Pursuing Excellence

ISO certification for Auto-Jet Muffler manufacturing process means pass-along quality for customers, the company says. ISO certification for Auto-Jet Muffler manufacturing process means pass-along quality for customers, the company says.

When Kelle Vos joined Auto-Jet Muffler, North America’s largest producer of after-market exhaust systems for the school transportation industry, he brought a commitment to ISO certification with him.

“I hadn’t been through the process before, but I’d been through certification that was similar to it,” said Vos, who joined the Clive, Iowa, company as general manager in July 2014.

In his prior role at LeMar Industries, Vos had appreciated the value of the grain storage system maker’s decision to seek American Institute of Steel Construction certification. “That process is very broad and similar to ISO,” he explained. “ISO certification drives long-term improvements our customers expect of Auto-Jet. ISO is a way for us to tell our customers we’re going to supply them with a quality, cost-effective product and we have a commitment to maintain the processes in place to make that happen.”

The continuous push by school transportation industry suppliers and service providers to complete ISO certification, Six Sigma, Zero Waste to Landfill and other competency designations pay big dividends for the companies and their customers. But, the process isn’t easy.

Tony Blansit, Blue Bird Corporation’s director of quality and warranties, said it takes more than words to be a truly process-driven company.

“One of the most common buzz-word phrases organizations like to use and abuse is ‘we’re process driven.’ Some organizations are truly process driven and many more ‘believe’ they are,” Blansit said. “The value that ISO certification provides is a third-party auditor to validate they are process driven in their operations. ISO registered organizations are not only audited that they are being process driven, but also that their processes are ISO compliant.”

ISO certification is a world-class standard of specifications for products, services and systems to ensure quality, safety and efficiency. The International Organization of Standards has published more than 20,500 international standards since its founding in 1946. Because the organization’s acronym would have been different in various languages, ISO was derived from the Greek word isos, meaning equal.

Achieving certification is not easy. Blue Bird’s Blansit explained that ISO ensures customer requirements are met and that continual improvement is engrained into company processes and procedures. Auto-Jet agreed.

“ISO certification is not just something you sign up for and get,” said John Rapp, the company’s president and owner. “We spent eight months and made a lot of changes in the way we do business just to earn it. And, we’ll do a lot more to maintain our certification.”

Matt Scheuler is the vice president and GM of Collins Bus Corporation, which is based in South Hutchinson, Kansas. “A lot more that goes into certification than most people recognize,” he said.

“The 10th Means the 10th”

Collins Bus has been ISO certified since 2004 and completes a surveillance audit every three years to maintain that seal of approval. “Employees recognized it was more protocol and guidelines than they’d ever worked with, but one said it felt to him like a changing of the tides — going from a local company to a world-class company,” Scheuler said. “It was a little overwhelming at first, but once we decided how to implement and sustain the requirements, it became part of the culture.”

Rapp, meanwhile, said his 57-year-old company is learning a new standard of meeting customer expectations thanks to the ISO process. He cited the example of a customer who needed parts on a specific date to fulfill its just-in-time manufacturing approach.

“We were proud because we made sure the parts arrived on the ninth because they needed them on the 10th and we were marked down. They told us, ‘The 10th means the 10th. Not the ninth,’” Rapp recalled.

Blansit said many companies “have the false understanding that ISO certification is simply a strict adherence to your processes and procedures.”

“While it’s true that is a foundation principle of ISO 9001, the organization’s processes and procedures must conform to the ISO 9001 standard,” he added. “Adherence to these processes help to ensure that customer requirements are being met with every product shipped and every service provided.”

Cutting Waste Cuts Costs

Trans Tech President John Phraner implemented Smart Manufacturing and a total overhaul of the Warwick, New York, bus manufacturer’s production line when he assumed his responsibilities in 2012. Converting from a traditional assembly line to a circular one, he said, improved efficiency and reduced waste at every station.

“(Smart Manufacturing) boosted productivity and quality control, which benefits our workforce, the environment, and our customers,” Phraner said. “The circular production allows our manufacturing experts to work from a more centralized location, which brings great efficiencies and also allows our workforce to communicate more easily during the manufacturing process should there be any potential problems with the manufacturing process to ensure we are producing the highest quality product in the most efficient way.”

Collins, like several competitors, has earned Zero Waste to the Landfill (ZWTL) certification. ZWTL is easy on the environment and reduces costs; savings can be passed on to customers in a competitive marketplace.

Performance is recognized on three levels, beginning with Landfill Waste Diversion for companies that achieve diversion rates of 80 percent or greater. Virtually Zero to Landfill designation is for companies topping 98 percent. ZWTL certification is awarded to products, facilities and organizations that have achieved a 100-percent diversion rate.

Scheuler said Collins’ efforts began years ago, with the company receiving a Green Corporate Citizen Award from the State of Kansas in 2009.

“We started looking at what we were throwing away as our production started to increase and it became very concerning. We began to measure what we were pulling in roll-off boxes and asking, ‘What can we recycle?’” he said. “We moved to separate containers for wood, cardboard, plastic, steel. We worked with our suppliers to develop returnable cartons so we quit throwing them away. It’s just a matter of sustaining it now.”

