The silent foundation of U.S. manufacturing

November 26, 2007
By: Tim Heston

On Sunday, after the Thanksgiving guests departed, with enough turkey leftovers to last for the next few millennia or so, and with my wife and 9-month-old daughter out at a brunch, I had a quiet moment to sit.

Yes, sit. And as any parent knows, sitting is not something somebody with a 9-month-old takes for granted.

For one blissful hour, it was just my paper and me. Paging through the business section, I saw the usual company profile the paper runs on Sunday. This week it was on a health care firm specializing in case management. Other Sundays have featured debt collection agencies, payroll service firms, information technology firms, more IT firms, health care services, health care services, and did I mention health care services?

Not often do you find a manufacturing firm, and judging by the attendees at the FABTECH International & AWS Welding Show earlier this month, I can honestly say our newspaper is missing out on some insightful stories.

During the show I talked to as many attendees as I could, and, like every year, I was amazed at the range of manufacturing going on stateside. Like Nixon"s Silent Majority, these attendees could be called the Silent Foundation of U.S. manufacturing, going about their jobs with great ingenuity, yet with little fuss or fanfare.

Here"s a taste of what a few of them had to say:

When we launched this business 30 years ago, I started out as a tool- and diemaker, but then shifted operations toward general contract manufacturing. The tooling industry had narrowed quite a bit, and it was tough to compete unless you had a large engineering staff and a short amount of lead-time. We have some big-name customers in agriculture, construction, and heavy equipment, and we"re now getting into some defense work, as well as some oil and energy companies. We want to continue to diversify our customer base. We started with nothing. What I"ve learned is it takes a long time for a small, private family business to get where you want to getbut we got there. Today we have 300 employees.

--Larry H. Graening, CEO, GMT Corp., Waverly, Iowa

We"re a precision laser cutting shop serving a range of businesses, from automotive, heavy equipment, and transportation to material handling. We started 11 years ago, and today I think the business end of things is catching up to the technology. By that I mean it"s not so uncommon for a company to have a laser now. We need to diversify, so we"re looking at different fabricating equipment. The greatest challenge today is setting yourself apart from everybody else, to get yourself noticed. Within the past few years lead times have reduced drastically. Average lead-time used to be two weeks; now our average lead-time is four days. We accomplished this through more machinery and better efficiencies.

--Terry Keplinger, contract sales, Staub Laser Cutting, Dayton, Ohio

We"re a leading manufacturing of pellet mill equipment, primarily for feeding animals. We don"t make the pellets, but we sell the equipment. We"re a worldwide company with 500 employees and divisions in Amsterdam and Singapore. Our big challenge was that demand for our product was exceeding our ability to produce it, so we"ve brought more fabrication in-house. Right now we have 80 percent domestic market share and about 75 percent worldwide; we"d like to see those numbers go up by 10 percent.

--David Paquin, senior manufacturing engineer, CPM, Merrimack, N.H.

Spirit AeroSystems Inc. is a fairly new company; we"re only 2 years old. We"re actually a former part of Boeing. Spirit is now the manufacturing end, while Boeing has retained its assembly. Now Spirit can focus on manufacturing, and we can go to our [suppliers], who can make special products themselves, and be more efficient overall. We"re a worldwide company, and we"ve diversified into all kinds of aerospace; we"re not just Boeing anymore.

--Robert Durda, materials and processes engineer, Spirit AeroSystems Inc.,Tulsa, Okla.

We specialize in custom architectural and ornamental work in commercial construction. I tried recently competing with Chinese shops, but they"re beating us 30 cents on the dollar for ornamental railings. That"s why we"re in the customized area. China shops are picking the easy stuff. If everybody else can do the job, it"s not worth it for us to go after it.

--Mike Quick, president, E.C.K. Inc., St. Louis

We"re a job shop specializing mainly in stainless steel kitchen equipment, both commercial and residential. Advancing our technology in recent years has brought a lot of work[jobs] that had left for shops several states away and overseasback to our floor. Within five years, I see us twice as big as we are now.

--Mike Mann, shop manager, Leonard Metal Fabricators, Pearl, Miss.

We"re a manufacturer of aluminum livestock trailers with three plants, one in Pennsylvania, one in Ohio, and one in Iowa. We"re a family-owned business, founded in 1938, and we"ve steadily grown over the years. I"ve been with the company for 27 years, and today the business is more technology-driven. Labor is such a large cost in your product, so you"re looking for all the advantages you can get to reduce that cost. Our biggest problem is space. We"re in a confined space nowonly 8,400 square feetwhere we get 20 trailers out the door a week. So, obviously, we"re looking to expand.

--Doug Deavers, vice president, Ohio Division, M.H. EBY, West Jefferson, Ohio

I"m just launching my business now, moving from Point 0 to Point A. I"m in the art and design business, specializing in the home and garden sectors. It"s been an experience. It takes a lot to make a new business happen. I"ve been a [production worker] for years, and I saw my job going to Mexico, so I went to art school. I"m blending my love of art with my experience working with steel. I figure I"ll follow my passion; my heart is in it, and time will tell whether I succeed or fail.

--Kerry Thompson, Kerrytho Design, Fairmont, Ind.

Talk about diversity. Want to talk to people who sell pellet mills to feed animals? How about a trailer to transport them? Some off-road equipment? How about an airplane wing? Some ornamental steel art for your backyard? Come to the annual FABTECH International & AWS Welding Show, and you can meet them all.

Unfortunately, you aren"t likely to read about most of them in your Sunday paper"s business section.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

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