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Polaris Industries: Popular Products, Major Employer

  • January 7, 2015

As every outdoors enthusiast knows, Polaris Industries is the manufacturer of premier snowmobiles, motorcycles, and all terrain vehicles. What people may not realize is that Polaris is a major manufacturing employer not only Minnesota, where it is based, but also in Iowa, where it has about 1,250 additional employees. (Other Minnesota-based Great Manufacturing Stories include RTP Company, Wyoming Machine, Andersen Windows, Shutterfly Inc., and Donaldson Company.)

The company headquarters is in Medina, just outside of Minneapolis. Roseau, Minnesota, not far from the Canadian border, is not only the birthplace of Polaris Industries, but also of the sport of snowmobiling, dating back to 1954. Snowmobile R&D and manufacturing, as well as plastic injection molding, continues in Roseau. A LEED certified R&D facility opened in 2005 in Wyoming, Minnesota. GEM electric vehicles are developed in nearby Osceola. The worldwide distribution center is in Vermillion, South Dakota.

In Iowa, Polaris manufactures products from a converted ice factory in Spirit Lake, and a former Stylecraft furniture center in Milford. The Slingshot line of three-wheel motorcycles, introduced in 2014, has been spectacularly well received, keeping the factory and its employees busy.

Modern manufacturing is more efficient than ever, but it still provides high-quality jobs for those with the right skills (especially when the company continually improves its products through faithful investments in R&D, and upgrades its plants to remain state-of-the-art). Polaris Industries is a great example, and is therefore another Great Manufacturing Story.  

AMERICAN Cast Iron Pump Company: Hall of Fame Quality Engineering

  • November 13, 2014

Have you ever wondered where those ubiquitous fire hydrants on city streets come from?

Many are manufactured by a company called American Cast Iron Pipe Company, also known as ACIPCO, and by its subsidiary company, Waterous.

ACIPCO was founded in 1905 in Birmingham, Alabama, where it continues to be the city’s largest private-sector employer. The founder was a devout Christian, John Eaghan, who believed pipes were the solution to delivering clean water to millions of people. Eaghan also was a leader in introducing shorter work weeks, overtime pay, health insurance, retirement benefits, and onsite medical care.

Today, there are 1,600 workers in Birmingham, and about 1,000 more at other plants in the U.S. and Brazil. The Birmingham plant is the world’s largest ductile-iron pipe producing plant, and has been inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame. ACIPCO was the first North American maker of ductile pipes to achieve ISO 9000 certification for product quality.

Meanwhile, by acquiring other well-established fluid-control manufacturers, ACIPCO now has a broad product line and several production centers.

Many of the fire hydrants and valves are made in Beaumont, Texas. There is a castings plant in Oklahoma, a pipe plant in South Carolina, a rubber products facility also in Alabama, and the Waterous Company plant in Minnesota. Now an ACIPCO subsidiary, Waterous was relocated to St. Paul in 1886 and made the first-gas-engine driven fire pump. Today, Waterous makes vehicle-mounted and portable fire pumps, foam systems, water hydrants, and valves.  

Wilton: A Manufacturer Adapts to 73 Years of Challenges and Opportunities

  • May 12, 2014


Back in 1941, Hugh Vogl, a Czech immigrant, launched a business in Chicago, manufacturing a high-quality vise. The product’s unique design created a central pull that completely eliminated dead motion. He named the product line Wilton after the street on which the factory was located. Soon after the company’s launch, the U.S. entered World War II, and the federal government became Wilton’s sole customer.

The conclusion of the war led indirectly to the first crisis in the company’s history. Once the war ended, the government unloaded surplus hardware on the open market at reduced prices, making it virtually impossible for Wilton to sell new products at competitive prices. This nearly resulted in the end of the company. However, the family-owned business eventually responded by introducing new products – high-quality C-clamps – and building a distribution network in the fast-growing auto industry. Through those two steps, Wilton was again a profitable and viable business in the 1950s.

