In mid-November, I had the pleasure of touring manufacturing plants in the Louisville, Ky., region as the guest of the Greater Louisville Inc. Initiative. Well-known as the home of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat and the start of the "Bourbon Road" tours of bourbon and rye whiskey distilleries, Louisville has a much more diverse manufacturing base than I expected.
Our first visit was FirstBuild, which is a partnership between GE Appliances and Local Motors. We met with Director Venkat (Natarajan Venkatatakrishman) and Randy Reeves of Operations. Venkat said that they are creating "a new model for the appliance industry, engaging a community of industrial designers, scientists, engineers, makers and early adopters to address some of the toughest engineering challenges and innovations." He explained that "Firstbuild's mission is to invent a new world of home appliances by creating a socially engaged community of home enthusiasts, designers, engineers, and makers who will share ideas, try them out, and build real products to improve your life."
The Microfactory is divided into four sections: an interactive space for brainstorming, focus groups and product demonstration, a lab for prototyping, a fabrication shop, and assembly area. In the interactive space, there were some current projects on display: a smart chillhub refrigerator with two integrated USB hubs, an easy-load double oven with a sliding drawer, a wall-mounted pizza oven for home use, and a micro kitchen. Randy Reeves gave us a tour of the fab shop, and besides the expected 3D printers, they have a CNC mill and lathe, a small turret press, a press brake, a small stamping press, and a laser-cutting machine. The shop is capable of producing up to 2,000 units per year of a new product.
Venkat said, "We test the market for a new product using innovative techniques including Indigogo for crowd funding and preordering of the products. If there is sufficient interest in a new product, we can then manufacture those designs in our Microfactory for rapid product introduction and iteration. We are pioneering the future of work with a new model for inventing, building, and bringing the next generation of major appliances to the market. Since we opened on July 23rd, 2014, we have launched 10 products, and one has been scaled up to mass production."
After lunch, we visited D. D. Williamson (DDW), the world leader in caramel color and a leading provider of natural colors for major food and beverage companies. DDW's natural colorings are used in everything from beer, malt ale, soft drinks, sauces, baked goods, cheese, ice cream, and confectionery products.
I was frankly astonished when Chairman and CEO Ted Nixon told me that the company had been founded in 1865 by Dutch immigrant Douw Ditmars Williamson in New York to manufacture burnt sugars for the brewing industry. He said that the company was well positioned to provide caramel color when the cola soft drink industry started and then expanded into colors for other products in the latter part of the 1900s. The company set up a plant in Louisville in 1948, and then moved its headquarters to Louisville in 1970.
Nixon said, "We set up our first plant outside of the U. S. in Ireland in 1978 to produce caramel for the European cola industry. Then, we set up a plant in Shanghai to manufacture caramel color for customers in Asia. In 1999, we began producing in Swaziland to supply customers in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. In 2001, we opened a plant in Manaus, Brazil to service the South American market and acquired a company in Manchester, England in UK in 2004. Now we have nine plants on five continents."
He added, "About 10 years ago, we launched the first certified organic caramel colors in North America and added annatto extract, turmeric, paprika, and red beet to our natural color portfolio. Our lab is continually working on new natural flavors to keep us as the leading producer of natural colors."
Our last visit of the day was to Peerless Distillery in downtown Louisville. Chairman Corky Taylor gave us a brief history of the company. He said, "The company was originally founded in 1881 by Elijah Worsham and Capt. J. B. Johnston as Worsham Distillery Co. in Henderson, Ky. My great grandfather, Henry Kramer, purchased the company in 1889 after Mr. Worsham died and reincorporated as Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. in 1907. My great grandfather invested in new equipment and built the company up from 300 barrels of bourbon a year to a peak of 23,000 barrels in 1917. He stopped production when America entered WWI that year to aid in the conservation of corn for the war. Production did not resume after the war because prohibition went into effect. The 63,000 barrels in the warehouse were sold for medicinal use during prohibition. My great grandfather invested in and became president of First National Bank of Henderson. My dad went to military school and went in the army. During WWII, he was one of the aides to General Patton."
I asked him what his prior career had been and why he chose to recreate Peerless, and he said, "I owned successful financial services that focused on designing pension systems for government agencies. About five years ago, I sold my business and retired to Sarasota, Fla. Walking the beach one day, I realized that being retired was depressing and boring, so I moved back to Louisville to resurrect my great grandfather's business and leave a legacy. I needed something to make life worth living."
Corky's son Carson was a building contractor and they hired an associate of his, Michael Vaughn, to rehab the building they selected in the historic downtown area being redeveloped. It took over a year to rehab the building, and they began production last February. Michael Vaughn stayed on as operations manager and is working to become a master distiller. Michael gave us the tour of the distillery and told us that it takes four years to age bourbon and two years to age rye whiskey, so they are producing moonshine in the meantime. They have developed unique flavors, and we were each allowed to have a half ounce of two flavors. As a virtual non-drinker, I liked the Green Apple and Chocolate the best. The moonshine is only 44 proof, about the same as wine, and it was a nice way to end our busy day.
