The story of the solo manufacturer
Kelvin Harman works alone, apart from a computer programmed robotic cutting machine called Milton.
He manufactures a portable staging and seating system used for events and performances, which is his own invention.
Considering the size of the items that come out the door of the factory, I asked him about how he manages all the different parts of it and his solitary work life.
How would you describe your work role/s?
My type of manufacturing requires a kind of juggling – I work as the purchasing officer, stock control manager, machinist, assembler, quality control officer, safety officer and packaging and despatch department. Not to mention admin officer, sales rep and research and development division.
How do you do all that?
Well, you do it all one piece at a time. It’s almost impossible to work out what you need and what to do in terms of trying to run all of that concurrently, it has to be consecutive.
Does it depend on the size of the order from the client or the type?
Not necessarily. The products I manufacture – both seating and staging – have six key sub products, so to complete an order I don’t try and build all six at the same time.
Some of those products such as aluminium extrusions have lead times that mean you have to order up to six weeks in advance, so I am always working in several time frames at once.
That must mean a lot of planning?
Yes, I am always planning and reworking the plan in my head, which is OK if there is one order on hand but can get confusing if there are several!
So Kelvin, I understand you used to have a factory of up to 14 employees. What do you notice about working alone compared to that previous experience?
It’s a lot less stressful because you are only concerned with your own productivity, not everybody else’s.
And the cashflow in downtimes is so much easier, not having to support workers with little work. This business is very up and down.
On the other hand, it’s easier to maintain motivation when you have someone working alongside you and keeping pace.
It takes a lot more self-discipline to be self-motivated. And it’s always nice to have someone to commiserate and celebrate with depending on how things are going. I miss that.
What are some considerations of working alone in this situation?
There are OH&S implications for serious injury situations because you might not be able to get help. I am conscious of being extremely careful at all times, but that fact probably makes me even more cautious when using machinery.
How do you keep connected?
Every break, or at least once an hour, I check my emails and my phone is always on.
I also attend expos, subscribe to magazines and groups and am in constant email contact with my client base to check in and support them, and that means going out and helping them with any new events and challenges.
I am a pretty solitary person by nature, so I do have to make an effort.
From listening to Kelvin’s story, it sounds like the challenges of motivation, planning, lead times, cashflow, downtimes, managing many roles and being ultimately responsible are common to all of us soloists, whether we make stuff, write stuff or provide a service.