Growth holding up but subdued year ahead
With a skilled workforce of blind and vision-impaired employees, the Royal Society for the Blind Industrial Services in South Australia has carved out a reputation for providing efficient, cost effective and high quality packaging and assembly services to a range of businesses.
At their Gilles Plains site, the Royal Society for the Blind (RSB) Industrial Services has established a strong reputation for quality and efficient packaging and assembly solutions at a competitive price. Andrew Daly, Executive Director of RSB for the past 18 years, says the site is the last specifically for people who are blind or vision impaired in the country and he puts its success down to focusing on quality while keeping up with the times.
“Back in the 1970s, a lot of the workshops that employed people with disabilities were ‘deficit funded’ by the government. This was obviously unsustainable and by the 1980s it changed,” says Daly. As a result, the RSB reviewed its operations and closed business lines, including a number of traditional products. “We also looked at ways of increasing productivity using adaptive technology and training,” says Daly. “There were a whole range of initiatives we undertook and since then we’ve basically operated at a small profit level whilst reinvesting into new products and upskilling staff.”
In 1995, plastic drape moulding and thermo-forming machinery gave the factory more varied plastics-manufacturing capabilities. Short-run orders could now be performed – specifically those that other enterprises found difficult to accommodate, such as blister packing or small-component packaging. Local businesses wanting individual component packaging, such as Clipsal and Coroma, lent their support to this fledgling production area. Within four years the plastics moulding section went from an experimental project to a full business involving up to 13 skilled staff through continuous daily shifts. And it’s kept on growing over the past 20 years to become a mainstay of RSB Industrial Services, helping expand its customer base by 40 percent.
Its growing capacity to provide customers with solutions for difficult jobs meant manufacturing and production divisions increased in capability and credibility. And while most of the workshop’s machinery is automated, operators still have to fully understand the mechanical operation of the machine and have the ability to operate it manually.
While employees are usually referred to RSB Industrial Services, securing a position depends on having a suitable vacancy. “We can certainly provide training and equipment but not everyone is going to be able to do every job,” says Daly. “We need to be able to modify our workplace and processes to meet the needs of both the job and the individual. Most of our employees in the factory have very limited or no sight, so we engineer our processes to the simplest form to ensure all employees can perform their jobs effectively.”
Staff training is modelled like an apprenticeship, with each new staff member trained to perform specific skills and gradually taking on greater responsibilities with their wages rising accordingly.
Most of the equipment used onsite was built, installed and modified by the RSB to ensure the best possible safety for operators. And with 70 people who are blind or vision impaired all working, heading to the cafeteria or going home at the same time, extra wide walkways and tactile clues are just some of the other modifications RSB has made in and around the workplace. “We need to have walkways that are safe to navigate without obstacles or overhead hazards,” says Daly. “Things that might be taken for granted in some workplaces, we can’t risk here. For example, leaving a box in a walkway could cause a significant injury.”
Daly says that one of the ongoing challenges is overcoming the perception that workshops aren’t able to meet the needs of business or that work should be charged at a nominal fee. “All our processes are costed and that includes a profit margin,” he says. “We don’t compete for work based solely on price, we want to compete for work based on the quality of the service and attract work that is profitable. And that’s based on wages that are fair, reflecting the productivity and abilities of our workforce. Based on federal government reports our wages are approximately three times higher than the average workshop.”
To help maintain quality assurance, RSB Industrial Services retains the highest levels of accreditation with ISO 9001 Quality Assurance and Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Points Certification. Annual audits involve thorough checking of procedures, records, performance and standards.
Daly believes that the RSB’s quality processes and accreditation provide a significant competitive advantage over other manufacturers. “We’ve found the IS0 system to be really helpful as it’s provided the backbone on which to build our quality system,” he says. “It’s driven us into the future in terms of making sure what we create is based on what we should be creating and that what we deliver has consistency. Maintaining quality is a combination of the ISO 9001 policy structure and processes, the professionalism of my staff and the enthusiasm of my workforce.”
In 2014, RSB opened offices in NSW’s Hunter Region and also the ACT in collaboration with the Canberra Blind Society, employing more than 15 staff. “This expansion was undertaken to meet client demand in these areas and to try and influence the National Disability Insurance Scheme to ensure people who are blind or vision impaired don’t fall through the gaps, and we’ll look at further expansion in due course,” says Daly.
For Adelaide-born Daly, who’s previously been in the army and worked as a chartered accountant before joining RSB 22 years ago, the most rewarding part of his job is giving people the dignity of work. “It’s become such an important part of their life and it becomes part of their personality as well – the fact that they’re able to provide an income. I love that I’m making a difference to people’s lives and over the years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some fantastic people.”
This article was first published in Business View magazine (Summer 2014). For more articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition of Business View for free via our app, NAB Think.
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