The next day, we visited Amatrol, located across the river from Louisville in a 120,000 sq ft. headquarters plant in Jeffersonville, Ind. President Paul Perkins said that his parents, Don and Roberta Perkins, founded the original parent company, Dynafluid, Inc. in 1964. He said the company started as a manufacturer of industrial automation systems for many Fortune 500 companies including Coca Cola, General Electric, Alcoa, Ford, Chrysler, and others.
Perkins said, "Many of our customers wanted help in training their employees to use and maintain the automation systems and other equipment we built, so Amatrol was created as the educational division of Dynafluid in 1978 and was formally incorporated as a separate company in 1981." Amatrol, short for Automated Machine Controls, first provided training equipment to industrial and educational clients for new technologies like those being implemented in Dynafluid’s systems."
Perkins said, "Amatrol was in a unique position to effectively develop training programs for these technologies because its engineers and technicians were thoroughly familiar with the design, application and maintenance of them. Since that time, Amatrol has grown significantly, becoming the leading company in our primary market segments."
Over the years, Amatrol focused its business model by providing training equipment and highly engaging interactive multimedia online training software for high schools, colleges, and private industry in areas such as advanced manufacturing, biotech, engineering technology and mechanical maintenance.
Perkins said, "A key factor to our success is that we have a group of people who have developed a very close connection and understanding of the needs of our customers and a realization that satisfying the needs of our customers to make them successful makes our company successful."
Our next visit was to Rev-A-Shelf, back in Louisville. Rev-A-Shelf was originally a division of Ajax Hardware in California. In 1978, it was established as a division of Jones Plastics and Engineering, a family-owned injection molder of appliance parts, and other custom polymer components, that now has five manufacturing facilities in Kentucky, Tennessee and Monterrey, Mexico.
“We began making metal and polymer Lazy Susan components for some of the largest U.S. cabinet manufacturers,” explained General Manager David Noe. “We are a family owned business with a national scope and a passion for innovation. We have grown our product line from lazy susans to kitchen drawer organizers, base cabinet and pantry pull-outs, functional waste containers, LED lighting systems and childproof locking system to become a market-leading innovator of quality, functional residential cabinet storage and organizational products. We have factories, warehouses and satellite offices strategically located to serve our expanding customer base of kitchen dealers, architects, furniture manufactures, cabinet industry distributors and retail home centers worldwide.”
We toured the assembly plant, down the street from their plastic injection molding facility. The two buildings total 315,000 square feet of space, and the company has about 250 employees. When I asked about lean, Noe said, "We are currently implementing a comprehensive "lean manufacturing" initiative throughout the company. Our goals are to add value to our customers with quality, service, and innovation in everything we do. We are committed to a more functional and organized life for our consumers. Our marketing slogan is "We Are Going to Change the Way You Think about Cabinet Organization!"
The last company I visited was Dant Clayton, a manufacturer of bleachers and stadium grandstand structures. Founded in 1979 by Bruce Merrick, the company started out making bleachers for Little League ball fields and has grown to providing everything needed for up to 60,000-seat stadiums.
We toured the two production plants built next to the corporate headquarters of the Dant Clayton campus, consisting of 350,000 square feet of production space, spanning 25 acres. The company has a full range of material finish capabilities in-house, including powder coating of steel and aluminum and blasted slip-resistant deck. It was astonishing to see 3 foot by 12 foot steel beams attached to hooks moving down the 600 foot robotic powder coating line before entering the oven to cure. I have never seen such a large supply of aluminum extrusions anywhere. I am sure that having these capabilities and equipment internally allows for greater quality control and continuous improvement.
Merrick said, "For the first few years, we experienced 20% growth before flattening for awhile. Thereafter, we would experience growth spurts for two or three years, and during the growth spurts, we doubled the seating capacity of our bleachers from 500 to 1,000, to 2,000, to 5,000, to 10,000, to 25,000 and then 50,000." Merrick explained that they are the most competitive when they get involved at the design stage and provide engineering, construction management, and installation services.
When I asked what are the key factors are that have led to his company's success, he said, "A culture of continuous improvement that goes beyond lean manufacturing to include product development, R&D efforts, and discovering latent customer needs, as well as rigorous hiring practices, and a culture of personal development and accountability by all employees."
The examples of commitment to excellence and continuous improvement displayed by the companies I visited in Louisville are what make America great. And yes, I did get to visit the home of the Louisville Slugger between appointments. The company was wooed back from Indiana to set up their manufacturing plant right on the main street of downtown Louisville, and you can watch the bats being made through windows on two sides of the building and visit the museum that houses the model bats for all of the famous baseball sluggers.