Where do tripods come from? Costa Rica, of course
Julio Lizano, president of Vitec Videocom Costa Rica, talks about running one of the company’s most important suppliers of camera support gear
Costa Rica is home to one of the Vitec Videocom’s principle factories. The site churns out gear for multiple Vitec brands, including major camera support brands Sachtler, Vinten, Oconnor, Manfrotto and Anton Bauer. We spoke with Vitec’s Costa Rica head, Julio Lizano.
How did you come to manage Vitec’s manufacturing in Costa Rica?
I am an electrical and electromechanical engineer and have an MBA with an emphasis on finance. Before finishing university, I began to work for the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity, the largest electricity generator in the country. I developed projects related to electricity generation through alternative sources. After four years I discovered my passion for the manufacturing industry and took a job in an American plant which manufactured components for cellular telephony and for the automotive industry, mainly power magnetics and capacitors.
At the end of 2002, Vitec hired me as quality manager for a small assembly plant in the industrial area of Cartago, Costa Rica. I was challenged to develop the quality and manufacturing systems needed to transfer manufacturing operations from Germany and England and to develop a high quality local supply chain to supply the high precision components required by our premium brands.
A year later I took over manufacturing, and in 2004 I was appointed general manager with full responsibility for operations in Costa Rica.
Since then, I’ve led the development of Costa Rica's operations with an accelerated growth in the last twelve years. We went from a basic assembly operation with less than twenty employees to a complex, world-class manufacturing operation with nearly two hundred employees.
Can you tell us a bit about the facility?
We are located in the province of Cartago, which is in the central valley, and about 20 kilometres east of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose.
This is a world-class manufacturing operation with high-precision CNC machining, CAD-CAM design, manual metal mechanical assembly and some semi-automated operations. We also have certifications accredited by BSI in quality systems (ISO 9001: 2015), occupational safety (ISO 18001: 2007) and environment (ISO 14001: 2004).
Our operation has also been accredited for four consecutive years by Great Place To Work as one of the best companies to work for in this region of Latin America.
What equipment is being produced?
Although I cannot share some official data, I can tell you that this plant produces and dispatches thousands of products from Sachtler, Vinten, Oconnor, Manfrotto and Anton Bauer every year.
For all these brands we produce fluid heads, tripods, small pedestals, dollies, spreaders, brackets, accessories and spare parts. Also produced in this factory are hundreds of thousands of components machined for the final assembly of the aforementioned products.
We machine high precision components from solid bars, plates or castings. We use steel, aluminum, magnesium and bronze among others. Then there is anodising different types to protect machined surfaces from corrosion and wear and painting to obtain the desired final finish according to the mark and its specifications, then the final, manual assembly of individual products.
What is the factory workforce like?
The great majority of our workers are Costa Ricans living in the vicinity of Cartago. Many of our workers are bilingual English-Spanish. We have mechanical engineers, industrial engineers, electronics engineers, precision mechanics, quality technicians and many assemblers who have specialised in our complex assembly processes through our own training programs.
Our internal training processes are exhaustive and demanding. A qualified assembler will have to pass different stages of training, including quality control plans, productivity, lean principles, fine manual skills, use of KPIs and occupational safety.
Each one of our assemblers is responsible for the quality of their operations, since we believe that the quality is built through the process, however we also have experienced operators who are in charge of the final assurance of the quality of each of the products that leaves the factory.
We went from a basic assembly operation with less than twenty employees to a complex, world-class manufacturing operation with nearly two hundred employees
What special advantages does Costa Rica have as a manufacturing site?
Costa Rica has highly qualified human talent, which are perfect for operations like Vitec’s that demand advanced technical skills but at a competitive cost compared to Europe and USA. We also have a local supply chain capable of supplying more than 50% of the components used in our processes with high quality and competitive cost.
The proximity and geographic position with respect to one of our larger markets, the USA, is undoubtedly an advantage, as well as Costa Rica being part of the free trade agreement between the USA, Central America and the Caribbean (CAFTA).
Some of the technologies that we use for manufacture some specialised components are not available in Costa Rica, however, and that represents a disadvantage since these materials have to be imported at greater cost from the UK or USA.
How do you source your materials?
The supply chain has been strategically grouped by type of commodity, volume and engineering specifications. Over the years, the main suppliers have developed to be located next to our factory. This facilitates more lean processes, flexibility, better control of quality and more competitive costs.
The main commodities that have been located in Costa Rica are plastic injection, precision machining, anodised and pain metal finishes, electronic components and PCBA's, and stamping of pressure among others. More specialised parts and with very specific requirements are bought in from Europe and the United States.
What is your testing and quality assurance like?
We have a rigorous system of quality assurance that includes everything from supplier selection and qualification, receipt inspection, process validation, statistical control of the process, control plans, process audits, 100% functionality tests and quality assurance of finished product.
Our quality system uses tools similar to those of the automotive industry such as PPAP, PFMEA, Control Plan, SPC, and MSA. We also have the best measuring equipment and high technology that allow us to ensure the quality of the components we buy and those we produce internally.
We are fully aware that all our brands need to be of the highest quality, so that each and every one of our products are manufactured under strict quality standards.
How has the manufacture of camera support gear changed over the years as manufacturing tech and camera tech have evolved?
Although in principle, most of our final product assembly processes remain manual, in the last 10 years we have introduced many changes through a Lean manufacturing approach that has allowed us to be more efficient and productive and to improve our product quality.
There have also been changes in some of our product lines that are better adapted to changes in the camera technology of cameras.
What are Vitec’s future plans for the factory?
The operation of Costa Rica continues to be of great importance for Vitec, and we understand that in the future we will continue to take advantage of the capacity developed here for products that fit the existing manufacturing models.
And with the introduction of a certain new product, to be announced later this year, we are anticipating an increase in the demand for fluid heads and accessories related to this new product which we manufacture here in Costa Rica.