Reinventing Jobs to Improve Accessibility

Previously known as rehabilitation engineering, NIB’s productivity engineering program offers a wide array of services to associated nonprofit agencies. Programs include facility planning, safety and ergonomics assessments, training, process analysis, and efficiency improvements – all designed to boost employment for people who are blind while ensuring workplace safety.

“We believe the term ‘productivity engineering’ better aligns with the services we offer,” says Program Director Gigi Dottin. “Our core mission is accommodating people who are blind or have other disabilities so they can perform in a safe, productive, and efficient way.”

The old name, rehabilitation engineering, implied a focus on individuals, and some assumed the team could assist an employee in regaining physical and/or cognitive abilities, she explains. Productivity engineering, on the other hand, clearly communicates the emphasis on overall processes, from improving efficiencies and addressing safety and quality issues, to helping with ergonomics and product flow.

“We help our associated nonprofit agencies be as competitive as they can be,” Dottin explains.

Expert Experience

The team consists of Danny Truneh, senior productivity engineer; John Sorboro, productivity engineer; and technical trainers, Barbara Hutton and Marisol Cespedes De Matos, who focus on training and cross-training, workstation setup, and other areas.

Dottin first joined NIB in 2010 as a rehab engineer. She left for a stint at Caterpillar, where she worked with Truneh and Sorboro, then returned to NIB as the rehab engineering program manager in 2016, becoming program director in 2020. One of her first moves after returning to NIB was recruiting Truneh and Sorboro to join the team, which, she says, was one of the best decisions she ever made.

“Productivity engineers are the ‘boots on the ground,’ ” says Truneh, an aerospace engineer with an extensive background in manufacturing engineering. “We may be contacted to provide assistance to an individual or an entire production unit,” he explains, emphasizing that services vary based on the needs of each associated agency.

“Danny and John will do whatever they can to offer an effective solutions to a particular problem, whether its designing and building tools, jigs, and fixtures; providing efficiency enhancements; or making recommendations on using space more effectively,” Dottin says.

The team embraces Lean methodology including 5S (sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain), a process based on Toyota Motors’ production system.

“This Lean manufacturing technique is designed to eliminate waste from the construction process, ensure the workplace is clean and organized, increase production, and reduce costs across the board,” Sorboro explains. The result, he says, is improved employee satisfaction.

A major focus for the team is working with NIB associated agencies to convert jobs previously held by sighted employees to jobs employees who are blind or visually impaired can perform. These job conversions are in keeping with NIB’s mission of expanding employment for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Assisting Across the Nation

NIB associated agencies across the country utilize the talents of the team on a wide variety of projects.

Truneh and Sorboro recently worked with the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired to develop a new layout in its gadget area that improved safety and flow. At Industries of the Blind in Greensboro, North Carolina, Dottin and Sorboro improved process flow and removed bottlenecks in a production process while Cespedes De Matos provided training to employees.

At Bosma Enterprises in Indiana, Dottin and Truneh evaluated the agency’s medical kitting process. They put together a plan to clean up excess material from the production area and created an International Standards Organization (ISO) Class 8-certified cleanroom for packaging kits for surgical settings.

“We really appreciated the assistance that the team offered us,” says Doug Pingel, Bosma’s vice president of operations. “Coming from the outside, they brought an invaluable perspective and pointed out things that we on the inside might have missed.”

The team had another big success at Milwaukee-based Beyond Vision. Working with Jeff Duchrow, who oversees engineering for the agency, Dottin’s team first created a fixture that allows employees to assemble a wood pallet collar used in shipping medical equipment, which increased safety and efficiency for employees building crates.

The team then installed a crane for lifting and stacking the completed assembly, allowing Beyond Vision to better allocate resources by using one employee who is visually impaired to operate the crane while shifting a second employee to other duties.

“It was a win-win for everyone,” says Duchrow. “We were able to offer one of our visually impaired employees increased responsibility by enabling him to operate the crane, while making our overall operation more efficient and productive, and improving ergonomics.”

Addressing Agency Concerns

The annual productivity engineering forum hosted by the team offers agency staff a platform to discuss best practices, compliance safety requirements, conversion projects, and challenges that many of the agencies face in day-to-day operations. After two years of virtual forums, the team was excited to hold an in-person event at Bosma in April.

Among common concerns cited by participants were inaccessible software, communication challenges, supply-chain shortages, price competition with the commercial market, and securing new business opportunities.

“As a result of the questions that were raised, we’re holding monthly calls to discuss concerns in detail more frequently and offer solutions,” Dottin says.

Sorboro acknowledges that a key issue for agencies is attracting manufacturing talent when they have fewer resources to offer employees compared to large companies like Caterpillar.

“It’s one of the things that our team can contribute,” Sorboro explains. “We have a combined 35 years’ worth of experience in manufacturing and can bring that experience to folks who really need it.”

“We’re confident that the factors within our control, such as support and training, will continue to yield positive results,” Dottin says. “All of us will continue working hard to ensure each agency has the tools it needs from a manufacturing perspective to increase employment for people who are blind or visually impaired.”