Skilled Worker Shortage
NorTech Boats manufactures high performance powerboats using advanced technologies unique manufacturing processes and stylish designs

Nor-Tech Boats manufactures high performance powerboats using advanced technologies, unique manufacturing processes, and stylish designs.

Traditional Industries Generate High-tech Spinoffs in Southwest Florida

Four Florida manufacturers fuel their success with entrepreneurial drive and supply chains grounded in the US.

I visited Shaw Development, a family-owned company with the third generation now involved, as part of a recent tour of Florida manufacturers sponsored by the Lee County Economic Development Office. Shaw specializes in the design, development and manufacturing of custom fluid management solutions, including diesel emissions fluid (DEF) systems (headers, reservoirs, caps, adapters, strainers, etc.) for heavy-duty vehicles and machinery, as well as agriculture and forestry equipment, power generation, and locomotive equipment.

Stephen Schock, director of Manufacturing, gave us a plant tour first, and then we met with Lane Morlock, chief operations officer. Morlock told me that Frank Shaw founded the first Shaw company, Shaw Metal Products, in 1944 in Buffalo, N.Y., as a machine shop to support the military and developing aerospace market.

Shaw Aero Devices, Inc. was founded in 1954 to add engineering to their core capability and develop products with proprietary intellectual property. Frank’s son, Jim Shaw, headed up this company, and it became the industry standard for a variety of fuel, oil, water, and waste components and systems. Shaw Aero Devices moved to Naples, Fla. (Collier County) in the early 1980s.

Morlock said, "Shaw Development, LLC was formed in 1959 to transfer Shaw Aero Devices technology to ground vehicle markets, particularly the lift and turn technology for fuel caps. We moved into our current 50,000 square foot plant in Bonita Springs in 2008. Shaw entered into the DEF system business early on, and business has grown dramatically in the last 6 to 7 years."

When I asked how much they outsource, he said, "We have a fair amount of capability in-house ─ machining, stamping, forming, welding, paint, assembly and test capabilities. In 2009, we vertically integrated plastic injection molding by acquiring Gulf Coast Mold to bring back our molding from China. We bought a robot for welding that saves us a great deal of time. We buy some machining and sensors outside. In 2014, we added 17,000 square feet to our production space in the plant and expanded our injection molding operation by 6,500 square feet. We added 75 employees over the past three years and our revenue has been increasing +25% YOY in this time period. We are now up to about 200 employees, so we are the second largest manufacturer in the region."

Asked about their challenges, Morlock said, "Our biggest challenge is to get the right talent. We work with Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) and more recently, we have engaged with the University of Miami to find the right talent. We work with local schools and the Southwest Regional Manufacturers Association to develop curriculum and manufacturing industry awareness to the local area. We are heavily involved with STEM and bring in students as interns and offer them the opportunity to work on private projects. One of our welders took a job with the local technical college to train welders, and this has provided us with an opportunity to work with this program and provide them with industry experience."

With regard to my inquiry about being a lean company, he said that he had spent two years at NUMMI (Toyota Joint Venture) gaining an in-depth understanding of the Toyota Production System prior to spending seven years in a leadership role at General Motor’s corporate lean office. He added, "We have a full time lean black belt to train our employees. We have gone from 43-day material turnaround to an average of 27 days in the past two years. Our model for business planning is Hoshin Kanri, and we have a 5-year business plan and an annual business plan tied into it. Our on-time delivery is 98.8% year to date, and our quality ppm has improved by 60% in the past two years. We use a two-bin Kan Ban system and one-piece flow for our assembly line operations. Our employees are cross trained, and we review our manufacturing cell metrics at weekly meetings."

With this emphasis on lean and the fact Shaw Development is both ISO 9000 and 14000 certified, I could see why the company has been recognized as the Manufacturer of the Year for the state of Florida and Southwest Regional Manufacturer of the Year.

American Traction Systems

My next visit was to American Traction Systems (ATS), a privately owned company formed in 2008 by Bonne Posma, as an affiliate of his other company, Saminco, Inc. ATS specializes in the design and manufacturing of electric propulsion systems for on- and off-road electric vehicles ranging from the Ford Fusion to hybrid diesel-electric marine vessels, and airline ground support vehicles. ATS has manufactured electric traction drives for fuel cell buses designed by Ballard and Georgetown University, hybrid-electric systems for Allison Electric Drive division of General Motors, as well as over 3,500 AC/DC and DC/DC controllers for underground mining vehicles. All design and manufacturing is performed in the Fort Myers, Fla., facility with the capacity to deliver production of several hundred units per month.

General Manager Lem Vongpathoum led the plant tour at ATS and then we met with Bonne Posma and his niece, Cari Posma Wilcox, vice president of Saminco, Inc. Wilcox told me that Posma was born in Indonesia of Dutch parents just as WWII erupted in Asia and spent the war years in a prison camp with his parents. His family returned to the Netherlands after the war and then emigrated to Canada.