Thomas Built Buses is another ZWTL company, having received its certification before any other school bus manufacturer back in 2011. The process began in the fall of 2007, when Thomas Built took on the challenge led by its parent company Daimler Trucks North America to achieve the zero waste-to-landfill goal. In 2006, the bus manufacturer was sending about 32 tons of waste to the landfill every day. 

The company began to integrate environmental management into its core business operations through internal communication of environmental issues to its employees and incorporating lean practices. Other environmental accomplishments include creative partnerships to bring solar technology to the community, a 24-percent decrease in energy usage and a 42-percent decrease in its water consumption.

At competitor IC Bus, Vice President and GM Trish Reed said performance certification has been an important component of the company’s core value of continuous improvement to become “better every day.”

That meant the introduction of Six Sigma in the 1990s and includes a strong focus on Lean Manufacturing today.

“Certifications can become the flavor of the month, but when you get it ingrained into your culture, you really turn a corner,” Reed said. “We ask, ‘Are we there yet?’ The answer is ‘Never.’ We’re always going to be doing something every day to take care of our customers and the children who ride our buses and looking for ways to do it better.”

Lean Manufacturing, developed from the high standards created by Toyota, came into the IC Bus picture about five years ago.

“When you put your employees first, your customers will be taken care of,” Reed said, noting the company has invested more than $10 million in tools and facilities upgrades at its Tulsa plant. “Nothing big and shiny, but things that support operations and safety.”

One challenge for manufacturers is that most customers want an order of buses built and delivered at the same time, which creates a strain. Lean processes simultaneously increase efficient communications and productivity, minimize waste and increase value to the customer.

Reed noted that the philosophy influences every step from the engineering, quality and reliability groups and manufacturing to dealer sales and servicing. She added, “Through the entire life cycle of the bus, there are continuous improvement opportunities. Lean is a journey. You’re never at a final destination. It’s always about improvement. It’s about making gradual improvements that people may not see at first, but over time they add up and they make a real difference.”

Scheuler noted that Collins implemented Six Sigma, but then merged it with the company’s own Lean system. Employees receive training and on-the-job evaluation to achieve different levels of certification — and are rewarded for their efforts.

“It helps expose our weaknesses and then uses Six Sigma to solve problems. Some of our employees call it our operating system, like Microsoft Windows is for PCs. Lean is part of everything we do,” he said. “What it did for us was outstanding. In 2003, we were building six buses a day in peak season. We can build 18 buses a day with the same workforce, so it has been exponential in getting us where we need to be.”

Vendor-Neutral Training

Certification isn’t limited to the manufacturing process. Seon, the world’s leading supplier of mobile surveillance equipment, according to IHS Group, has taken steps to see that engineers who install the company’s industrial-grade Wi-Fi video downloading networks become Certified Wireless Network Professionals (CWNP).

Founded in 1999, this organization offers certification exams focused on IEEE 802.11 wireless networking technologies, a set of media access control (MAC) and physical layer (PHY) specifications for implementing wireless local area network (WLAN) computer communication in the 900 MHz and 2.4, 3.6, 5, and 60 GHz frequency bands. IEEE 802.11 offers four levels of expertise across six separate career certifications.

“CWNP is the IT industry standard for vendor neutral enterprise Wi-Fi certification and training, said Martin Steenblok, Seon’s engineering services manager. “Vendor neutral means they are not tied into one brand’s methodologies. This gives our team the ability to adapt to whatever brand of IT equipment a school district may be using on their current network.”

Steenblok, who is a certified wireless network administrator, said earning the designation requires “rigorous self-study and a tough examination process” covering security protocols, wireless design, analysis and troubleshooting, network administration and implementation. Certifications range from technician up to expert level.

“Investing the time and effort in CWNP certification helps school bus operators trust in the team’s ability to architect and support a wireless downloading system. It’s a level of expertise that is certified by a third party and recognized by network professionals. This is particularly important with large school districts who have sophisticated networks,” Steenblok said. “Having certified wireless network professionals analyze and design your system so it works without incident is essential. One of the main advantages of certification is the depth of expertise Seon is able to bring to the table to address our customer’s needs.”

The School Bus Safety Company took a less-traveled but equally effective route to earn an industry recognized seal of approval. Its president, Jeff Cassell, helped create driver safety training programs for school districts that were the first-ever recommended product by the National Association for Pupil Transportation.

By developing programs that go beyond measuring knowledge and skill to assess ability, motivation and personal values, SBSC reduces the number and high cost of drivers who quit in the first few months. “It’s important to understand motivation and values. Not everyone is cut out to be a school bus driver,” Cassell said. 

He approached NAPT, which had not previously recommended products. This led to NAPT creating a process to offer its members special access to tried-and-true industry solutions.

Cassell said it’s difficult for districts or contractors to evaluate the value of a product or service without first buying it and then evaluating it, possibly wasting time and money if it does not produce the results expected or promised by the vendor. This underscores the need for a uniform seal of approval for industry products and suppliers and noted an effort is currently under way to develop such a clearinghouse. However, he noted that companies, such as SBSC, often benefit greatly from the most informal certification — customer testimonials and word of mouth. 

“We have over 75 written testimonials, and when anyone rings us and we haven’t been chasing them, it’s almost always word of mouth,” Cassell said. “People who are satisfied with our product tell people they know, and their endorsement carries a lot of weight.”