BraunAbility: Creating inspiring products in the automotive industry
Since its inception in 1973, BraunAbility (formerly known as The Braun Corporation) has produced innovative, high-quality products in the wheelchair accessible vehicle and lift markets, allowing customers to retain their independence.
Its products include personal use vehicles, as well as wheelchair lifts found in mass transit vehicles, such as buses, taxis and more. “We are expanding our production capabilities to meet the volume and all the things associated with that, from facility changes to manpower, acquiring skillsets we haven’t had, but are now required. It has been a crazy pace for growth,” comments Ken Morgel, Director of Purchasing and Supply Chain at BraunAbility.
The company has thrived during several significant stages of growth. The invention of the lowered floor minivan secured its position within the automotive industry. Then the Americans with the Disabilities Act of 1990 opened up brand-new markets by etching accessibility into the law. Now, today’s customers increasingly demand independence, seeking to maintain their quality of life, accessibility and mobility.
The company’s Indiana location is ideal, drawing on southeastern Michigan, Chicago, northern Indiana and Ohio, where numerous automotive plants are also situated.
“We are actually able to leverage off a lot of other manufacturing that’s going on in this area and obtain high-quality parts on time,” states Morgel. “We share many suppliers with both Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and the RV industry.”
Until six years ago, BraunAbility’s supply chain remained relatively unchanged, with all suppliers located within 200 miles of the company’s manufacturing area. Morgel says: “A lot of that was because this company was founded on quality. If we could not make it or manufacture it here locally, we wanted to buy it from someone locally so we could always control the quality of the product.”
Since joining BraunAbility, Morgel has remained loyal to the suppliers he inherited, with around 80 core suppliers. However, he’s recruited more, including within the RV market, to provide new innovative products and solutions for new technologies. Morgel explains: “I adapted the supply base to fit better with our low-volume, high-mix environment. We partnered up with the right folks who can continue to add value as far as technology and innovation. We also look to partners who keep us cost competitive while ensuring quality stays high.”
Continuing with core suppliers has enabled the company to throw things out to bid and drive lower costs. But BraunAbility understands that keeping track of quality, deliveries and other metrics is paramount. “We have a score carding system to make sure that those who are performing well get a shot at more business versus those that are maybe under-performing, who are then maybe left out of the next quote process,” reflects Morgel.
Similar to many automotive companies, BraunAbility has turned to scan data. This lets BraunAbility share information with suppliers who can then modify vehicles and reduce manufacturing time. For example, companies previously built fiberglass molds for any interior plastic component within a particular vehicle. But 3D models can now be fashioned into a tool, which can then be turned into a plastic component and fitted. In addition to such time-reducing, cost effective and forward engineering solutions, the company is designing virtually before constructing hard parts, enabling more competitive bidding.
Through close partnerships with Chrysler, Honda and Toyota, BraunAbility is able to convert each of their minivan models, and it recently converted the Ford Explorer, offering the first SUV to enter the mobility market. In addition, the company is Nissan’s mobility partner in the New York City taxi market. Conversions on each model are built on site, allowing customers to have a selection of finished products to choose from. Morgel explains: “We’re made aware of significant changes throughout the year to these companies’ vehicles in their own production facility so that we can understand what we have to do from a conversion standpoint if that then affects us.” Through increased information sharing, OEMs have increased sales by working alongside a premier mobility conversion company such as BraunAbility.
However, BraunAbility’s high-mix, low-volume environment is the complete opposite of an OEM’s, and that has presented several challenges. Morgel explains: “When you have low volume and a high mix, as a purchasing organization this makes affordability difficult because you don’t have that leverage with volume. And secondly, it makes it hard to predict and forecast need beyond a certain short timeframe, which is again opposite of an OEM.” OEMs produce blanket orders and commit to high volumes so they can ensure the best prices from supply bases. For BraunAbility on the other hand, this is not possible. Yet the company has slowly begun to move away from ‘spot-buy’ purchasing and move toward more strategic procurement services supported by a new ERP system.
This embedded system increases visibility. “We can stratify our suppliers by spend and/or by part within that supplier, whereas before we had a system that required a little more data handling through spreadsheets,” says Morgel. “Now we have ready-made reporting and dashboards so we can do analysis right away on not only supplier spend but delivery performance, quality metrics like parts per million – all of these titbits that are great for supplier negotiation and new business.”
The industry continues to grow, along with the demand for innovation, forward thinking and a key focus on affordability in the mobility sector. “Many of our customers are looking for something different than a minivan, something more spacious,” says Morgel. “Many wheelchairs are getting larger, so more space is a necessity.” Equipment will also need to become increasingly adaptable and BraunAbility stays ready with products that can be up-fitted. “We want to make sure we have the selection available that people would desire just like anybody would if they go to a car lot,” Morgel says. “They want a specific color and specific content – we want to offer that same menu to mobility clients, but still keep affordability in mind.”