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Fireside Chat with the Xperts: Manufacturing Safely during the Pandemic

In this episode the Xperts sit down with Neotech’s Jeff Mason to discuss what we’ve experienced with the pandemic thus far, how manufacturing has adapted, and what a post-covid world might look like. We’ve learned a lot while adapting manufacturing for social distancing, sanitizing work spaces, and adjusting to new modes of communication.  Jeff shares his insights in leading Neotech through 2020 as well as looking to 2021.

Enjoy the video, and then reach out to us directly with any question.  Register for upcoming Fireside Chats with the Xperts and view our archives here.

Transcript:

David Kruidhof:
Well, it’s 10:00 o’clock, time for another Fireside Chat with the Xperts. Here with Dr. Bill Cardoso. Very happy to have another special guest with us this week. We have Jeff Mason from Neotech here in San Marcos. Jeff, why don’t you introduce yourself a little bit for our audience?

Jeff Mason:
Sure. Good morning everybody. My name is Jeff Mason. I’m the plant manager and GM of a facility for Neotech. We are a contract manufacturer with 13 locations globally. I reside in the San Marcos, just down the street from Creative Electron, our neighbors. Good to join you today.

David Kruidhof:
Thank you for joining us. Appreciate your time. I know you’re very busy in this current atmosphere out there and with everything going on, we have a lot more on our plates to keep everything moving right.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
It’s not like there’s a pandemic or anything, David, come on.

Jeff Mason:
I don’t know what you’re talking about.

David Kruidhof:
It’s going to be a very short chat then.

Jeff Mason:
It might be a week before a holiday as well.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Exactly.

David Kruidhof:
That’s true. Yeah. You got a shorter month this month. So the topic of conversation today is how COVID is affecting manufacturing? Particularly here in San Diego. The California government response, then local response, and then of course our personal or professional responses at our facility.

David Kruidhof:
So this happened, so really started affecting us back in March. There’s quite a bit going on, a lot of unknowns, big unknowns. I think a lot more fear at that point than we’re at now, fortunately. But maybe, Bill, you can start with how we at Creative Electron handled the start of it? Then, Jeff, I’ll ask you the same question.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
It was an interesting, going back to February. I mean, February we’re all together, or early March, we’re all together in Florida remember? For the SMTA officer’s meeting. We’re all together and life was good and the COVID wave hit Europe, Italy was shutting down and it was moving West.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
For me, the biggest … That’s when we started planning and figure out what we’re going to do if we got to shut down? If we have to shut down facility? For me, the pivotal point was when the Sheriff’s department in Alameda County went to Tesla’s facility. Knocked on the door and told them, “Hey, you’ve got to shut down.”

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
When that happened, I figured out, this is very serious and it’s going to happen very soon. So I think it was March 19th when the governor mandated the shut down to some facilities. I know Jeff had some projects to do so they were able to stay open.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
So what we did and that’s something we’re planning, is we moved our manufacturing cells to locations near our assemblers homes. So they could still be working, to still work with the proper isolation and the proper regulatory mandates that we had at a time. That allowed us to keep on going.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
We’re not going as fast and as efficiently as we were within our manufacturing facility, but it allowed us to finish the X-ray machines we were building at the time, that were work in progress. Allow us to start new machines and allows you to keep them going. Then a few months later we were able to come back and resume.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Of course, we have a set of restrictions and set of new things we’re doing. Like social distancing as much as possible. Barriers, masks, face shields. Then the cleaning. Is that about same what you’re doing there, Jeff, in your facility?

Jeff Mason:
Very similar. I remember that was the last flight.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah.

Jeff Mason:
When we flew back from Florida. It seems like a long time ago.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Seems like forever ago, man.

Jeff Mason:
I’m ready to get back on a plane and probably will pretty soon here. But we had to implement a lot of improvements quickly. We run a two shift operation. So really step-by-step the first thing we implemented was temperature taking at the entrance of our facility. So we actually had to place somebody outside of our door, two entrances, 18 hours a day, to cover everybody entering the facility between a first shift and a second shift.

Jeff Mason:
Second, a mask wearing was required mandatory inside our facility. Third, we implemented sterilization. So we actually clean almost eight hours a day, split into two shifts. Just somebody sterilizing every door knob, every push plate, every touch surface, and general computer use. Now in an electronic environment, there are risks as well with cleaning and sanitizing, so you have to be very cautious and careful at your process.

Jeff Mason:
Then third, the social distancing. So in an environment where you have assembly lines, production lines, where people may come in contact with each other, we had to reset a few areas and make a few adjustments and modifications to actually some assembly lines. As well as installing barriers and separators to segregate people from each other. So we also segregated our first shift and second shift. So talking about efficiencies.

