if I needed to.
Every part in the College Park assembly gets tested with a deflection test: force versus distance. If a part doesn't get scanned through properly, Plex will not allow the process to go forward. "That's big," says Stern. "Quality is a huge, huge focus for us."
Once the springs are made, it's off to the College Park's version of the CNC machine.
The wrap - differentiating through R&D
Whenever I do a plant tour, there is always a monster machine or two that will cost you plenty if it goes down. This plant has a couple of them, though Sternberg says there is a decent backup plan, with nearby equivalents in their Mount Clemens facility. In the future, I expect to hear more from College Park (and Plex) about doing more with Plex on predictive maintenance. There are pieces of equipment College Park would like to integrate into Plex, so the work of "connected manufacturing" is ongoing.
We talked about compliance. College Park Industries was an early prosthetics manufacturer to achieve ISO 13485 compliance. Being audit-ready is a core aspect of their approach; international regulations add to the mix. "Plex really helped us with the MDSAP audit, which is brand new," says Carver. "If anyone was to audit us, it's all traceable," Sternberg told us.
Yes, College Park has looked at 3D printing - and also materials like Kevlar and carbon fiber. But these materials must pass the unique prosthetic tests, including durability, where 3D printing, so far, has fallen short (though they are looking at 3D for some metal parts).
The need for proven products does tend to slow down innovation in this industry - but not for College Park. They think their R&D is a differentiator. As CEO Carver told us:
The nice thing for College Park is: we have a commitment from the shareholders that they're investing all the profits back into product development.
We were a seven million dollar company. Over the last seven years, we've grown to about a 24 million dollar company, but we've also been investing two to three million dollars of profit a year in product development. I don't think the other companies in our market are doing that.
Carver pointed to a bunch of new products, from knees to a new elbow system:
We've developing new things all the time, and that's taking the market share from old pressed in products that have been in the market.
But College Park's motivation is ultimately fueled by customers. Testimonials from ambassadors like Reggie Showers, a dual amputee, motorcyle drag racing champion, and motivational speaker keep College Park Industries rolling:
I'll start my day with a long walk and running errands. After I put my legs on in the morning, I don't take them off until I go to bed in the evening. A lot of that is due to the comfortable fit of my sockets, but a lot has to do with the comfort of my feet as well. I've been told that I have a great gait. As a longtime amputee, I've worn many legs and it hasn't always been like that. I started wearing my Trusteps in 2001 and haven't looked back.
End note - thanks also to Matt Thorpe, IT Manager at College Park Industries, who was crucial to our briefing and tour.