Seeking growth opportunities to help the company weather the challenges of business cycles, Wilton began making smaller vises for the do-it-yourself and hobbyist markets in the early 1970s, and opened a second factory in Tennessee. This also proved to be a successful business strategy. Then in the 1990s, Wilton purchased the Warren Tool Group, which made the Columbian Vise in Cleveland.

One of the next challenges for the entire vise industry was that their products were so durable, they simply didn’t wear out, eliminating the need for replacements. Moreover, as a lot of manufacturing operations starting moving overseas, that trend also took a toll on demand. Ownership changes occurred in 2002 and again in 2014. Not surprisingly, the Great Recession posed another historic challenge for the company.

Wilton responded to reduced demand through diversification and innovation. They retained some manufacturing in the U.S., while shifting some to China. They introduced other tools, and now offer brass sledgehammers with unbreakable handles; road-ready vises for use on all-terrain vehicles; a variety of F-clamps and C-clamps; and specialized Wilton vises with advanced features for use in drill press and milling applications.

The Wilton Tool Company is now headquartered just outside of Nashville, with a manufacturing facility in Carpentersville, Illinois. As it prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2016, Wilton remains an example of perseverance in the manufacturing industry.  

Peavey Electronics: Top Quality at a Fair Price

  • February 25, 2014


As a young man in 1957, Hartley Peavey went to a Bo Diddley concert, fell in love with rock and roll guitar music, and the course of his life and career were forever changed.

Peavey is the President and CEO of Peavey Electronics, one of the largest independently owned manufacturers of amplifiers, sound systems, microphones, guitars, drums, consumer electronics, and other products. The Mississippi-based company has 33 facilities on three continents, including 18 in its home state. Hartley founded the company in 1965 and has been its sole owner and CEO.

Peavey Electronics produces 2,000 products that are sold in 136 countries. Their instruments or equipment can be seen in use on stage at concerts by the likes of Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Three Doors Down, Visqueen, Nickelback, Hank Williams, Jr., and in facilities like the Beijing Airport, Sydney Opera House, Hollywood Palace, Disney and Six Flags theme parks, and New York’s Apollo Theatre. In fact, the company has made it possible for artists, churches, and organizations all over the world to afford quality sound equipment.

So how does someone go from attending a Bo Diddley concert to becoming a legend in the music-products manufacturing industry?

As a kid, Hartley used to win science fairs and model airplane contests, so he had an aptitude for building things. He was also growing up in Mississippi, at a time when much of what we call rock and roll was taking root in the region up and down the Mississippi River. Peavey’s father was a big-band musician who owned a local music store and had his son select the records to carry, with the criteria being records that young people would purchase. So Hartley became familiar with the emerging artists so popular in that region, and beyond, like Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and B.B. King.

Hartley applied his aptitude for technology to build his own guitar, and then his own amplifier. He hoped to be a rock star, but after getting kicked out of three bands, he had what he calls a serious conversation with himself. “My gift,” he told an interviewer in 2010, “was building things. And thank the good Lord, I had the intestinal fortitude to realize that I wasn’t the greatest musician, and to sit down and decide what I was good at, and then to go for it.” 

In the 1960s, the independent manufacturers of instruments and equipment were being bought up by corporate conglomerates, and many felt the results were higher prices and declining quality. So Peavey saw an opportunity and built his business around providing top-quality products at fair prices (rather than pushing the limits of what the market would bear). That is a philosophy his company has maintained for nearly 50 years, under his steady leadership.

The Peavey product catalog is constantly evolving, because the trends in music and the needs of musicians are always changing. One of the most complex products to develop was the MediaMatrix, introduced in 1993. It is a software-based digital networking system, with more than one million lines of source code. Innovation continues at a fast pace. And the new Vipre amplifier, which was debuted at the National Association of Musical Merchants (NAMM) show in 2013, has amazing features and is one of the most versatile amp products on the market.

Hartley Peavey is proud to be a manufacturer, and has been a member of the National Association of Manufacturers and the NAMM for years and years. He is also proud of the opportunities his company creates, not only for its employees, but for its customers, in terms of providing affordable, highest-level products.

