As one of Enterprise Minnesota’s newest members, business growth consultant Eric Blaha brings a wealth of industry experience amassed in a surprisingly short time. Though he just graduated from North Dakota State University (NDSU) in 2018, he’s already spent more than six years working with a diverse array of manufacturers.
“It’s a tremendous amount of experience for a young person,” says Bob Kill, president and CEO of Enterprise Minnesota. “In a very short period of time, he has attained very sensible ways to apply measures in quality, continuous improvement, and machine uptime.”
Blaha entered the world of manufacturing while he was an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in agricultural engineering. He spent nearly two years interning with CNH Industrial, a global company that provides equipment and services for agriculture and construction, before joining CNH full-time after graduation.
That gave Blaha a rare opportunity to observe manufacturing operations around the world, touring facilities in Austria, Germany, and throughout the U.S.
“It was very interesting. Europe has a different focus than the U.S. when it comes to manufacturing. They’re much more advanced in the environmental and safety aspects of operations because their regulations are so different. So, I got to see a lot of best practices, as well as some phenomenal lean techniques,” he says.
Blaha later joined Revolv Manufacturing in Brainerd (formerly Stern Assembly) first as a quality assurance manager and then as a plant manager. As a supplier of manufacturers, Revolv gave him the chance to experience a different side of manufacturing; he spent time working directly with OEM (original equipment manufacturer) customers and learning from a variety of processes and facilities.
Business growth consultant Ally Johnston says his background is a great asset to his clients. “The places he’s worked and the roles he’s been in lend very well to our clients. He’s been in a lot of the same shoes as them, so he’s had to solve their same problems.”
Now Blaha brings his experience and passion for continuous improvement and lean processes to manufacturers across the state. He enjoys working on process flow and facility layout, and he’s especially fascinated by opportunities for automation.
“Most people think of automation as industrial robots,” he says. “But that’s not always an accurate picture. I look at things like machine monitoring and simple automation to make operators’ lives easier, and to improve the quality and throughput efficiency of the production space.”
Introducing automation can be as simple as monitoring the processes, including machinery, a company already uses. With machine monitoring software (MMS), manufacturers can study trends in their machinery usage and diagnose problems more easily. Blaha’s helping to pilot a service that brings MMS directly to Enterprise Minnesota’s clients.
“We loan the [MMS] hardware to our clients,” Johnston explains. “We help them see how having this type of data can improve their operations. Then if they want, they can go out and buy their own equipment, now that we’ve guided them through it and it doesn’t feel like such a daunting task. Eric completely brought that to us.”
According to Blaha, improvements like these are only possible with the continuous collaboration and cultivation of employees. The ultimate goal is to make operators’ lives easier, which in turn creates a process that’s more repeatable, stable, and profitable.
“Many people think continuous improvement is all about the process itself,” Kill says. “Eric understands the value and the necessity of also developing people while you’re improving and developing better processes.”
So far, Blaha’s already worked with upwards of 30 manufacturers around Minnesota. The biggest learning curve? Getting to know a company in a compressed time frame.
“You have a different mindset when you’re not entrenched in a company,” he says. “You have to look at things differently since you’re not there every day — you’re just getting a snapshot. You essentially have hours — not days or weeks — to get a really thorough understanding of a company, their people, and their process.”
When he’s not on-site with a client or developing new content for manufacturers, Blaha spends time on his farm in Verndale. He’s been raising beef cattle with his dad since he was 12 years old, but now carries 37 head on his own land. He even makes sure to implement lean processes around the farm.
“That keeps me busy on the nights and weekends,” he says. “I enjoy learning about agriculture, and I raise and sell direct finished beef. I’m hoping to scale up, too, and get to the point where I can carry 100 head at any time.”
“Younger people come with new ideas, they come with fresh concepts,” Kill says. “We’re not looking for people who are looking to ride into the sunset; we’re looking for people who see this as an opportunity. They see this as a chance to grow in their career and as a person. And Eric really fits that culture we want to have.”