Jeff Mason:
In the past we had a shift pass down, kind of a handshake between a first shift and a second shift. We had to segregate and we put an hour split in between those two shifts to reduce the population of people entering our facility and exiting the facility at the same time. So obviously a lot of challenges with those changes, but we’ve been very effective at transitioning and keeping people safe in the workplace. So happy about that, proud about that.

Jeff Mason:
People are going to contract this thing in the public socially, around friends and family, but we’ve been really successful at keeping our employees safe. So it definitely takes diligence. At the beginning, not every single person wore a mask properly or necessarily followed the etiquette that was expected. So it took a lot of diligence across the board to ask our management team of people to constantly reassure everybody to be smart, and safety first, really. But all in all really proud and happy with the success we’ve had with the process.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
It’s interesting. I keep wondering how many of these changes we made are going to stick, in the years to come. Because as a reaction, as a response to this event, we set all of these things in motion and we changed the way we worked.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
So for example, we went from an overlap of the shifts to a gap between the shifts. I mean, you always thought, okay, an overlap is a requirement. You have to have it to hand off information from one shift to the next. You’ve proved you can work just as fine with a gap. So it’s interesting to figure out, what are the things that are going to stick for the future? What are the things we’re going to go back and revert? Because they were actually more efficient?

Jeff Mason:
Absolutely. Much like right now, we’re, we’re interviewing and having a conversation and a meeting electronically over a web face. We had to adapt a lot of meetings that were held in person with big teams. Then they may be here in the facility, in their office area, but we also perform a lot of it via Zoom or WebEx or whatever tools that we’re using.

Jeff Mason:
So reducing face-to-face meetings, it was a big challenge. You have to teach people to communicate just as effectively, even if they’re not looking at someone in the face. But definitely I think we’re going to adapt as needed in the future and probably continue utilizing all these tools, and probably a mix. I’m sure we’ll see where there’ll be a mix in the future. Mixing technology with in-person and other forms of communication.

David Kruidhof:
Over these months, like I said, back in March, there was a lot of concern because there was a lot of unknowns about this virus, how it spreads, all these kinds of things. One of the things that was a big concern in March was contact. If I hand you my pen and you take the pen and use it, are you going to get sick? So I know at Creative Electron, we had a much more strict, hey, stop sharing tools. Everyone had their own set already anyways, but occasionally you’d borrow someone’s. We’re a little bit more strict with that.

David Kruidhof:
Whereas now that we know so much more, are you finding that some of the restrictions you’ve set in place back in March, have you re reduced some of those? Or are they all still in place just as an extra layer of care and caution?

Jeff Mason:
100% still in place? If anything, constantly reminding people of healthy habits yeah. Wash your hands. It doesn’t hurt to wash them 20 times a day instead of 10 a day, really. You never know. We think about this. We go out to the grocery store still, or some places that we have to go out, there are precautions being taken, but nobody knows what somebody’s touched last. So really cleanliness. I think cleanliness is the biggest part. Hygiene is one of the most important things for people in general as a human.

Jeff Mason:
So no reduction whatsoever. No loosening of any expectations or processes. If anything, continuing to enforce the rigidity with the new processes, the social distancing, I mean, in a facility, we had to mark a lot of visual controls as well. We had to put a floor markers to a time clock.

Jeff Mason:
People use a time clock and they still requires a thumb punch per se, biometric things like that. So six foot distancing to line up at shift change, end of their shift. There are sterile wipes there. So you punched out you, you wiped the clock, you throw it in the can. Next. A lot of those processes I’m afraid are going to be sustained for a long time to come.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah. I know it feels like in America, our hygiene habits are very different than other countries and cultures. I’ve had conversations with people who are just grossed out by certain things that we just think are totally normal.

David Kruidhof:
One of the things that many people have brought up is this matter of masks. There’s a lot of countries, there’s a lot of cultures that you have a cold, you just wear a mask. That’s what you do for the sake of those around you. Here in America, you just laughed at them. Back a year ago. It’s just like, oh, that person looks so funny wearing a mask. Now we’re wearing masks.

Jeff Mason:
So many years ago, every time I traveled in Japan, it was very common, mask wearing was very common. You would board, a train, a good percentage of people wore them. Whether it’s for their own environment, their health. As a society, we’re all evolving into something new, but some countries have had habits like this in the past for the health reasons.