His business success reflects the fact that he found something that his natural talents would allow him to be good at, and that he worked extremely hard. There is a lot of sacrifice in getting to the top of a business, he says, and you’ll never get there with an eight hour day. His company’s many thousands of satisfied customers are grateful for his hard work, business philosophy, and continued commitment to innovation.

For more Great Manufacturing Stories, click here.

Gibson: Leader in Guitar Quality, Technology, and Sales

  • February 25, 2014

If rock and roll is the fusion of musical creativity with human energy, then the guitar is certainly the foundation of the genre. The largest guitar manufacturer of them all is Gibson, and they manufacture their guitars in the U.S.  

Talk to Gibson executives, and they will tell you that their substantial market share is due the quality, beauty, and technology associated with their products. (In fact, some of their guitars employ as many as eight microprocessors.) They are made in factories in Memphis, Tennessee and in Bozeman, Montana. Gibson spares little or no expense in making high-quality instruments capable of producing extraordinary sound.

Gibson’s history is as illustrious as their current success. It was founded in Michigan in 1902 by Orville Gibson, with an emphasis on making durable, single-piece mandolins. Though Orville passed away in 1918, the business carried on, introducing new offerings such as electric guitars, banjos and mandolins starting in the 1930s. Chicago Musical Instruments bought the company in 1944. The new leaders introduced the phenomenal Les Paul guitars, Byrdland guitars, and the Firebird, and began carving out Gibson’s role in modern music history.

After several ownership changes, the venerable brand was close to bankruptcy in 1986. But some sound business decisions, coupled with a renewed focus on product quality, technology, and 24/7 service, revived the Gibson brand, to the delight of its legions of fans.

Today, the company’s stable of brands includes Gibson, Wurlitzer, Baldwin, Kramer, Aeolian, and Epiphone, among others. On the plant floor, technicians use the finest manufacturing equipment, some of which Gibson says must be purchased and imported from Germany because it is not made in North America. Skilled technicians set up and operate CNC mill machines as part of the manufacturing process, while other employees make sure each instrument has an impeccable finish.

By providing the highest-quality instruments, Gibson sells them at a premium. That also allows them to invest in their workforce with highly competitive wages, benefits and training.

Gibson received publicity in 2011 when federal authorities raided its plant to seize wood that they claimed was illegally imported. Millions of Americans felt the case was an example of government overreach, especially since the government told the company that use of the wood would be okay if they manufactured the guitars overseas. In some ways, the story had a happy end. After settling the case with the government, Gibson unveiled a Government Series guitar using the wood returned by the feds. The new guitars sold out in near-record time.

Even after all these years, the Les Paul guitar remains Gibson’s best seller. With continually enhanced technology and a commitment to quality, Gibson is a true Great Manufacturing Story.  

Steinway Pianos: The Finest Tradition of Craftsmanship and Artistry

  • February 15, 2014

Model D

Steinway pianos are built by hand, with the highest level of quality craftsmanship, at the company’s factory is in Queens, New York. Such is the excellence of these instruments that Steinway has been the piano of choice for composers and artists ranging from Sergei Rachmaninoff, Gustav Mohler, Arthur Rubenstein, and Irving Berlin, to Shirley Horn, Billy Joel, Diana Krall, and Harry Connick, Jr. Such is their durability that the Steinway presented to the White House in 1938 during the Franklin Roosevelt administration is still in use there today.

The company began operation in 1871. Unlike many of the modern manufacturing stories highlighted at, this is not a story of advanced robotics and automation. The plant is modern, but has used many of the same patented procedures and practices for decades.

About 85 percent of a piano is wood. Steinway carefully selects wood that is air-dried for up to one year before it makes it into the factory, where it is further dried with a kiln to eliminate any tendency to warp or crack.

Production begins with shaping of the rim. Six men carry 20-foot strips of maple that will form the inner and outer rims of the piano. The employees then apply presses that were invented in 1880 by Theodore Steinway and whose technology is still in use today. Heat is later applied, and the glue is set. The rim is then cured for several months in a 95 degree conditioning room. A strong rim is critical, since stringing can cause up to 45,000 pounds of pressure.

