By Jon Minnick, Associate Editor
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GSI Technologies, LLC is an intelligent printing partner for industrial graphic products and printed electronics. While one side of the business focuses on pressure sensitive labels, aluminum nameplates and polycarbonate panels for all sorts of manufacturing industries, the other side makes the company a leading provider of medical diagnostic electrodes and EL lamps. So how did this Burr Ridge, Illinois company make a name for itself? It took printing from an art form and turned it into a science.
Founded in 1985 as Graphic Solutions, Inc., GSI is split into two divisions: Functional Printing and Industrial Graphics. The Functional Printing division is a leader in the emerging space of printed electronics. The Industrial Graphics division uses a variety of printing processes, such as flexography, digital, web and sheet screen printing and fotofinish (photo-etching). The company’s label and polycarbonate overlay constructions are recognized by both UL, cUL and CSA standards.
With customers across all sorts of industries, GSI is rooted in the B2B world. Everything from food and beverage, medical, automotive, electronics and capital equipment manufacturers come to GSI for help. Dave Austin, president and COO of GSI Technologies says, “We’re a partner choice due to our technical competency and our integrity. Our engineering team has about 150 years of collective experience which encompasses material science, chemical and mechanical fields. We’re definitely a technical printer compared to our competition.
“It's the technology in the engineering prowess that allows us to take printing and replace all other typical manufacturing processes with our form factors and materials that we utilize to create an electrical circuit. It's the technology in the platform that that we build. Typical printers don't have the type of quality systems, statistical control systems, or the ERP systems in-house that we do.”
For GSI Technologies to be where it is at today, it had to make serious changes in software and processes in order to transform itself into something even better.
GSI has always focused on customer service and satisfaction. Part of the company’s process to ensure product quality and meet compliance standards has relied on a bare-bones, homegrown statistical process control (SPC) program. Created with a Microsoft Access database, the SPC program was lacking robust data collection and analysis capabilities — things GSI knew it would need to meet customers’ specifications, support its fact-based decision model and fuel continuous improvements.
GSI’s Functional Printing division grew rapidly, putting greater emphasis on a need for a new system. This division was producing active products and components such as medical electrodes, sensors, antennas and circuits. The company not only had to verify that a component was fully functional after it had been printed and dried, but also demonstrate to its customers that its processes complied with the customers’ specifications.
“If you look at the printing industry in general it's definitely an art,” says Gordon Smith, CTO for GSI. “Most printers approach the printing process from the standpoint that the operators need to tweak the process how they see fit to get the print job to look and feel the way that they think it should to meet the customer's needs. We've taken a completely different approach.
“We believe that it is definitely an engineering process,” explains Smith. “There's a lot of science involved, so we evolved into a technical leading printer. To enable that, we had to have the tools and resources available to serve our customers and be able to handle the fast number of different types of problems that are going to come up as we try to scale their products on our equipment. That gives us a huge advantage.”
GSI’s systems were causing the company pain. They couldn’t aggregate data very well, it was virtually impossible for the various systems to talk to each other and they weren’t able to deliver manufacturing intelligence to its customers. It was clear that it was time for change.
It was a medical device manufacturer that got the ball rolling for GSI’s search for a new system. With FDA regulations heavily weighing in on the manufacturing process of medical devices, GSI’s customer needed production data.
“They had requested that we would upgrade our software to something that was FDA or 21 CFR level compliant,” explains Kathy Andersen, director of quality assurance at GSI. “That was our first step to search for an upgrade.
“Additionally, since we do a lot of development of products with our customers, what we call a ‘Lab to Fab’ perspective, a lot of our customers had no experience in scaling up their product. They were making things on a small perspective and we were the first step to get them to scale up. So we needed the software that was flexible for any customer who walked in, that we could do a customized configuration for them and we could collect any of the data that they needed.”
GSI decided on a few requirements when selecting a new SPC platform. First, the platform had to be flexible enough to grow with the company, driving continuous improvements. Second, it had to be SQL-based so it could communicate with other systems. The company needed the ability to both configure data for all the unique parts it produced and represent the data in various control charts customized to meet the end-user’s needs. Lastly, the new system had to assist in adherence to industry regulations, such as ISO compliance and FDA requirements.
After all of its searching, GSI decided on the ProFicient manufacturing intelligence platform from InfinityQS International, Inc. — a company with a focus on real-time manufacturing intelligence and enterprise quality. InfinityQS ProFicient has a centralized SPC analysis engine and delivers real-time supply chain visibility at all levels of an organization. The new system GSI chose would enable the company to proactively monitor, analyze and report on manufacturing intelligence in real time to improve quality, decrease costs and make more strategic business decisions.
“Some of our equipment can do 100 percent electrical testing and that data is fed to the operators in real-time,” says Gordon Smith, CTO of GSI. “Operators they have heads up displays where they see charts, monitor the process and make adjustment has as they see fit. We believe this is a huge advantage in the manufacturing process, as well as a great selling point to bring in new customers.”
Now that the company had chosen a new system, GSI has to get everyone up to speed working within the new system. “One of the things we had to do was upgrade some employees’ general SPC knowledge,” adds Andersen. “We had a training course on it and the operators took to the software very well. Initially some of the data was a little complex, but operators were able to sit down with our quality engineers to identify how they need the data to display for them. Operators knowing they can have customized views — seeing what they need to, the way they need to and telling them what they need to know — helps them to control their process.”
After implementing InfinityQS ProFicient, GSI discovered the missing piece of its total quality management puzzle. The benefits from this approach, with InfinityQS ProFicient at the center, have been realized throughout the company.
“I think our approach has really been to take an industry that is typically focused very much on being an art form and turning it into more of a science,” adds Craig Mech, vice president of manufacturing for GSI. “It makes us stand out. Compared to most printers, we’re ahead of the curve.”
Operators and quality engineers out on the plant floor have real-time visibility of their processes. This allows them to take a proactive approach when tests indicate a process shift toward out-of-spec. Automating the data collection allows GSI to assimilate that information into charts and graphs that can support discussions with customers and suppliers when developing new products. The data also gives the company the advantage of proving regulatory compliance and meeting audit requirements.
“With all of our investments into new systems and software we’ve been able to reduce our complaint rate from 2 1/2 percent in 2009 to less than a quarter percent now,” explains Andersen. “That means more rejected product is not going out the door. We’re able to bring things under control before it gets shipped. That's a big thing.”
GSI’s total quality management serves as a competitive advantage allows the company to enhance its brand image, uphold its reputation as a quality-minded printer and bring in more business. Customers have confidence that they are receiving a more unified product that meets compliance standards.
“When we have a potential new customer in our facility and take them on a tour, we highlight our SPC software system,” says Andersen. “Our customers are able to see that we automatically collect the data, taking a lot of the human element out of it.”
GSI believes that the knowledge of their current products, as well as the quality requirements that they are able to handle will help the company continue to grow. They feel strongly that they’re going to continue to flourish as one of the few successful printers of electronic components devices. It’s the physical process, controls and data that will continue to differentiate them.