David Kruidhof:
Yes. I’ve had conversations with people here who are just like, I hope we make this change. This one sticks. I hope not that we wear masks 100%, but that works. It’s normal-ish. It’s not looked down upon to take that extra precaution and wash your hands. Like I said, 20 times a day, instead of 10. Use hand sanitizer more frequently. These kinds of things that are fairly easy to do.

David Kruidhof:
Of course, as a company, now you’re buying double the hand soap. You’re buying double the sanitizer, all these cleaning wipes. If you’re talking about wiping that fingerprint marker every single time and throwing that wipe away, it adds up.

Jeff Mason:
It’s not free. They are new costs. They were not required before. So if you’re paying service providers to clean for you, obviously you’re increasing your costs and your overhead, but we have to be creative at achieving the same thing. Also it is a business. So we have to identify the most efficient way to do those things as well. Just like anything else.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
It’s also a matter of corporate responsibility. We talk about corporate responsibility here from time to time. You can’t be cavalier about these things. You have to follow protocol, you have to set them up and follow them like Neotech, and like we are doing.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
You can’t disregard them because I think one of the challenges that we have, and we all have personal lives and professional lives, is this exhaustion. This quarantine exhaustion. People get tired, they’re tired of wearing a mask, they’re tired of not being able to hang out with their friends, not being able to watch movies, go to restaurants, or whatever, bars, whatever they were doing before.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
With that, with this exhaustion people lower the guard and that’s dangerous. That’s why we see this waves up and down. We’re in the middle of one right now. That’s why San Diego just went back to the purple zone, and the restaurants have to close.

Jeff Mason:
Absolutely. The restaurants and gyms, the churches, everything closing up again.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Closing up again. So as a business, we have to make sure that at least within our doors, we have and keep those protocols, we enforce them. You have to wear a mask. We have to wear a face shield, depending on what kind of work you do. You have to do this there’s no other option.

Jeff Mason:
Absolutely.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
For us, a lot of people just working from home. You guys at Neotech are doing the same. It’s just we changed the way we operate. We’re not all together shoulder to shoulder in the office anymore on a daily basis. We’re just spread out.

Jeff Mason:
Yeah, you have to adapt. People that can work from home, it’s a smart decision and you adapt and you incorporate them into web based meetings and communicate quite differently from the past. But it’s working. It takes everybody working together, for sure.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah.

David Kruidhof:
How do you see things looking going forward there at Neotech?

Jeff Mason:
Well, I can tell you, I was on a customer call yesterday where they made the announcement that their entire staff is required to continue working from home through June of 2021. I was almost shocked. That’s a forecast of seven months away.

Jeff Mason:
So now we’re finally seeing in the news that we have some vaccines that will be readily available, likely being distributed in December and then January. So I don’t think any of us know what the environment’s going to look like next June. But there’s no doubt that this isn’t going away anytime soon.

Jeff Mason:
Vaccination is a great thing. That’ll help people in high risk areas, number one. Care providers that are publicly exposed to this. Those should help a curve in a positive trend down mid next year, but we’ll have to see. So the protocols, the processes, I don’t see them changing anytime soon. We’re living with this into 2021.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
That’s what I tell people. Don’t stop doing the things you love. Don’t stop living life. Just figure out how to do it safely. I mean, if you want to hang out with your friends, do it outside, for example, instead of just cramming together in a bar. So find a way to do it, but don’t stop living life waiting for a super cool, a magic pill to show up. All of the sudden this whole thing is gone.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Because the feeling that, okay, it will be over by Thanksgiving. It will be over by Christmas. Will be over by … You keep setting those deadlines and as those deadlines don’t happen, it just frustrates people some more. So just forget about deadlines, this is life. Enjoy life, live life the way it is now, just be safer. Figure out what are the protocols that you can put in place so that we can do things that you have to do safely.

Jeff Mason:
Absolutely. Yeah. I agree. I think it’s emotionally dangerous for people to stay locked up and not try to live their life and be smart about it. Obviously, unless they’re facing a very high risk category and they have to really quarantine themselves long-term. But we have to move forward as people, as a country, as an economy. Absolutely. It’s very important that we adapt and overcome.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah. I think this change has really caused us all to change. We talked about this web platform that we’re using, the virtual conferencing. These tools have been forced to take a big step forward and we’ve all been forced to learn how to use them. How many different video chat tools do you use in a week? Five, six, 10? It’s crazy, right.

Jeff Mason:
I use four different tools on a common basis, believe it or not, depending on the hub.

David Kruidhof:
Exactly.

Jeff Mason:
Yeah, absolutely.

David Kruidhof:
But we’re now comfortable with it. I just had a customer service call, calling one of our vendors for a software we use, and it’s a video chat call. Eight months ago, or a year ago, wouldn’t have been that. It would have been a phone call. Maybe we would’ve had a video call, but it wouldn’t have been our faces.