Months later, the rim is sanded, and fitted with bracing, which augments the tonal projection and tuning stability. Alaskan spruce is used for the soundboard. A cast-iron plate holds the springs and is lowered and carefully fitted into the rim with attention to detail, a process that can take several hours to complete.

The piano is then strung by hand. The bridge transmits vibrational energy from the strings to the soundboard. Hammers are made in the Steinway factory and are glued to the hammer-shanks. Finally, the entire key-frame is carefully fitted into position within the casing of the instrument.

Gauges are used to measure the precise length of key depth travel. Each key is hand-tested by on-staff inspectors and adjusted as necessary. Finishes are then applied. When the manufacturing process is completed, the result is a Steinway piano that will provide decades of music and that will appreciate in value over time.

For more Great Manufacturing Stories, click here.

MasterLock: A New Lock Every 2.1 Seconds

  • January 18, 2014

MasterLock received international attention in early 2012 when President Obama lauded the Milwaukee-based company for creating 100 new jobs there, rather than at their production facilities in China or Mexico. The President’s remarks came in conjunction with an event he hosted called the Insourcing American Jobs Forum. In addition to MasterLock, manufacturers highlighted included Ford Motor, Rolls-Royce, Chesapeake Bay Candle Company, and Keen Footwear, among others.

For MasterLock, the choice to expand production and create jobs in Milwaukee was made possible by industrial automation investments at the Milwaukee facility that have helped it stay price-competitive with the company’s international plants.

The production of a combination lock today is extraordinarily automated. At the impressive Milwaukee plant, parts are placed in an advanced machine, which then churns out a fully assembled new lock every 2.1 seconds. That means a single machine can make about 1,740 locks in a single hour. Before the automation, it took about 20 employees to make each lock. Now it requires a fraction of that total to program, manage and maintain a machine. The factory now produces twice as many locks as it did in 2009, when it commenced its technology upgrades, even though it employs fewer workers. Many of the newer jobs require advanced computer-related skills.

MasterLock has re-engineered many of its products. For example, bicycle locks are more effective and versatile than those from a generation ago. Similarly, at a web URL called, commercial and industrial purchasers can choose the keying, weatherability, size, and laser engraving options best suited for their unique security applications. MasterLock also provides software products for uses like locker-room management.

The company, which has been a subsidiary of Fortune brands since the Sixties, is investing in network systems to allow sales data from stores to be transmitted directly to plants in real time, providing detail such as the type, size, and color of locks being sold. This data will allow sound production decisions to be made more quickly. To build the durable network needed to generate, track, and safeguard the data, MasterLock has partnered with Rockwell Automation and Cisco Systems on routers and ports that can withstand high temperatures.

Since its founding in 1921, MasterLock has, in a sense, been a part of American culture. Harry Houdini posed in a MasterLock in 1925. Three years later, their locks were used in enforcement efforts during Prohibition. The company exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, and introduced its first combination lock two years later. Its staff worked 24-7, seven days a week, to support the war effort in the early Forties. The three-foot cable lock was introduced as customers became more mobile in the Sixties. Its products were used on the U.S.S. Wisconsin battleship in 1988, and the company implemented an assertive environmental plan in 1991. In the context of that history, the recent investment in industrial automation is just another example of the innovation that has helped MasterLock become an iconic brand with manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and abroad.  

McCormick Spices: Great Taste Starts with a Commitment to R&D

  • January 9, 2014

It would be hard to find a company that does more to bring life to the taste of food than McCormick Spices, whose products can be found in residential and commercial kitchens around the world. McCormick is celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2014 with its annual Flavor Forecast, new recipes, videos, and opportunities for its customers to share their ideas.  

The company was founded in Baltimore. Today, it operates plants in Hunt Valley, Maryland; Gretna, Louisiana; South Bend, Indiana; Atlanta, Georgia; Irving, Texas; and London, Ontario; and one in Mexico, as well as a number of plants overseas. About 40% of sales come from non-U.S. operations.

