Major Machinery Modifications
By Marie Redding
LHB Industries, also known as Lighthouse for the Blind, is a non-profit organization that provides employment, education, and support services for the legally blind—and the company is just beginning to find its place in the medical packaging industry. Headquartered in St. Louis, LHB offers turnkey medical packaging services, including auto pouching, tray sealing, vacuum sealing, and a variety of kit assemblies.
Automation Brings Efficiency
Since purchasing Multivac’s R145 Form-Fill-Seal machine 3 years ago, LHB’s staff is able to package bandages, gloves, medical products, and other medical-related items at much faster rates—and they do so with a direct labor force that is ninety-four percent legally blind.
After packaging first aid kits for more than 20 years, LHB became involved in more specialized medical packaging jobs after being approached by a customer who was inspired by their mission and impressed by their services.
“Purchasing this machine was a huge investment, but we have been able to grow within our existing customer base,” says Brian Houser, director of sales and marketing, LHB Industries.
The machine is computer controlled, rather than operator controlled, which helps to greatly increase productivity, according to Houser.
Carlo Basile, director of new business development, added, “We’re producing much more efficiently now, which improves our costs and quality. When filling pouches, for example, 150 to 500 parts per hour was the norm. Now we’re able to do 1450 on this machine.”
Recent packaging jobs completed on this machine have included high-end bandages that are silver impregnated to speed healing (which are used by EMTs for burn victims) and specialized bandages used by the U.S. military for blister wounds.
Custom Safety Modifications
The company’s legally blind workers are able to run and perform changeovers on the Multivac R145 without the help of a sighted person.
“There are no sighted people in the entire packaging department, from the manager on down. They have partial vision, but are all considered legally blind,” says Houser.
Safety is a huge issue for any type of work environment for the visually impaired—and especially when the workers will be operating packaging machinery. All the machine’s moving parts had to be covered.
“There are no safety issues, due to the way this machine is built,” explains Basile.
“The operators feel very comfortable because they don’t have to put their hands anywhere near a pinch point or safety hazard, and there are no moving parts exposed,” he explains.
Many custom modifications were made to fit the needs and specific challenges that blind workers face. Since using a wrench to perform tooling changeovers would be a challenge, Basile had hand knobs installed. Properly aligning components during changeovers would be another potential issue for workers. They couldn’t see small marks on the machine that showed where tooling should be placed, so Basile made these areas touch-sensitive. Raised lines were created with pinstriping tape to help workers adjust components. “They can easily feel where these marks are, so they know when parts are correctly aligned,” explains Basile.
Zoom Text software is used to enlarge fonts enough so that most legally blind people can read a computer screen. The Multivac’s computer controller is connected to an LHB computer that has this software installed, so workers can view numbers on the machine’s control panel and other relevant information.
High-intensity lights were installed over the loading area, where workers might be required to place items in a pouch. “The extra lighting helps improve the contrast of parts to machine for some of the workers,” Basile says. Also, a special cart was added to the exit conveyor to catch parts for inspection and weigh counting.
As a final modification, lean manufacturing principles were applied to the area. “The Multivac tooling is located in one place and kitted up in specific storage areas, so there’s no need to search to find accessories and tooling for specific sizes and configurations,” says Basile.
When all these changes were first considered, the staff at LHB knew the Multivac machine was the right machine to purchase.
“We knew it would be blind-friendly based on demos. It was easy to adapt it to fit our needs, and it’s very easy to maintain,” says Basile. “Multivac has been a great partner in helping us get into this business."
A Detailed Training Process
The training process for blind workers is extensive and requires thorough explanations and demonstrations.
“Teaching a new skill can be challenging, so we are careful to go slowly, step-by-step. It’s important to keep everything logical,” says Basile. He has written protocols that are used for training that contain lots of photos, which employees can view with their Zoom Text software.
Although difficult at times, training usually goes well, according to Basile.
“Our blind employees have terrific memories. They are very focused on learning and put a lot of effort into it. Their jobs here are their career, and they are extremely professional,” Basile says.
After products are run on the Multivac, they are fully examined by a sighted person. A full-scale quality assurance department puts every product that is packaged through a thorough validation process.
“We go to great lengths to ensure quality control procedures are in place—we operate and maintain a Quality Management System in accordance with ISO 9000:2008 standards,” says Basile.
“Our quality control department holds us to the same high standards as every other business in the medical packaging field,” Houser adds.
Acquiring new customers has been tough. Not everyone is willing to trust blind workers with packaging, especially when it’s medical products. But LHB’s customers are always impressed, according to Houser.
“Our customers love our mission, and they’re amazed at our capabilities. They can’t believe what we are able to accomplish until they see it for themselves,” says Houser. “We’re very proud that we’re able to do this type of packaging with so much success.”