David Kruidhof:
But it actually provided a much better customer service experience because now I’m kind of in that guy’s home, virtually I’m in his house. I can tell he was at home, standing at a standup desk, talking to me. It was a much better customer service experience for me through that video channel. That service provider never would have done that unless we just kind of all had to. We all got used to it. Again, a year ago, people wouldn’t want to be on video with you, right?

Jeff Mason:
Right.

David Kruidhof:
I don’t want my background to be seen, things like that. Now it’s just normal. My kids come in, they interrupt video calls all the time. Within the company, with customers, whatever, and we’re all just okay with it.

Jeff Mason:
The dog barks, the cat runs across the keyboard.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah, we stop apologizing.

David Kruidhof:
It’s not a problem to talk about your dog or the lawn guy outside.

Jeff Mason:
That’s a good point. We have adapted. So we have purchased literally handheld devices with microphones to mount our phones on, kind of like vlogging devices. At every facility. So we’re using those for a lot of interaction, believe it or not. Our auditors are not auditing onsite for quality system audits annually. We have performed to those now via video tour.

Jeff Mason:
We actually engage with the employees, where the auditor could actually ask questions. Can you show me your procedure? Can you show me this process? So talk about adapting. We’re doing that via a video tour and back online and video conferencing and sharing documents and information, and still following the same process. Quality system audit, but we had to adapt and figure out how to do that successfully using technology and remote process.

Jeff Mason:
We also, we have a Gemba process. So our company, just from a lean culture, we perform a Gemba every morning. We had to look at that and say, how do we do this safely, differently? So we actually walk our Gemba, a limited team every morning, but we also record it, video, and people that are remote can interact and ask questions and engage via the same process.

Jeff Mason:
So we’re literally vlogging internally only and walking our process and engaging certain management team members in our daily Gemba. Reducing a smaller population, but still performing the same processes to ensure that we’re on target with our schedule and we’re efficient as needed.

David Kruidhof:
That’s so much more efficient for the auditor, right?

Jeff Mason:
Oh, absolutely.

David Kruidhof:
It’s one day of travel, a flight or whatever and a flight home.

Jeff Mason:
Not to mention-

David Kruidhof:
He’s cut down two days of that five day job, or-

Jeff Mason:
Think about it, we saved the TNA, the travel and expenses as well, as part of an audit process. So it’s purely virtual. They don’t have to leave their home and they can still perform the same process. So all in all it’s efficient.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
I mean, how many times did we go travel? Get on a plane, hotel, rental car, for a one, one and a half hour meeting? And fly back home.

Jeff Mason:
Right.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Right.

Jeff Mason:
It can happen.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
I think these past 10 months evolved us as a society 10 years. It allowed us to, and you said, you drop the barriers. So people that I would meet, we would meet in the trade shows, whatever. “Oh yeah. I’ll see that. We’ll see you at the trade show.” Now we just have a simple conversation and that lowered the barrier. So those connections can happen at any time, any place.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
There’s no expectation that you got to happen somewhere in future, you just make it happen now. So from that end, I don’t think that’s going to change. I think a lot of those companies, and once we realized it, we’re much more efficient. If you want to have that one and a half hour meeting in Zoom and then you can have dinner with your family. We don’t have to go to a hotel room and then fly next morning.

Jeff Mason:
Absolutely.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
That’s much better just to have a Zoom meeting.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah.

Jeff Mason:
Although the traffic last week didn’t feel like people were working from home.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah. It’s back. As you know, at our facility, we have a nice view of the highway. In March, April, May, it was just desert. It was kind of depressing to see at 5:00 o’clock just a desert on the 78. Now it’s already backed up, Jeff. It’s packed. Bumper to bumper.

Jeff Mason:
It’s back to pre-existing times. I guess traffic’s back.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah. For sure.

Jeff Mason:
So all in all, I think like you mentioned, we’re definitely adapting, utilizing the tools and technologies that we have available, and finding ways to continue being productive, and still engage with customers, suppliers, in ways that are needed. Just doing it a lot more socially distanced and segregated from others.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah. I think even, like Bill was talking about trade shows. Obviously, 2020, they’ve just been decimated. Some are planning for 2021. As they come and ask us, it’s kind of like, hmm.

Jeff Mason:
Yeah.

David Kruidhof:
That was a big expense. I was talking to one other manufacturer in the SMT space and they’re going to save over a million dollars by not doing this big annual trade show. Well, okay.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
That’s real money. So think about it. That’s real money.

