People often ask if we make a particular product, and the answer is often no. But can we? To that, the answer is yes,” says Chad Miller, director of contract manufacturing of American National Mfg. Inc. and formerly co-owner of Plas-Tech Sealing Technologies, Corona, Calif. “We have everything we need to make new products. All we need to do is learn the product specs and regulations and we’ll figure it out. The question is: Can we make it efficiently enough for what the market will bear?”
The brain child of Miller’s father and uncle, the seeds of American National Mfg. (initially known as American National Water Mattress) were sown in the back of a van in the 1970s. It was the beginning of what would become the waterbed’s heyday, and the two brothers (identical twins) recognized the potential of RF welding, bought a couple of RF welding machines and began manufacturing waterbeds in their garage in Santa Ana, Calif. “They began selling the waterbeds at swap meets,” Miller says. “People would climb into their van to test out the beds. That was their showroom—a van at the Orange County swap meet.”
Soon, the brothers opened a retail store and manufacturing facility. Eventually, they abandoned retail and focused exclusively on designing and manufacturing waterbeds for the industry. But, while business was booming for the family, tragedy struck. In 1977, when Miller was six years old, his uncle was killed in a car accident. To help fill the void left at the business and meet the demand for products, Miller’s mother came on board. “At the peak of their production days in the mid to late 70s they were manufacturing about 25,000 waterbeds a month—about 25 percent of the market share,” Miller says. “But when the waterbed market started terming out in the late ’80s and early ’90s they realized they had to figure out a way to keep the company alive.”
All in the family
Miller’s father began consulting for RF welding in the medical field, while Miller’s mother and brother took over
the leadership of American National Mfg., which began manufacturing medical products, such as alternating pressure mattresses.
Little did he know, Miller’s life and career was about to make a dramatic shift. He was working as a recreational administrator at a YMCA in Orange County in 1997 when his father asked him to join him in a new business venture. His father wanted to buy the RF welding equipment from the company he was consulting for, and start his own medical mattress company—and he wanted Miller to join him. “I came on board with him in October of that year,” Miller says. “We were the first two employees of the new company, Plas-Tech Sealing Technologies. And as it turned out we sublet 6,000 square feet of space from American National’s building.”
Need to know
By 1999, Plas-Tech had expanded into multiple markets, including safety, industrial, health and wellness and medical, and with that expansion came the need to understand multiple industry requirements. The two companies manufactured similar products and—long story short—in 2010, Plas-Tech was acquired by American National Mfg. “I became the one in the company that had to learn all the regulatory and statutory compliances—what kinds of safety tests have to be done, what kinds of ASTM tests are needed, what specs are required—no matter what industry we did work for,” Miller says.
To learn what he needs to know about the regulations and requirements for any given product, Miller attends seminars at trade shows, becomes acquainted with regulatory bodies and extensively interviews potential clients to find out how, by whom and where the products will be used.
Miller starts understanding what regulations might apply to any given product by sitting down with prospective clients to fill out a comprehensive product input sheet. He asks not only what the client wants the product to be, but also who is the client’s customer, who the end user is and where and how the product will be used. “You have to ask a lot of questions such as: Who is the end user? Is it a senior citizen? A child or infant? Someone in an operating room? Someone on the ocean or in the space shuttle? All of these things inform the regulatory requirements,” he says. “So it’s not just important to know what your customer knows. It’s as important, if not more so, to know what they don’t know because they could be leading you to a path of liability.”
Even after asking the right questions, it’s far from easy to navigate the regulatory waters. “In California, we’re regulated by the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation on the consumer side. And on the medical side, the FDA,” Miller says. “But we also have a state version of the FDA, which is the California Department of Public Health. Sometimes you have competing regulations and/or changing regulations. You have to do a lot of research and meet with senators and regulators. A lot of what we have to do is educate ourselves so we can stay current with the ever-changing climate and regulations.”
