Manufacturing's story on Super Tuesday

February 5, 2008
By: Tim Heston

In August 2006 a metal fabricator got a chance to tell the president why he felt businesses like his were good for America.

John West, president of Fox Valley Metal-Tech in Green Bay, Wis., showed the commander in chief around the company"s facility that housed, among other things, one of the largest automated laser cutting systems in the countryone from Mitsubishi with eight towers that can hold more than 90 different kinds of materials.

The machine, West said, can process more than 44,000 pounds of metal without anybody touching a part.

West had a long relationship with John Gard, a Wisconsin politician who at the time was running for Congress. President Bush had a political fundraiser in August 2006, and the staff was looking for a successful, growing manufacturing firm to visit. So the stars aligned: The Gard campaign called West and asked if he"d be interested in a presidential visit Aug. 10. Secret Service agents showed up at Fox Valley"s doors several days before the date, preparing for a brief event that Westand every one of his 70-plus employeeswould remember for the rest of their lives.

It may seem odd to bring up the visit a year and a half later, but on Super Tuesday, I think it seems appropriate to tell a story about a metal fabricator and politician who could communicate simply and directly. West"s message: Manufacturers create good jobs.

Stories of massive layoffs at automotive plants drive the political talk about saving manufacturing. But since Fox Valley hosted the president in 2006, my bet is the company hasn"t received too much ink. If it had, maybe politicians would reword the rhetoric a bit. As a business, manufacturing doesn"t need saving. Small manufacturers dotting the country continue to thrive without the government"s help.

Consider Fox Valley"s story. Since 2006 the shop has added 25 employees while doubling the size of the businessfrom $11 million to $22 million in revenue a year.

Before plunging into automation, the company had one laser system that ran flat-out, 24-7. We couldn"t take on any more work unless we increased our capacity to cut material, West said. So the company took the leap into a major automation investment, and the shop has seen obvious benefit.

At first glance, a visitor walking through the plant might see a huge, automated machine, a few workers around that machine, and focus just on that. Didn"t this machine, with automated material handling, eliminate several livelihoods? No, said West. It just changed those livelihoods. Laser department employees moved to the press brake and welding area that required extra workers to handle the drastic increase in capacity, thanks to the automation.

President Bush was very intuitive about the equipment, recalled West. He understood that small companies like ours, ones that have made the [automation] investment, have showed how we can increase throughput in our plantand create more jobs.

These are high-value jobs too. Think of it this way: Fox Valleys" first 70 employees produced $11 million worth of product a year. With automation, the company added only 25 employees to double revenue. Since small businesses like Fox Valley make the backbone of the U.S. manufacturing economy, it is little wonder that the country"s manufacturing output continues to climb to unprecedented levels.

On this Super Tuesday, no matter the outcome, I hope the next cadre of elected leaders understand this story, know how important manufacturing jobs are, and do nothing to hinder such job creation down the road.

FMA Communications Inc.

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314