Jeff Mason:
That’s real money.

David Kruidhof:
What can I do with a million dollars? So a lot of these changes, and if you see that your business is doing just fine without this thing that you felt like you always had to have, that just got yanked out of your hands. Maybe you realize, hey, I’m doing okay without that.

David Kruidhof:
I think there’s going to be a lot of other effects of things that had to stop. They’re going to try to come back and we’re all just going to kind of think, do I need to do that anymore? Is that really helpful? Like Bill said, the trade shows were a great time to say, “Hey, Jeff, I’ll see you at APEX. I’ll see you there. It’ll be great to see you. I haven’t seen you in so long now.”

David Kruidhof:
Now it’s like a video call is nearly the same as being in front of someone and grabbing lunch. A phone call is obviously a step away from that. A text conversation back and forth is a big step away from that. But our social need in keeping in touch with people, acquaintances, work associates, all those kinds of things, we realized we can do without the travel, without the big trade shows, without the other things that we used to do. We found a way to do it well, even easier.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
But where are you going to get the $10 hotdogs?

Jeff Mason:
Not at a coliseum, not at a convention hall.

David Kruidhof:
Can always go to the Del Mar Fair. I’m sure they’ll have them.

Jeff Mason:
I think they’re out as well.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah, for now.

Jeff Mason:
That’s for sure. The important thing is that everybody is learning to adapt, create new norms, and identify ways to be successful and get the job done in a lot of different environments.

Jeff Mason:
So let’s hope this vaccine brings a reduction this next year and reduces a lot of this, but I don’t think the protocols and the processes we put in place are going to go away anytime soon, honestly.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
You talk about the costs of this sterilization and some of this PPE. I mean, if you think about it, they are useful to avoid, to keep people safe with COVID but also a bunch of other, just the flu.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah, good point.

Jeff Mason:
Sure.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
People not getting sick as they used to. Because we’re just not cross-contaminating everyone anymore. So I think some of these protocols are just going to stick. They’re good for people, good for businesses as well.

Jeff Mason:
Right.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah.

Jeff Mason:
I’m curious to see. We commonly have a flu season every fall. Is it worse? Is it less? It could be a reduction from the average based on all the PPE.

David Kruidhof:
Well, it’s already mid November.

Jeff Mason:
Right.

David Kruidhof:
Have you had the flu? I mean, I haven’t had a cold yet.

Jeff Mason:
Very few employees out from it, as well.

David Kruidhof:
In late August, early September. I just have a cold of some sort until November, December. My kid’s in virtual school.

Jeff Mason:
Yeah.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Well, it’s a big thing. Kids are not going to school.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah.

Jeff Mason:
Yeah.

David Kruidhof:
It’s huge. I mean, as far as illness or needing to take time off, it’s not a problem. My kid isn’t getting me sick anymore. I think all those kinds of things where if you’re not picking up the common cold or the flu at work, it’s going to help.

Jeff Mason:
Sure.

David Kruidhof:
Those costs of sick employees very well probably outweigh the cost of wiping down the fingerprint scanner and other measurements we’re taking.

David Kruidhof:
We just never did the study. No one ever wanted to do it. Again, COVID just said, “Hey, you have to do this now.”

Jeff Mason:
Here we go.

David Kruidhof:
We were learning, oh, huh, maybe this kind of stuff is actually helpful outside of the COVID world.

Jeff Mason:
Absolutely.

David Kruidhof:
I think what really impresses me with all this is that we are, as a society, we’re still going forward. This hasn’t stopped the world. It hasn’t stopped the country. We’re still doing what we need to do. We just found new ways to do it. This innovative picture that we have and saying, okay, hey, we need to do this.

David Kruidhof:
This small company called Zoom that no one had heard of before is now the de facto video conferencing tool, because they were there at the right time, and they were able to step into that space when the need really showed up.

Jeff Mason:
They obviously adapted their bandwidth model.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Exactly.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah. Definitely had to change that. All right, Jeff, really appreciate your time today.

Jeff Mason:
Yeah, absolutely.

David Kruidhof:
Good talking to you again.

Jeff Mason:
You as well.

David Kruidhof:
Always good to see you.

Jeff Mason:
David, Bill, great to see you guys.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Thanks, guys. Stay safe.

David Kruidhof:
Thanks, Bill.

Jeff Mason:
You as well. We’ll keep moving forward.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Awesome. Thanks, guys.

Jeff Mason:
All right. Take care. Thanks.

David Kruidhof:
All right.

Jeff Mason:
Bye-bye.

David Kruidhof:
Bye.

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