As the economy rebounds, small Massachusetts manufacturers are discovering new growth opportunities that come with rigorous demands.
For AIM member Universal Plastics, a family-run job shop with a 45-year history in Holyoke, the opportunity for growth came from a new aerospace customer. But when the customer notified Universal that it would require ISO certification from all its suppliers, the issue grabbed the attention of company president Joe Peters.
“Universal Plastics was one of the original pioneers in the 1960s that developed commercial applications for thermoforming. We’ve always been one of the technology leaders in our industry. To succeed for more than 45 years in business meant that we were good. But our new customers were telling us that we needed to prove our capabilities by becoming ISO-certified,” said Peters.
Peters noted that his customer’s supply chain requirement coincided with the firm’s strategic growth plans.
“We hoped to do work for Volvo and Raytheon in the future, and neither of those companies will even look at you without certification,” said Peters. “That convinced me that ISO certification had to be part of our plan.”
The ISO certification process can be daunting. Like many small job-shop owners, Peters was concerned about the challenges and cost of the certification process.
To help his 55-person firm navigate the process of certification, Peters joined the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP) ISO 9001Collaborative in March 2011. Conceived as a way to make certification more accessible to small and medium-sized manufacturers, the ISO Collaborative brings a handful of companies – usually four to eight – together to pursue ISO certification at the same time through a set of monthly workshops, online resources and individualized instruction.
The Collaborative ISO program is delivered by MassMEP and its partner Exolytic and is sponsored by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts.
“The opportunity to participate in the ISO Collaborative came at just the right time for Universal,” stated Peters. “When companies are struggling, staff members wear more than one hat; and it’s harder to make process changes because people can’t give enough time. On the other hand, when times are good, people are just too busy. The collaborative, running a day a month for seven months, required a smaller commitment of time than if we had pursued ISO certification on our own. In addition, being part of the group and having that peer pressure to do your work and contribute kept participants motivated.”
Companies come to the Collaborative with varying levels of familiarity with ISO certification. Some join because they’ve encountered obstacles pursuing certification on their own. Others have no experience and are starting from scratch.
Universal Plastics succeeded in passing its ISO audits on its first attempt and received its ISO 9001:2008 certification three weeks later. The company’s president points to some of the advantages of being ISO certified.
“The Sales Department is making appointments with companies who would not even look at us before we had our certification. We now are also looking to expand our business outside New England. This has been a great and worthwhile adventure,” said Peters.
Peters also noted the internal changes that have accompanied ISO certification.
“ISO certification has been a big source of pride for our employees. It is surprising to see the way opinions have changed.
“Those who were naysayers in the beginning ended up rooting for us. They were pushing the work to make sure we got it all done. Productivity has improved as people have gotten on board. I’m convinced that it will certainly pay out dividends in many ways over time,” he said.