Being a manufacturer in California has an inherent advantage and disadvantage, Miller says. “For the most part, if you can meet California design and manufacturing regulations, you can meet the regulations in other states,” he says. “But it’s expensive. So whatever the product, I look at which state it will be sold in so I can potentially design to that state’s regulations. For products sold to another state, we do a cost comparison to see how much more costly it is to design to California regulations. We ask ourselves: Does it make sense to have two separate SKUs with two different sets of test criteria or is it so minimal a cost difference that we can have one SKU? Because it’s always more efficient to have one SKU for a product as opposed to having multiple SKUs for multiple states.”
The potential of the one-off
The ability to manufacture highly regulated one-off products can be satisfying—and can bring a good price when the client can afford to pay it—but so much the better when the one-off product can be transitioned into an exclusive product line. That’s exactly what happened when a prominent real estate developer hired Miller to help him design and manufacture an inflatable mattress to fit between the club seats in his Cessna CJ3. “The client had no clue how to make one, but he had the idea,” Miller says. “So I drove up to the Chino Airport, drew a pattern and worked with R&D for a couple of months until we came up with a product for him.”
The client was so happy with the result that a friend of his wanted one—and eventually Cessna and Gulfstream encouraged JetBed™ to produce the products for the companies’ aircrafts. JetBed hired American National Mfg. to be its exclusive manufacturer, and the companies have celebrated a successful relationship for more than a decade. JetBed was the result of Miller and his team being willing and able to research FAA requirements, work with aircraft manufacturers and design and manufacture a product to meet their requirements. “I had to learn FAA regulations and requirements for the product, which we exceeded because the customer wanted the best,” Miller says.
It’s that kind of persistence, flexibility and creativity that have helped the family business flourish, despite the disappearance of the waterbed. “I work according to the saying that you may not be able to control the wind, but you can always adjust your sails,” Miller says.
From water to air
When the waterbed mattress market dried up, American National Mfg. took its expertise in making waterbeds and applied it to making products for the other markets, including alternating pressure mattresses for the medical market. The company applied the knowledge and expertise it gained in the medical market to the consumer market, and in 2015 launched the Instant Comfort™ Adjustable Air Sleep System. “We’re a medical device manufacturer but we’re also a consumer product manufacturer,” says Chad Miller. “Having a foot in both worlds allows us to cross pollinate medical technology into the consumer world—with the benefit of comfort and/or therapeutic value.”
The mattress’s control unit is equipped with a 50-liter per minute high output compressor, low voltage locking solenoids and quick locking connectors. It offers a “real time” pressure read out and dual memory settings. The new beds also have the ability to be controlled by a downloadable app—to control pressure and lift and lower the head of the bed. “You’re an expert at sleep. You’ve been doing it all your life,” Miller says. “There are other products out there that either give you better sleep or therapy. But remember therapy isn’t always comfortable. What’s unique about these mattresses is that they deliver both therapy and comfort—to help people fidget less and sleep more.”
- Who is your customer? (Someone who sells the product at a store, or on a website? The government?)
- Who is the end user? (A child or an infant? A senior citizen? A person with a disability?)
- Where will the product be used? (In an operating room? On a body of water? In space? On a rooftop?)
- How will the product be used? (In construction? For therapy? For health and wellness?)
- What are your materials and packaging requirements?
How do you keep costs down for your customers?
There are three points to our approach: 1. Get higher tech, computer-controlled equipment; 2. Adjust the way the factory floor is laid out to minimize movement because movement without adding value is waste. Make work cells if you’re producing enough of any given product to warrant it; and 3. Innovate. Engineer and design equipment to reduce steps and/or time needed. For instance, I’ve designed a machine that is computer controlled so now we have a dynamic machine that can vary its power during the RF welding process.
What kinds of benefits do you experience from being involved in community bodies such as the Chamber of Commerce?
There are a lot of benefits to being connected, but one example is that recently I learned from someone at the Chamber about a federal government tech transfer program through which, for a small royalty, manufacturers can take advantage of technology designed for the government and apply it to manufacturing. For instance, there’s military weapons-grade technology that can cut through steel. That technology has recently been made available to first-responder communities who can scale it back to replace the Jaws of Life. I’ve identified seven different technologies so far that would be applicable to the products I make.