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Bison Gear and Engineering: A National Leader in Innovation and Workforce Development


Right Angle Gearmotors

Railroad gates, combine harvesters, surgical pumps, mobility scooters, beverage dispensers, coffee roasters, routing equipment, and assembly lines all have at least one thing in common: They customarily rely on gearmotor technology to power their operation.

One of the world’s most innovative designers and manufacturers of gearmotor technology is Bison Gear and Engineering, which is based in St. Charles, Illinois, about 40 miles west of Chicago. Bison, which was founded in 1950, serves customers across North America and around the world.

The company has about 260 employees, roughly one-third of which are engineers. Casual observers might be surprised to learn that more than half of the gearmotor products it ships are custom-designed. Bison uses a “design blitz” process that features unusually fast turnaround of proposals, efficient scheduling of all processes including engineering, and an engaged staff that focuses intently on customers’ unique applications and needs. This custom prototying and design blitz process is so effective that it was recognized by the Association for Manufacturing Excellence in late 2013.

Bison began adopting lean manufacturing in 2000, and quickly benefited from that commitment. Productivity increased. Time lost to accidents decreased. Today, all of Bison runs on lean principles – from product development to the assembly line. This allows the firm to develop solutions quickly, provide products to customers at highly competitive prices, and continually refine and improve their internal processes.

The late Ron Bullock, the company's longtime CEO, was an evangelist for careers in manufacturing, and the need to equip current and future workers with the advanced skills needed in the manufacturing industry. He advanced that message through his work in several leadership capacities for the NAM, its workforce development arm (The Manufacturing Institute), and the Illinois Manufacturers Association. Moreover, he also pioneered the Manufacturers Education Initiative, a comprehensive approach to preparing students and adults for careers in advanced manufacturing that is now widely used in Illinois.

It is particularly instructive to see how Bison Gear, itself, has approached workforce development. It starts with the recognition that its employees are the heart of the company. Bison employs a Chief Learning Officer to oversee the development of the company’s workforce. Job applicants are evaluated through an on-site skills assessment called ACT WorkKeys. Applicants must achieve level four scores in all categories before being considered for open positions.

Bison also encourages production employees to continually enhance their skills through the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council’s training-and-testing program. Bison pays for employees to take the self-directed, online learning courses, which cover safety, quality, maintenance, and processes/production. Each module typically requires 15 to 18 hours of self-study. Employees receive cash awards and internal recognition for completing modules and for becoming certified. The company also offers a program called GEAR (Growth Education and Results) that financially supports employees who seek college degrees related to their jobs or career path at Bison.

This emphasis on skills standards and continuous learning is coupled with an onsite fitness center and wellness program that helps employees pursue a healthy work-life balance.

Bison works closely with educators and skills standard board colleagues to ensure that course offerings and workforce programs are as closely aligned as possible to the workforce needs of the manufacturing community.

In the meantime, Bison continues to develop and produce innovative, high-quality products that meet their customers’ rapidly evolving needs. It is a formula for enduring success and a Great Manufacturing Story.