Supplying the Troops
National Industries for the Blind associated agencies’ kitting, warehousing, and distribution services for the US military are more than well-oiled machines—they’re intricately choreographed global operations.
National Industries for the Blind (NIB) associated agencies are always on the lookout for ways to expand business offerings that help carry out their mission of creating jobs for people who are blind. To grow opportunities for steady employment, some are now providing kitting services to the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) for the US Armed Services. Kits of all shapes and sizes are needed for troops on the move, from basic first-aid kits to portable surgeries and more. It’s an exciting area to move into that requires the precise movement of people and goods.
The Choreography of Kitting
When leaders at LCI in Durham, North Carolina, decided in 2014 to try their hand at kitting for the US military, they knew they could make a valuable contribution, says DuWayne Gilbertson, Vice President of Business Development.
“We knew that DLA’s kitting structure wasn’t satisfying the military’s needs,” explains Gilbertson, who says the agency also believed it could cut the time needed to develop and launch a new kit. The key, LCI Business Development Manager Robert Renquist said, was working closely with customers and vendors in a collaborative role.
Today, LCI provides custom kits with as few as 25 items and as many as 2,500 items. The King Kong of kits produced by LCI is the US Navy Expeditionary Medical Facility Roll 2 Light Maneuver Equipment Set (R2LM), which is a mobile operating room used to support Special Operations Forces around the world. “The Navy had been using a kit adapted from a mobile operating room kit originally developed for the US Air Force,” explains Gilbertson. “But a mobile operating room designed for land and air operations wasn’t going to work on Navy ships.”
LCI worked closely with the Navy, holding countless meetings with all stakeholders who would touch the kits to design one with their specific needs in mind. Waterproof cases were a “must,” as were cases designed to fit through tight shipboard doorways and submarine spaces. Equally important was a snug fit for the tools and supplies inside the cases to keep them in place even when ships encounter rough weather at sea.
Gilbertson says once LCI understood stakeholders’ needs, it developed the custom product in less than six months.
The kit contains 472 unique line items and 2,500 different pieces, with each piece fitted into a custom configuration within the cases to meet the functional requirements of expeditionary surgery. Assembling a kit takes 5-6 hours because the pieces must be placed precisely—in some cases, the ability to quickly grab the right instrument could be a matter of life or death. The full kit comes in 23 different cases that ship on eight pallets.
LCI also makes smaller trauma kits for Special Operations forces in Africa, and three distinct medical kits for the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet, each with different components but using the same portable, water-resistant medical pack. The agency also provides the US Air Force with a custom surgical kit consisting of six unique surgical packs that give medical personnel everything needed to care for a patient.
Regardless of size or number of pieces, each kit is unique and requires careful planning. “Medical personnel need to not only know what’s in each kit, but where they can find it at a moment’s notice,” explains Renquist.
The 23 employees who work in the kitting division at two LCI locations—Durham and Fayetteville, North Carolina—enjoy the challenge the work entails because each kit is so unique. But it’s more than that, Renquist says. “They know they’re supporting our troops and that the kits are saving lives.”
More Than a Typical Tool Kit
In 2015, when C.J. Lange assumed the role of President and CEO of Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired (IBVI) in West Allis, Wisconsin, the agency was already contemplating making some strategic changes.
“Until that point, we had focused more on one-time transactional, customer-focused functions like running base supply centers (BSCs),” says Lange. Developing kitting capabilities would allow IBVI to take on contracted work and build long-term relationships with customers to create more jobs for people who are blind. The agency still operates BSCs, but the expansion into kitting puts it in a better position to retain employees during economic downturns.
“We knew kitting would move us in a new direction while helping us fulfill our mission of offering meaningful employment to people who are blind or visually impaired,” explains Lange.
IBVI launched its kitting program in 2014, starting with the design and assembly of a small machinist toolset for the US Army. Today, the agency makes first responder and investigation kits for the military, and kits for evidence collection and detained processing used by military police, special operations, military intelligence, and criminal investigation units.
The agency’s largest kit is the massive Vertical Skills Engineer Construction Kit (VSECK), which Army engineers use to build structures in the field. The VSECK kit is comprised of 1,000 different pieces, including enough scaffolding to reach the second story of a building and seven tool chests with custom-cut trays to keep tools securely in place during transport. Since 2018, 22 IBVI employees have made 1,300 VSECK kits.
Easton Kons, one of the employees who are blind that works on the kits, builds the cases that go into the crates. “I’ve been doing that for about three years now, and I’m proud of my work,” says Kons. “I know what we are doing is important, so I always try to exceed expectations.”
When Matt Baumeister joined the team as a tool kitter, he imagined a completely different type of work. “I thought it would be like putting together an automotive tool kit, like the ones you used to see in the Sears catalog,” recalls Baumeister. “I’d be picking up some tools and tossing them in the right drawers.” “It’s nothing like that. We fit entire hardware stores into giant cases with foam cutouts designed to fit each tool exactly. We need to assemble them accurately so Army engineers can find and use the tools they need on the fly.” Baumeister, who is legally blind, takes advantage of his nearsightedness to examine tools for quality, and to make sure all of the parts work.