Posma founded Saftronics in 1968 in Johannesburg, South Africa and then opened a second facility in Ontario, Canada in 1976, which is still in operation as Saft Drives. He opened a Saftronics plant in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1986, which he moved to Ft. Myers, Fla., a year later. He left Saftronics and founded Saminco in 1992. Saftronics was sold to Emerson in 2005. After founding American Traction Systems in 2008, he opened a Saminco service office in China in 2009 and a service office in South Africa in 2011. He also opened an ATS facility in South Africa in 2013. Posma's energy and excitement about his companies was that of someone half his age when he showed us around Saminco and gave us a demonstration of some of the mining equipment at their testing yard.

Posma clarified the difference between the three companies he has founded, saying: "Saftronics made variable speed drives. Saminco makes solid-state electric vehicle traction controllers powered by batteries, diesel-hybrid, fuel cells and power systems, mainly for underground mining equipment. American Traction Systems makes electric and hybrid-electric propulsion systems for a variety of vehicles and equipment. I am the sole owner of both Saminco and ATS, and we have about 120 employees at the Ft. Myers Saminco and ATS plants. We also have a repair facility in Huntington, W. Va., that has 35-40 employees."

There are three things that have destroyed American manufacturing: litigation, regulation and taxes. If we want to level the playing field, we need to get rid of those three things.

—Bonne Posma

Posma explained, "We are competing with major corporations like Siemens, ABB and GE. We have to be more nimble to compete successfully. We competed against these companies for a Navy contract for a propulsion system for the USNS Waters operated by the Military Sealift Command and won the contract. We are getting into solar and working on a new diesel electric propulsion system for a load haul dump (LHD) vehicle that is like a large Bobcat. We are also working on a new induction motor for 'mag lev' trains."

When I asked him about his suppliers, he said, "We use all American suppliers for what we can't do in-house. We buy machining and sheet metal fabrication and use a contract manufacturer for our PCBs. We do full power testing in our lab."

He added, "American workers are some of the highest paid workers in the world. There are three things that have destroyed American manufacturing: litigation, regulation and taxes. If we want to level the playing field, we need to get rid of those three things." 

Marine Concepts

On my last morning in southwest Florida, we visited JRL Ventures, Inc. dba Marine Concepts headquartered in Cape Coral. The facility contains 42,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space, equipped with state-of-the-art CNC robotic machining centers and other technologies. Marine Concepts opened its doors in 1976 under the leadership of Augusto "Kiko" Villalon to be able to go from design to production of boats. Marine industry veterans J. Robert and Karen Long purchased Marine Concepts in 1994.

Marine Concepts is now the largest manufacturer of tooling and molds for the marine industry in the United States. They make CNC plugs, composite molds (open and closed silicone/LRTM), CNC molds, CNC parts, limited production composite parts, scale models, and CNC cold mold kits. In 2012 Marine Concepts opened a facility in Sarasota, Fla., with over 260,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space. The two plants provide 300,000 square feet of manufacturing space and seven 3-5-axis CNC milling machines.

CFO Mac Spencer gave us the plant tour where we watched a boat mold being machined by their very large machining robot. We met with Dan Locke, design manager and senior designer, who has been designing boats since the 1980s, using Unigraphix software that provides more free style for designing surfaces than Solid Works. Spencer said that normally their business was 80% marine vs. 20% non-marine, but during the recession, it was reverse. They diversified into making composite figures and structures for resort parks, such as Disneyland, Universal Studios and Six Flags. They also make composite parts for trams and electric buses. Design work for other marine companies is also a growing part of their business.

Nor-Tech Boats

At Nor-Tech Boats  we met with Cindy Trombley, director of Administration. She said the company was founded in 1980 by Trond Schon, who had moved with his family from Norway to Cape Coral, Fla. Nor-Tech manufactures high performance powerboats using advanced technologies, unique manufacturing processes, and stylish designs. The main manufacturing facility in North Fort Myers encompasses over 45,000 square feet complete with a 20’ x 60’ downdraft paint booth. Within the main building, a state of the art rig shop and in-house upholstery department are climate controlled year round to insure a clean and work friendly environment. The in-house engine development and production division is housed in a secondary facility along with the service department and a rigging facility. We could see three boats in various stages of production in the main plant.

Trombley said they currently have 107 employees, but survived the recession by dropping down to only 35 and going into debt. She said they can make boats up to 80 feet long, and most of the larger sized boats go overseas or to Canada. They make every style of powerboats except for "T-tops." Trombley said, "Our biggest challenge outside of heat and humidity in Florida is finding skilled labor. There are no vocational schools teaching how to build boats. We have low turnover, but an aging workforce. One of the advantages of Florida is that there are no corporate or personal income taxes."

A common thread for most of these companies is the concern about finding the right workers now and in the future. As I have discussed in past articles, this is a nationwide problem, not just in southwest Florida. During discussions with the management of the Lee County Economic Development office and members of the Southwest Regional Manufacturers Association, I shared what is being done to address this problem in other parts of the country and by organizations such as SME's PRIME schools, ToolingU and Project Lead the Way. The more manufacturers and trade associations that get involved in solving this problem, the more successful we will be in attracting and developing the next generation of manufacturing workers.

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