Family business ensures science comprehension

A staff member works on putting together a new kit the company is marketing. They currently offer more than 700 different science kits.
A staff member works on putting together a new kit the company is marketing. They currently offer more than 700 different science kits.

by Andie Diemer
Nov. 25, 2008

Eighty-one years ago Thomas Powell Jr., then a science professor at Elon College, would regularly collect natural specimens for his own use in the classroom. After picking up on the fact that other instructors were looking to do a similar thing, he noticed the niche of collecting and marketing these types of products to educators.

Today, Carolina Biological has been a dominate fixture on the Burlington scene. Employing around 450 central North Carolinians, the company creates curriculum science kits to assist teachers in their educational activities and endeavors, Product Safety Manager Keith Barker said.

Servicing a fair number of schools nationwide and internationally, the company supplies everything from balance kits for kindergarteners to gene kits for college students.

“We’re using a lot of living materials, like plants, insects and preserved materials,” Barker said. “We try to provide materials to help science educators do their job.”

Catering to various departments like physiology, math, geology, chemistry and physics, Barker works to ensure the company is aware of and complies with all federal and state regulations.

He works with a lot of companies and customers to answer questions and make sure the entire operation and each product works smoothly.

While the headquarters is located on York Road in Burlington, three additional warehouses — where the production actually takes place — have been located at the Rockcreek Center for the past nine years.

“This is where our fulfillment operation, kit making and purchasing takes place,” Barker said. “There are a lot of scientists and doctors on staff. There’s a variety of interesting people and all have diverse job responsibilities and diverse roles, but somehow it all fits together.”

Balancing Act

Tim Dallas, director of logistics, oversees the kit-making operations, which can range from large kits to outfit an entire classroom to single-person AP biology kits.

“We team up with the Smithsonian, who basically write books of experiments on topics of assignments,” Dallas said. “They work with us to turn the book into reality. We start with the books and build the kits around those.”

Carolina Biological performs field testing to ensure each purchase is complete and processing is safe and top of the line.

They offer 700 different titles of kits, most of which are different variations of similar products, Dallas said.

“It’s not uncommon for an entire state, county, school district, specific teacher to adopt these kits,” Dallas said.

He said the state of North Carolina recently purchased $5 million worth of Science and Technology for Children kits, which are used in North Carolina elementary schools.

Barker said students who learn through hands-on means, such as science kits, consistently outperform students who learn through textbooks on tests.

While many kits are ordered, it is not uncommon for Carolina Biological to sell hundreds of thousands of individual products, such as Petri dishes or test tubes, every year.

“We sell just about anything you can think of for science education from outfitting entire labs to individual microscope slides,” Dallas said.

The busiest times of the year are at the beginning of each semester, when orders flood the company for educational materials.

From Warehouse to Classroom

The warehouses receive the materials, store them — and as they are requested — bring them down, count, package, process and ship them.

While they serve specialties, such as certain cultures that can take weeks to grow, they also provide common, everyday things needed for science experiments such as plastic cups with hole punches in the bottom.

Dallas said the kits are unique because they come with every single component of an experiment, meaning teachers don’t have to track down small items like sharpies or paper clips.

They ship out brand new kits, as well as refills for bulky and often pricy kits. It is not uncommon for 50 or 100 kits to be ordered at one time, Dallas said.

A high tech conveyor and barcode system was completely installed in 2005, which drives the entire company. It automatically logs and calculates inventory, routes and spits specific materials off the belts that run throughout the entire warehouse.

It also creates algorithms to know when certain kits are in demand and to estimate how many need to be created.

Technology also plays a large role in the support department. It does everything from recording logs to increasing job performance to calculating calls to telling a support technician when the best time to take their lunch break is.

“It didn’t reduce jobs, but we are doing more now with the same amount of people,” Dallas said.

Barker said they strive for 100 percent on-time performance and are working to reduce their error rate.

Over the past two years, they have cut it by 45 percent.

It’s All In The Family

Barker said the entire staff is a great group of people that all care about each other.

“Many people have worked their whole lives, and their parents worked here too,” Dallas said. “I’ve been here for nine years and I’m still considered new. Most people have been here for 30, 40 or more years.”

Carolina Biological is still a family-owned business today and the family still plays a prominent role in the community, such as annually donating to United Way, Barker said.

“It’s a good, stable company that’s been here for 81 years, pays their taxes and provides employment,” Barker said. “We produce a product we’re rightfully proud of and we’re proud of our association with education.”

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