Workforce, Strategic Location Are Instrumental Assets for Northeast Indiana

Workforce, Strategic Location Are Instrumental Assets for Northeast Indiana

The 10-county Northeast Indiana region is leveraging its prime location and skilled workforce to bolster its manufacturing base.

Just a bit east of Warsaw, Ind., manufacturers are finding the Fort Wayne area to be a hospitable place to serve the medical-device industry.

In 2003, tool-and-die maker Brian Emerick decided to focus his Columbia City, Ind., contract-manufacturing company exclusively on the medical-device industry, after business in other sectors had dried up. Looking back, he says it was "the absolute best thing we ever did."

"We went from being a diversified job shop with 150 customers to a very narrowly focused orthopedic-device manufacturer, and have been nothing but that since," Emerick says. "And we wouldn't even consider another opportunity outside of medical. I don't care what it is -- aerospace, you name it -- we wouldn't even listen to it."

His privately held company, Micropulse Inc., has experienced "good, solid growth since then," Emerick says.

Micropulse co-founder Brian Emerick says making the switch to the medical-device industry was "the absolute best thing we ever did."
Micropulse today has more than 200 employees and operates out of a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Columbia City -- next door to his farmhouse where he first launched the business in 1988.

In Northeast Indiana, Emerick says he's found an ideal location to design and manufacture surgical instruments, implants and delivery systems for the orthopedic industry.

Micropulse is about 30 minutes from Warsaw -- the orthopedic-device manufacturing capital of the world -- where medical-device titans such as Biomet, Symmetry Medical and Zimmer are headquartered.

But it's far enough away from Warsaw that Micropulse doesn't have trouble finding talented help, Emerick says. In fact, some of the high school students hired as interns during the company's early years remain on the payroll today.

"There's a rich manufacturing heritage in the area. It's a very stable climate," Emerick says. "We have very low turnover. Maybe a little bit of it is the economy, but it's rare that somebody leaves here.

"We have a lot of grassroots employees. I have employees who can walk across a cornfield to get here."

Micropulse has been expanding steadily since its inception, and Whitley County and the state were instrumental in making the latest expansion happen. In 2007, Micropulse received tax abatements and matching funds to help finance the addition of 47,000 square feet of manufacturing space to the Columbia City facility.

"We couldn't have done it without them," Emerick says.

Location, Location, Location

While Warsaw isn't considered part of Northeast Indiana, the 10-county region-with Fort Wayne at its hub-is home to more than 60 medical-device companies employing nearly 2,000 people, according to the most recent estimates from the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.

Make no mistake: The region's proximity to Warsaw is a major selling point, and it was a big factor in attracting Iotron Industries Canada Inc., which uses electron-beam irradiation technology to sterilize orthopedic devices and agricultural products.

The Vancouver-based firm is putting the finishing touches on a $15.3 million, 54,000-square-foot greenfield facility near Columbia City, which it expects to start production in 2012.

Just a few miles down the road, Fort Wayne Metals, a Fort Wayne-based manufacturer of fine-grade wire for medical devices, is renovating a former foundry to expand its production capability. Fort Wayne Metals already has six facilities in Northeast Indiana, and the $12.9 million expansion will create 68 jobs by 2014.

Pipeline of Talent

Still, local economic development officials emphasize that the region isn't riding on Warsaw's coattails.

Northeast Indiana's bread-and-butter continues to be old-line industries such as transportation equipment, metals, and plastics and rubber, all of which have been bouncing back from the recession.

General Motors-the region's largest employer-in October announced that it will pump $275 million into its Fort Wayne Assembly plant to produce GM's next-generation full-size pickup truck, and Michelin North America in March announced a $50 million upgrade and expansion of its BFGoodrich tire plant in Woodburn, Ind.

"We have very supportive city, county and state governments, a good transportation infrastructure, a workforce familiar with industry and manufacturing, and a good supplier network here," says Mike Glinksi, manager of GM's Fort Wayne Assembly Plant, on why GM has been in the region since 1986.

Meanwhile, the region's food-processing industry has been growing steadily over the past decade-from 3,539 jobs in 2001 to 4,153 jobs in 2011-highlighted by Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream's expansion of its Fort Wayne manufacturing facility, which makes Edy's ice cream and other Nestle frozen products.

In recent decades, the region's key advantage has been the fact that employers "can find a manufacturing workforce here at a pretty reasonable wage," explains John Stafford, director of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne's Community Research Institute.

Economic development officials have made it a top priority to ensure that the region's labor force of 335,000 people continues to be "a distinguishing trait for our region," adds John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.

To that end, there's a major initiative underway-funded by a $20 million grant from an Indianapolis-based philanthropic foundation-to upgrade the skills of the region's workforce.

The aptly named Talent Initiative is focusing on several strategies, including retraining adult workers for advanced-manufacturing jobs; expanding the menu of engineering programs at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne; and launching New Tech high schools that use project-based learning models.

"If we can demonstrate nationally -- but more importantly, to the companies that exist in this region -- that they're going to have a pipeline of the right kind of talent, we think that they will do more work here in the future," Sampson says.

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