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Small Manufacturers

Bert Miller of Phoenix Closures: Advocate for Job Creation

  • December 25, 2013

Some of America’s small and mid-size manufacturers can trace their roots back more than 100 years. An example is Phoenix Closures, based in Naperville, Illinois, which designs and manufactures plastic lids for products like Jif peanut butter, Nestea powdered drink, Coffee Mate creamer, Taster’s Choice coffee, and Hershey’s single-serving milk, along with many cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and other products.

The company’s origins date back to 1890, when a Civil War veteran named John Giles founded a business making glass jars. Three years later, he expanded into manufacturing caps. A subsequent merger in 1911 with the Phoenix Cap Company out of New York formed the foundation of today’s Phoenix Closures.

Phoenix introduced the modern continuous-thread cap in 1922, the pulp-and-glassine liner system in the 1930s, and the AccuSeal sealing system in 2001. Yet, many of their patents have been awarded just within the last five years. The company likes to say that innovation at Phoenix Closures is a process, not an event.

Phoenix Closures operates four manufacturing facilities and one stand-alone warehouse. They also have a representative in Great Britain who facilitates exports to Europe. Their newest plant, opened in 2012, is in Greencastle, Indiana. The building previously had been an auto-parts stamping plant. Phoenix Closures took advantage of the existing crane bay and rail access, but otherwise redeveloped the 250,000 square foot building completely to accommodate their equipment and employees.

Bert Miller, who until recently was the company’s longtime CEO, has been a dedicated advocate for manufacturing and for policies conducive to job creation. He is a past chair of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, a Board member of the National Association of Manufacturers, and the 2007 recipient of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Entrepreneur of the Year honor.

Workforce development has been a priority, and not long ago, Phoenix Closures was honored in Indiana with a WorkOne Achievement Award for its dedication to creating job opportunities. Those efforts are particularly appreciated in the Hoosier state, where unemployment has been persistently high in recent years.

Meanwhile, Phoenix Closures will continue to innovate and meet the needs of its customers. So the next time you remove the plastic lid from a jar of peanut butter or other product, know that there is a good chance it was made by the folks at Phoenix Closures, drawing on their 124 years in the business.

Dalco Metals: Mastering the 5S System

  • December 17, 2013

Developed in Japan, the 5S system is a lean manufacturing process built around – as translated into English -- sorting, setting in order, shining, standardizing and sustaining. One of the U.S. manufacturers that has implemented 5S and swears by its effectiveness is Dalco Metals, a small manufacturer based in Walworth, Wisconsin.

The theory behind 5S is that a disorganized work space leads to lost production time at best (as frustrated workers hunt for the paperwork, tool or part they need), and machine malfunctions or production errors at worst. 5S requires companies to focus on organization, cleanliness, visual order, and standardization. To have value, 5S must be practiced continually; it can’t just be a one-time exercise like a “spring cleaning.”

Dalco Metals is a supplier of flat-rolled steel-processing services to customers in a multi-state region. It is a family-owned company that celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013. John Ring, the company’s president, had already heard about 5S when he participated in a workshop hosted by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP). Unsure at first whether their factory floor would benefit from 5S, Dalco first focused on bringing lean principles into their administrative office. Staff members were re-grouped around work flow, rather than by department. Administrative procedures were reviewed and streamlined. As a result, administrative processing times were reduced by half.

Seeing those results, Dalco was ready to take a closer look at the factory floor. 5S involves reviewing and re-thinking employees’ activities, and ensuring that their work area accommodates their productivity and effectiveness. Employees were asked for their input as part of this process. The goal is for tools, equipment, and documents to be located within 30 seconds. The result of the process was more than 225 improvements on the shop floor, resulting in more standardized and efficient work flow. As the economy began to improve, Dalco was positioned to process orders quicker.

By demonstrating the value of 5S as part of a lean program, Dalco Metals is a Great Manufacturing Story.


Walker Magnetics: A Small Manufacturer with Deep Roots

  • December 5, 2013


Back in 1896, a Massachusetts resident named Oakley Walker invented what is known as the electromagnetic chuck, a device that produces a variable magnetic pull that can be used to lift and hold ferrous metals. In a story that demonstrates the longevity of so many manufacturers in America, the company he founded, Walker Magnetics, is still doing business, and is still based in Massachusetts.

But it is doubtful that Oakley Walker would recognize his enterprise, which now has customers in 190 countries. Walker Magnetics is the largest company in the world that designs and manufactures magnetic products for workholding, lifting, material handling, and separation applications. It has about 200 employees.

Through the years, new applications have been developed. In the area of energy, Walker provides the magnet systems that move the steel that goes into the columns of large turbines for wind energy. They supply the magnetics used by street-sweeper trucks to clear ferrous metals out the way. The company also provides electromagnetics for the drums used at municipal solid waste plants, auto shredding, and mining operations.

