Picture this: It's 1986, and you have a vision that can turn the photographic-equipment business inside out. The traditional model centers on selling consumers a camera — a durable good that they own and buy film for. You want to introduce a new model: Sell consumers a handy, inexpensive "single-use" camera, one that comes with a roll of film already in it. People would buy the camera, use it once to expose the film, and then throw it away.
When Alan VanDeMoere first proposed that idea 13 years ago, no one said, "Cheese!" "At first, there was very little support for the concept," recalls VanDeMoere, 48, who is now manufacturing manager of single-use cameras at Eastman Kodak Co. "There was some fear that it would be bad for the film market. And there was no way to know if there was a consumer market for such a product." But in 1987, Kodak took a shot at VanDeMoere's idea and released the Fling, its first single-use camera. Industry pundits predicted that the product would never develop, but VanDeMoere proved them wrong: Single-use cameras have become a $2 billion market, with an annual growth rate of nearly 30%.
Early on, Kodak manufactured its single-use cameras — the product was renamed Fun Saver in 1989 — at its headquarters campus in Rochester, New York. But in October 1996, the company broke ground on a "fast flow" factory at a 108-acre site in Guadalajara, Mexico. The facility, a $50 million, 220,000-square-foot operation called SUN Guadalajara, is one of the highest-volume, highest-speed factories in the world, producing 120,000 single-use flash cameras a day for export to the United States, Canada, Japan, and Latin America.
Despite growth in the single-use market, Kodak went through a difficult period in the mid-1990s, when below-average earnings, a price war with Fuji, and the emergence of digital imaging led the $15 billion, 119-year-old company to make significant layoffs. But recently, under the leadership of CEO George Fisher, the picture for Kodak began to improve considerably: Between 1997 and 1998, its net income grew from $5 million to $1.4 billion, and earnings per share increased from $0.01 to $4.24. One bright spot has been the SUN Guadalajara operation, which combines the essential attributes of a well-shot photograph — the right speed, the right focus, and the right (market) exposure.
The Right Speed
The mood on the factory floor at SUN Guadalajara is surprisingly calm — surprisingly, because the 1,235 people who work in this purple-walled facility assemble and package cameras at a rate of more than 5,000 units per hour. Each camera consists of 26 separate components, most of which are manufactured on-site. In the course of a year, SUN Guadalajara's people handle more than 1 billion parts and export nearly 40 million finished cameras.
"The core idea was to maximize velocity," says VanDeMoere, who now manages the plant and who was on the internal team that designed it. "Everything was built around that principle." But speed that results in mistakes is unacceptable: At SUN, the camera-defect rate is less than 1%.
The Right Focus
Stand practically anywhere on the SUN Guadalajara factory floor, and you can see the entire manufacturing process. "In most factories, the people at the front end of the process have no idea what's happening at the back end," says Joe Brennan, 45, materials manager for the plant. "So, if there's a quality problem somewhere along the line, product can pile up before anyone knows about it and before the problem gets fixed. That can't happen here."
Last June, for example, a shipment of circuit boards from China was found to contain an unusual number of defects. Because these boards are an essential component of flash cameras — and one of the few parts not made on-site — waiting for another shipment would have meant shutting down the plant. The alternative was to weed out faulty boards through extra quality tests during assembly. But the assembly line was configured to allow for one flash test only.
The solution: The managers gave workers a short break and used that time to reconfigure the assembly lines to include six extra workstations. Within 15 minutes, not only was the plant up and running at 100% capacity, but it was also able to accommodate six additional quality tests. According to VanDeMoere, this episode serves as a snapshot of SUN's focus on flexibility. "The plant was designed for maximum flexibility," he says. "And there's nothing more flexible than a human being."
The Right (Market) Exposure
"Just don't call them 'disposable cameras,' " chide Kodak managers when visitors refer to the products made at SUN Guadalajara. That's an understandable mistake from the consumer's point of view: You use a Fun Saver once and then send it off to a film developer. But because Kodak is sensitive to environmental issues, it insists that the life of a camera doesn't end when a photofinisher breaks open the camera to extract the film. In fact, photofinishing is merely the first step in an extensive camera-recycling process that Kodak pioneered in the late 1980s.
SUN Guadalajara's recycling program has been in full swing since October 1998. During the first four months of the program, the factory recycled more than 1.5 million cameras. Most of the Fun Savers' components are recyclable: Their plastic exterior, for example, can be melted down into small resin pellets, which then become part of the 10,000 pounds of resin that are fed daily into SUN's 58 molding presses.
Right now, Kodak gets back 70% of the cameras that it produces, and it reuses 86% of the material from those cameras. In the future, the company hopes that fewer and fewer of its so-called throwaway cameras will actually get thrown away.
"We've taken the best practices that we learned in Rochester, and we've added a few best practices of our own," says VanDeMoere. "We've built a cost-effective plant that pays very close attention to details. That means we're not just making a lot of cameras — we're making a lot of good cameras."
Lisa Chadderdon (email@example.com) is a Fast Company staff writer. You can visit the Eastman Kodak Co. on the Web — In English (www.kodak.com) or in Spanish (www.kodak.com.mx).
A version of this article appeared in the May 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.