“We know they are going to our troops in the field. If a tool or part is defective, they can’t run to the store and swap it for a new one,” he explains. “That’s why I inspect every piece of equipment that goes into a kit. I take my work very seriously and I’m proud of what I do to support our troops. Each and every one of us are.”
Warehousing and Distribution
Putting together kits and supplies for the troops is only half of the story—materials need to be delivered to the field. That’s where NIB associated agencies experienced in warehousing and distributing supplies to DLA come into play.
Meeting and Exceeding Standards
In 1995, Arizona Industries for the Blind in Phoenix opened its first warehouse and distribution center to house, package, and ship goods to the US military. The 40,000 square foot facility that employed 13 people has grown to 175,000 square feet and employs 63 people who manage more than $100 million in inventory—including more than 25,000 SKUs—and ship packages all over the world.
Launching the warehouse and distribution center nearly 20 years ago wasn’t easy, says Tim Adams, Manager of Fulfillment Services, but agency leaders had faith their workforce could go toe-to-toe with other DLA depots. “We knew soon after we opened that we could compete because we had better customer service, faster response times, and outstanding inventory control,” says Adams.
Arizona Industries for the Blind currently has three contracts with DLA: one for lighting products, one for military insignia, and one for springs. The center ships about 325,000 orders annually, consistently meeting or exceeding DLA guidelines for order turnaround.
“We take great pride in meeting or exceeding DLA guidelines,” says David Steinmetz, Manager of Community and Public Relations. The agency has a 99.7% on-time fill rate, a performance level that has twice led DLA to name the agency its AbilityOne Vendor of the Year. In addition to this outstanding fill rate, Arizona Industries for the Blind has a 99.8% inventory accuracy rating and a 100% rating for quality control.
Achieving those ratings requires a team of dedicated employees who work together seamlessly to consistently deliver for the troops. It’s an intricate dance that is re-choreographed on a near-daily basis as order types and volume fluctuate.
Three different but integrated software systems help fulfill orders. A warehouse management system transmits orders to Talkman, a voice-activated picking software system that provides audio directions to employees who are blind to help them locate and pick items.
After the items are picked, employees move the orders to packaging, where they undergo quality control checks before being packed. Packaged orders move on to shipping, where a software system that interfaces with DLA computers loads the latest shipping address on file for the customer. The interface with DLA’s system is vital to ensure the most up-to-date address for military customers who are frequently on the move.
Behind all this technology are agency employees who locate, retrieve, pack, and ship orders as they are received. It’s a mission warehouse and distribution employees take great pride in carrying out, says Adams.
“We’re successful because of the incredible work ethic of our workforce,” says Adams. “Our employees who are blind know their work is vital to keeping our troops supplied and ready to move.”
Saving Time and Taxpayer Dollars
Industries of the Blind (IOB) in Greensboro, North Carolina, also entered the DLA warehouse and distribution business in 1995. “At the time, we knew that if a soldier needed a single lightbulb, he or she would submit a request to DLA and DLA would ship an entire case,” explains Richard Oliver, Director of Community Outreach and Government Relations. “We told DLA that we could break the case and send the single lightbulb the customer needed.”
Today, IOB warehouses and distributes not only light bulbs, but also springs, wire ropes, cables, and chains of all sizes. The order fulfillment process is similar to Arizona’s, using integrated software systems to receive and process orders and a cadre of dedicated employees working together to pick, pack, and ship. IOB’s warehouse and distribution center fulfills an average of 600 orders each day, says Oliver.
IOB is proud of its track record for meeting or exceeding DLA guidelines for processing orders. “We operate under the same DLA delivery guidelines as Arizona,” says Oliver. “Our internal goal, though, is to have every order processed and shipped within 24 hours. We meet that internal goal 99% of the time, a metric all warehouse and distribution employees are extremely proud of.”
“A government official once told me that IOB’s warehouse and distribution center was 54% more efficient than when they ran it,” says Oliver. “Our work has saved government labor and warehouse dollars.”
When IOB opened its warehouse, it was 80,000 square feet and employed 12 people. Over the years, they’ve expanded to 150,000 square feet and 38 employees. “We’ve worked hard to make as many positions as possible accessible to employees who are blind,” notes Oliver.
Jolie Harding, who has been with IOB since 1990, recalls moving to the warehouse and distribution center as a shipping and receiving clerk when it was “an empty shell.” Harding worked her way up to her current position of EDI Programmer, where she serves as the go-to for employees who need help troubleshooting a software issue.
“The work we do here is so important,” says Harding. “We’ve seen Desert Storm, Afghanistan, 9/11. Troops can’t move if they don’t have the materials they need. A single lightbulb can ground an aircraft.”
Daryl Wells has seen the value of warehouse and distribution center operations from both sides. Wells, who served in the military until a head injury left him legally blind, joined IOB in 2004 and moved to the warehouse and distribution center in 2006.
Like Harding, he learned new skills and took on responsibilities to his reach his current supervisory position, where he ensures work orders meet quality standards and keep moving. “Having served in the military, I know first-hand how important it is to have supplies delivered quickly and accurately,” says Wells.
And as for the daily dance: “We have a great staff,” he says. “We all take great pride in what we do. We really are a family.”
By Sharon Horrigan