Milbank: celebrating 90 years of electrical manufacturing leadership
Founded in 1927, Milbank has established itself as a leading manufacturer of metering, electrical enclosures and enclosed controls across the US. Now celebrating its 90th year, the third-generation, family-owned company must embrace the future of manufacturing, while maintaining the long history of significant growth and unquestionable success of earlier generations.
What is the secret to almost a century of success? An unrivalled commitment to quality, innovation, financial strength and community involvement.
“What I think has been truly instrumental for the company, particularly over the last 12 years, has been our move down the path of lean manufacturing,” says Brad Skinner, President of Milbank.
“In 2005, the company started to instil lean manufacturing within all our facilities, working to eliminate waste.”
This turn to lean manufacturing saw a significant shortening of lead times, improved inventory management and taking what Skinner describes as “unnecessary” steps out of the manufacturing process.
“Customers don’t want to pay for waste, they want the product as fast as possible. Lean manufacturing has been an incredible success over the past decade,” he says.
Before Skinner became president in 2016, he worked his way through the company for of 31 years - from factory floor to the top.
Skinner now sits in a key position to oversee the company’s transition into the future of the manufacturing industry and maintain the market-leading reputation the company has earned.
Through a series of strategic planning meetings in 2016, Skinner and senior executives, board members and family owners sat down to pull together a strategy for the company’s future. Milbank agreed to develop a Manufacturing Technology Master Plan.
“This master plan serves as a tool to help us explore and develop a three-year timeline so we can prioritize the implementation of capital equipment, tools and technology,” says Douglas Ubel, Vice President of Purchasing. “We are looking for new capabilities to enhance quality, reduce costs, add capacity and improve safety. It’s not just to bring in new technology, but for a specific purpose to help with cost structure, improve products and enhance our capability in the marketplace.”
Ubel joined the company in 2015 and has worked on a number of manufacturing projects including supply planning, capital investment processes and process improvements, and is now leading the strategic technology initiative.
The master plan will see a series of subteams work through the company’s existing manufacturing plants and identify the current processes and technology that are in use, while also noting the age of current equipment.
“We spent a number of meetings brainstorming and making an exhaustive list,” says Ubel. “From there, we identified where we had a known solution in place and where we didn’t. From those with a known solution, we could look at the benefits of what those solutions would bring.”
The subteams are investigating to find potential solutions and will report back to the full team. This will generate a scope of work to be evaluated and prioritized. Milbank has targeted a completion date for this investigative work, and plans to begin implementation in early 2018. The company is committed to this effort, with automated technology being introduced to the fabrication element of the manufacturing process.
“It’s a significant change, but already we are thinking about the next step in that process. You only know what you know. This technology scouting is helping us find new developments and possibilities we didn’t know were out there,” says Ubel.
With technology and innovation transforming on a daily basis, Ubel is all too aware of the need to stay abreast of the pace of change.
“Technology scouting is not just a onetime occurrence; it’s an ongoing activity because developments are happening faster than ever before. We must keep up on those new possibilities.”
This need to stay ahead of the game is a feeling shared by Skinner, who looks at it from a different perspective – the employee.
“In order to retain high-preforming employees, we have to offer innovative technology. Adapting to, and ultimately leading the technology shift, will allow us to develop our employees while simultaneously updating our product offerings.
Implementing new technology is not an overnight process. As much as Milbank is improving and updating its processes, it still operates with existing technology and employees who are used to it.
“When you look at the factory floor, some employees have worked at Milbank for more than 30 years. How do you take that employee, who’s used to working in a particular way and implement a piece of machinery or technology they aren’t used to?” Skinner says. “That has been a hurdle we are overcoming. We’ve had a number of business partners come in and effectively train our employees on new systems, machinery and software. We’ve also sent employees out to other manufacturers to get additional training, which has proved incredibly successful.”
As president, Skinner oversees every facet of the company, including the transformational initiatives. In addition to the Technology Master Plan, Skinner and the executive team have implemented a new form of employee engagement.
“The initiative team can go wherever they want inside and outside of the company, to figure out what machinery or technology can help us grow,” he says. “We also wanted input from our employees. They’re the ones out on the floor everyday building our products. To gain insight on what we are doing right or how we can improve, we began visiting all our locations to conduct roundtable meetings where employees can voice their thoughts.”
Employees are encouraged to share ideas on the company’s successes, shortfalls and areas for improvement that are personally relevant to their individual work. Skinner, speaking from his own experience, is a firm believer that the employees have the key vantage point to help the business to grow.
“I want to hear from people on the floor. For us to take their messages and turn them into actual initiatives has really paid off – they feel valued, and they have a say.”
As the company moves into the future, just shy of 100 years of operation, both Skinner and Ubel will play a huge role in the direction of Milbank through not only the Technology Master Plan, but future initiatives that arise from both internal analysis and external market developments.
For Skinner, the company must continue to ask the question that matters – how is the product going to change?
“How are we going to adapt rapidly-changing technology? We have to work to be on the front side of that change to continue as an industry leader.”
But above all, Milbank looks forward, building upon its market-leading legacy and reputation. Skinner attributes the success of the company to the solid foundation established by the previous generations of ownership.
“We are very lucky to have had a founder, second and third generation family who invested so heavily in the quality and safety of our product. Their leadership is what worked to guide us and set us up for the future,” Skinner says. “We pride ourselves on being agile and proactive to respond to customer needs and industry demands.”