Robots Play a Big Role in Keeping Little Giant Ladders Made in America

Little Giant Ladder Systems takes credit for unveiling the world's first articulating ladder in the early 1970s. But it wasn't until 2003 -- when the company launched an infomercial touting its made-in-the-USA ladders -- that Little Giant became a big name among American consumers.

"Foreign competition was coming in, basically straight from Asia at about half the price of a Little Giant," recalls Ryan Moss, CEO of the Springville, Utah-based manufacturer.

"So we made the decision to run an infomercial [featuring company founder Harold "Hal" Wing] to brand Little Giant as the original, American-made, safest, strongest, most versatile ladder in the world.

"It was wildly successful for a number of years."

That's not an exaggeration. In the first year after the infomercial hit the airwaves, Moss estimates that Little Giant's sales climbed 540%. The following year, business grew more than 500%, according to Moss.

"Adding people became a daily routine," Moss says.

Little Giant's Moss: "We love building products in America."

That gradually changed as Little Giant's sales came down from the "artificial high" of the infomercial. With sales tapering off and foreign competitors continuing to exert cost pressures on Little Giant's business, the company that once trumpeted its made-in-the-USA ladders toyed with the idea of making its products in Asia.

"We had discussions back and forth, back and forth, because of foreign competition," Moss recalls.

"But we made a decision that we were going to stay American-made."

Product quality was the No. 1 factor in keeping Little Giant in the United States, Moss adds.

"It's not that important to us to be the cheapest," he says. "We want to be the best. We want to have the most versatile, safest, high-quality products. And we feel like the solution for that is right here in Springville, Utah."

Still, like any manufacturer, Little Giant does everything it can to keep its costs down. Moss points to the company's investment in robotic welding technology during the height of the infomercial "chaos" as a critical tool in managing costs and responding to spikes in demand.

"It's been a great blessing to our company," Moss says.

Robots Always on Call

Little Giant produces ladders for the U.S. market in a 250,000-square-foot factory in Springville. The plant, which employs approximately 250 people, has eight double-sided robotic welding stations made by Lincoln Electric Co. and Fanuc Robotics America Corp.

Over the years, Little Giant has perfected the process of manually welding aluminum -- which is "much, much trickier than welding steel," Moss says. But prior to using robots, it was difficult for the company to quickly ramp up production when demand spiked.

"When we had this incredible growth [triggered by the infomercial], we found a bunch of people that could weld, but very few of them had welded aluminum," Moss recalls. "And so we would spend weeks and weeks and weeks training them on this process that we developed over the years.

He adds: "It was difficult to keep that consistency and train them, because it's such a unique way that we're welding."

Now that robots handle most of the welding, the plant responds to peaks in demand simply by running the robots longer -- without incurring overtime costs.

"Our standard shift is 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday. So our guys are working four tens. But if we need to work Fridays, Saturdays, evenings, those robots are set. They're in place. You're not trying to train other people to come in and fill in those spikes when you need it."

'Fantastic' Welders

Little Giant still has "fantastic" welders on staff who pitch in during times of high demand, Moss says. When they're not welding, many of them program the robots to accommodate the different sizes and styles of ladders and load the fixtures onto the robots.

"And as they pull the product off, they can quickly recognize if there's been any type of hiccup or not -- which is rare but it does happen."

Little Giant, which sells ladders to the consumer, commercial, government and military markets, took its lumps during the recession, particularly from the precipitous drop-off in building and construction activity. After having to trim its workforce, the company is hiring again, and Moss is upbeat about Little Giant's future.

The use of robotics and automation -- the plant recently installed an automated high-pressure wash line to clean its products -- will be key to the company's future in the United States.

"We love building products in America," Moss says. " ... It's robotics, automation and those types of things that will help us continue to be as cost-effective as we can here in the states."

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