Consumers are often surprised when they learn how much R&D goes into the company’s products. McCormick typically will invest between $52 million and $58 million in R&D each year at its research labs and product-development facilities. These efforts focus on developing new products, improving existing ones, and finding ways to lower sodium and calories, to help consumers more easily comply with recommend dietary guidelines that often include reducing salt, fat, and added sugars. McCormick is also involved in studies of diets in a variety of global regions.

Through the years, McCormick has grown its business not only by developing its own products but also through acquisitions. Its purchase of A. Schilling of San Francisco in 1947, enabled distribution across the entire continent. Canada’s largest spice company, Gorman Eckert Ltd, was acquired in 1962. Then came a frozen-foods acquisition, Gilroy Foods, in 1973. McCormick added an interest in Old Bay seasonings in 1990 and purchased Lawry’s seasonings in 2008. Today, the company employs about 8,000 people worldwide.

Raw materials, such as peppers and onions, are sourced both locally and internationally. McCormick’s manufacturing processes are highly efficient, yet the company continually works to minimize waster. Instead of relying on landfills or incinerators, McCormick recycles its scrap metals, cardboard, office paper, plastics, and food waste whenever it can. The London, Ontario plant recycles nearly 45% of its solid waste, and the Monteux, France plant now recycles 75% of waste. Packaging is minimized whenever possible.

Spices, rubs, and seasonings make food more delicious, and in that process, bring people and even different cultures a little bit closer together. And that may be, as McCormick celebrates its 125th anniversary, the company’s greatest achievement of all!

Zildjian: Making Cymbals for the E Street Band and Other Stars

  • January 3, 2014

Long-established manufacturers are understandably proud of their companies’ heritage. Many of the manufacturers highlighted on are publicly-traded or family-owned businesses whose legacy goes back many generations. None reach back further, though, than a Massachusetts-based percussion-products manufacturer named Zildjian that traces its history back to the year 1623.

The $50 million, 15th-generation company employs more than 110 people. Its customers include music educators, bands and orchestras, and popular musicians like Max Weinberg (of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band fame), Mick Fleetwood, Chicago drummer Tris Imboden, and Joey Kramer of Aerosmith. Today, the company’s products include a broad variety of cymbals that produce uniquely different sounds, along with digital cymbal processors, drumsticks and mallets.

The roots of the enterprise date back to Avedis Zildjian, an Armenian alchemist who composed a unique mixture of copper, tin and silver to create cymbals with unique sounds. His instruments won the favor of the Sultan, who asked him to move into the palace and make cymbals full-time. After doing so for a period of years, Avedis received the Sultan’s permission to strike out on his own as an entrepreneur. Avedis’s descendents nurtured the business for generations, and then moved its operations to the U.S. in 1929. The company is now based in Norwell, Massachusetts, an affluent small town south and east of Boston; and the sounds of its cymbals can be heard around the world.

Karsten Manufacturing: Maker of the PING Golf Clubs

  • December 26, 2013

Serious golfers often turn to Phoenix-based Karsten Manufacturing for custom-order irons, woods, putters, and accessories. The privately owned business was founded in 1959, and continues to push the envelope in terms of golf technology today.

The company was founded by the late Karsten Solheim, who was the first club manufacturer to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Karsten’s vision was to build better clubs, with optimal weightings and larger sweet spots, so that more golfers could improve their game and enjoy the playing experience.

Born in Norway and raised in Seattle, Solheim was an engineer with General Electric in California, who began building his PING putters in his garage. By 1967, he was able to quit his job and devote his full energies to the business, which was by now based in Phoenix. Exposure came as Sports Illustrated highlighted his clubs, and as his clients began winning PGA tournaments, which helped the company grow into the business it is today.

These days, the company offers plant tours which are a real treat for golf lovers and manufacturing enthusiasts alike. Karsten staff will also conduct a five-step fitting at no charge to help golfers determine the best dimensions for their clubs, based on not only their height, but also their stance and swing. Proper fittings can help golfers get the most value from their investment in clubs. Once the Karsten staff establishes the proper fitting, the customer takes those figures to a pro shop or Karsten authorized retailer to place the actual order, and soon enough, to enjoy their new club or clubs.