Landall Bell, (above, from left) Ron Walters and Lin Sing thread a state-of-the-art paper-processing machine that produces personal-sized toilet tissue packets at LightHouse Industries in Oakland.
Landall Bell, (above, from left) Ron Walters and Lin Sing thread a state-of-the-art paper-processing machine that produces personal-sized toilet tissue packets at LightHouse Industries in Oakland. (D. Ross Cameron - Staff)
With all the sad stories of corrupt contractors supplying our troops in Iraq, here is a cheery one that will warm the cockles of your — well, some place.

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually impaired based in San Francisco has a workshop in West Oakland — LightHouse Industries — where a recently activated and mammoth machine spews out 61,000 packets of toilet paper an hour for our servicemen and women.

The business also has contracts with the Federal Emergency Management Administration, pitching in when disasters require back up, and commercial enterprises, as well.

Each of these tiny packets — consisting of three sheets pleated several times and folded into a brown-paper wrapper measuring 1-by-11/2inches and stamped with the LightHouse logo — goes with every service member's ready-to-eat meal.

One packet apiece hardly seems adequate for the rigors of battle.

Skip Foster, the plant manager, said our fightingmen and women want more, and they hoard the packets.

The paper is packaged courtesy of LightHouse Industries' new $800,000 computerized apparatus, an assembly that slices sheets of paper into strips. To get it started, two or three men, each of them partially or completely visually impaired, hover over the machine and guide the continuous sheet of paper through with their hands.

Once the toilet paper is whirring through the machine -- a product of S and S Specialty Systems of Wisconsin -- the strips are automatically fed into a glass-encased panel. Here, rolling spools extrude the paper until it is folded, refolded, packaged and spat out into a carton.


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If the machine belches and mangles the paper for any reason, the blind Tamara Thiesen sorts through the product, distinguishing by feel the acceptable from the faulty.

Of the eight employees, four are legally blind and one lacks vision in one eye. Sighted personnel must always be on hand to supervise or operate other machinery, such as the forklift, Foster said.

The visually impaired employees have been trained to handle this process. The new machine replaces one they worked with for 18 years, which lacked the safety features of the current one. The old machine, with all its projecting angles and exposed moving parts, still stands by the new one. Yet, Foster said, only a couple of work-related injuries occurred in all those years. The new machine significantly increases production.

"They both run at the same speed," Foster said, "but the new machine is more consistent and produces a neater pack."

Foster's assistant, Mike Irish, is optimistic that the workshop will now be able to fulfill many more contracts, which will mean more profit for the workshop and more bonuses for the employees.

The workshop also provides tissue packets to the prison system in Texas, Irish said. "We are sending our tissue packets down to San Angelo, Texas, and they distribute them from there to their correctional facilities," he said. "They find their inmates like to use the (toilet paper) rolls to plug up the toilets. They can't do that very well with our packets."

Director of Operations George Clark said the Department of Defense has increased its demand during the two Iraqi engagements, as did FEMA during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"During the first Iraq war and in the early days of the second, we put on two shifts so there were 15 people online," Clark said. "During Katrina, we had to increase our production to 20 million packets in two months."

When Rita followed close behind, demand jumped to 42 million packets, Foster said. The workshop has averaged 90 million packets a year for the last three years, but the plant manager predicts this year will approach 45 million, since the plant is not anticipating the disasters that boosted earlier production.

"But it can change on a moment's notice," Foster said.

Watching the paper slip through the rollers, spools and widgets, it's not hard to imagine all the bottoms and noses that are going to be wiped clean thanks to a warehouse in West Oakland.