Marcel Branis takes a collective approach to developing products and improving processes.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“I love developing a new product or improving a product we already have,” says Marcel Branis, vice president, manufacturing for DHS Systems in Orangeburg, N.Y. “What will happen if we challenge ourselves to do better and to have different points of view?” Creating an environment that fosters a no-limits, problem solving, collective approach to business is foundational to Branis’ management style and has resulted in some significant advances in products and processes for the company.
In search of fabric
Branis began his career at DHS, a company that manufactures soft-walled shelter systems, when he emigrated from Romania to the United States in 1991. His first responsibility for DHS was to work as a sewing machine mechanic; by 1994 he had earned the position of production supervisor. “In ’94—that’s when we had to design a wider shelter frame and improve the interior and exterior covers for the DRASH shelters [Deployable Rapid Assembly SHelter],” Branis says. “My part in that process was to try to find the proper fabric.”
Finding the proper fabric wasn’t easy. Vinyl-coated nylon was ruled out because it would shrink too much and wouldn’t lay properly on the frame structure. “I knew that nylon wasn’t the solution and that we would need polyester,” Branis says. “But at that time polyester was difficult to get in a lightweight fabric that would meet all the military specifications.” He relentlessly talked to various coaters and fabric manufacturers at the annual IFAI Expo until he found a supplier who would make the lightweight polyester fabric in the amounts he needed.
The company completed the design of the XB series quick-erect/strike shelter system and has continued to update and improve the product. (Currently, there are more than 17,000 shelters in service with all branches of the U.S. military and NATO, as well as the armed forces of several other countries.) But Branis also wanted to improve the process. “You can’t only keep up with [improving] the product,” he says. “You also have to deal with efficiencies.”
Branis began collecting information on RF welding, looking at how replacing sewing with welding would impact production times and product durability. Though he was convinced that the switch would be an improvement to both, making the transition would be costly and difficult to implement. “Because it’s not enough to just buy the machines,” he says. “You have to change your entire production process.”
The opportunity to begin the transition came in 2008 when DHS moved production of its Utility Shelter Transporter (UST) trailers to a facility in Huntsville, Ala., opening up the other half of the Orangeburg facility for expansion. Branis began by assembling a team of production personnel to identify the needed equipment and formulate a plan for the transition. “Basically, we started by taking [a drawing of] the existing building as it would be empty and started laying out the new production process and flow based on the new equipment and outside-the-box ideas,” he says. “The challenge with the process was that we were in the full swing of production. Our main concern was to make sure not to miss any on-time deliveries for our customers.”
To keep production moving ahead, the construction and moving of equipment took place on nights and weekends. “It was quite something to see people come to work every Monday morning and see them be redirected to their new location in the work center,” Branis says.
In the year that it took to complete the transition, Branis and his production staff were successful in meeting all their deliveries on time, a feat that relied on open lines of communication and troubleshooting. “At the beginning of the process [the transition team] would meet once a day,” Branis says. “We would lock ourselves in a room and brainstorm ideas and solutions. Then sometimes we would meet twice a day, and when we were in full swing of construction we would meet quite often to overcome unforeseen situations.”
In addition to the importance of communication between members of the transition team, keeping all the employees aware of and involved in the process was key to a smooth transition. “We always talked openly [about the transition] to everyone in the company regardless of the position,” Branis says. “We addressed concerns as soon as we found out about them and pre-empted [those that we anticipated] by having general meetings [with the entire production staff] on a weekly basis.”
Of concern for some of the sewing staff was learning to RF weld. Early on in the process Branis installed one of the simplest RF machines and began to train the sewers on it while the majority of production was still reliant on sewing. “We would locate three sewers at a time on the machines throughout the year to give them a chance to get comfortable with the new equipment,” he says. “Now we’re able to produce more with the same amount of people—we’ve almost doubled our output.”
At times, when the group seems to be unable to find a solution, Branis encourages them to change the focus for the time being. “We don’t leave the room but we discuss something else—something totally different than the problem that brought us into the room to begin with,” he says. “That often opens up the mind to the solution.”
A case in point was when the group was addressing the set up and take down challenge with the “J Shelter,” the company’s largest structure—about 1,100 square feet. The problem was how to deploy it in the field without the use of lifting equipment or mechanical tools. “We were fighting with the problem for quite a while at one of these meetings, so we switched gears,” Branis says. “We started talking about a car accident that had just occurred in the area, which reminded someone of an accident in which a car plunged into a river. He was telling us how they got the car out of the river by using an air bladder. They put the bladder into the car and blew air into it and the car popped up on top of the water.” That divergent conversation ultimately led to the idea for the J Shelter—a bladder system that uses air volume rather than air pressure to erect the structure.
“So often the solution comes when you leave it alone and think of something else,” Branis says.