As companies strive to be as efficient as possible, one of the processes they try to optimize is material handling. Here again, Walker’s magnets can be used to lift or hold coils, billets and rails, plates, and bundles. The company’s employees also make LiftMaster magnets, which can lift large volumes of metal scrap out of confined places, and even detect radiation in scrap materials.

In 2013, the privately held company was purchased by Alliance Holdings in Abingdon, Pennsylvania, which has brought modern financial strength to the manufacturing expertise and institutional knowledge at this venerable American industrial company.

Vitamix: Rugged Quality, Commitment to Healthy Diets, and Export Success Fuel Global Business

  • November 29, 2013

As increased information becomes available about the benefits of healthy diets, more people are turning to blenders to create their own whole-food juices, soups, and smoothies. Consumers by the thousands have learned the hard way that not all kitchen blenders are created equally. A number of the products on the market are prone to jamming or breaking.

Product quality sets Vitamix apart. This manufacturer, which is based in Olmsted Township, Ohio, just west of Cleveland, has been selling kitchen products since 1921 and making blenders since 1937. It is a leader in blending technology, and has developed high-quality blenders that have the versatility and durability to stand up to the challenges of the whole-foods era. The firm now has several hundred employees who make and ship hundreds of thousands of products each year.

Vitamix is now a fourth-generation family business that has, since the beginning, been an advocate for healthy diets. In 1969, the company president unveiled the Vitamix 3600, the first blender that could make soup, blend ice cream, grind grain, and knead bread dough. His wife created hundreds of recipes for healthy and tasty foods that could be made with the Vitamix. The firm added a commercial blender for the foodservice industry to its product mix in 1985. Vitamix can also perform service on machines up to 20 years old, pending the availability of parts.

The company learned early on that they key to selling its products is getting people to see demonstrations. That is why you may well have seen Vitamix being demonstrated in a store in your community or on television (they have been on television, in fact, since 1949).

If product quality and durability sets Vitamix apart from its competition, its success in the global marketplace helps make it a Great Manufacturing Story. Vitamix products are now available in more than 100 countries, from Antigua to Vietnam.

That wasn’t always the case, of course. When Jodi Berg joined the family business in 1997, Vitamix was primarily a domestic business, and her mission was to make it an international company. She visited 13 countries that year, some of them multiple times (while also planning her wedding). In doing so, she drew on her background as a certified quality auditor and a director of quality and training for Ritz-Carlton.

As she explains an in article in Cleveland Business Connects, their goal was not to grow quickly, but rather to ensure the same product quality and customer experience in each market they penetrated. That focus meant saying “no” to traditional export companies, and fostering a slower, more personal approach in which it cultivates relationships, and articulates specific expectations, from its distributors. The success internationally has been dynamic. Former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke bestowed the E Award for exporting success on the company in 2010. In 2012, the firm won a Kitchen Innovations award from the National Restaurant Association, as well. Moreover, Berg went on to become the company's president, ensuring its continued dedication to its founding principles as it meets the needs of health-conscious customers.

Nextant Aerospace: The World’s First Remanufactured Business Jet

  • November 10, 2013

Business jets provide executives with tremendous efficiency and convenience, but they are not inexpensive. A company launched in 2007, Nextant Aerospace, is making business jets an affordable option for more companies through remanufacturing.

The Cleveland-based firm purchases previously owned Beechjet 400A/XPs and other planes, strips them down to their skeletons, and rebuilds them with modern electronics and controls, improved ergonomics, low noise levels, and high-end cabin furnishings. The result is a product that costs an estimated 32 percent less to fly than the original aircraft, and flies further and faster, as well.

The company’s principals had backgrounds in selling fractional ownership shares of previously owned planes, but no experience in manufacturing. That was just one of the challenges as they planned their entry into the remanufacturing business. Another was space planning: How to have up to 80 employees at a time working on half a dozen jets simultaneously in the relatively small space of an airplane hangar. Finally, with so many parts being removed from, and installed in, each plane, efficient parts-storage and tool-inventory practices would be needed.

The company owners brought on staff with manufacturing experience, and consulted extensively with the experts at the Northeast Ohio-based MAGNET: The Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network. MAGNET consultants provided expert advice in determining floor space requirements, creating an efficient production flow, and helping to optimize parts-storage and tool inventories, so no time is wasted.

The company also had 28 of its employees participate in a 3-day MAGNET workshop called Lean 101 Simulation, ensuring that lean would be part of the company culture from the start. Less than a decade in business, and Nextant is growing quickly, and producing planes for a variety of domestic and international clients. 

Maze Eco-Nails: Resilience and Environmental Responsibility

  • November 6, 2013

In the riverfront city of Peru, Illinois, they have been manufacturing nails and spikes since the 1890s. That’s when the owners of a local lumber yard, the Maze family, discovered that adding zinc to roofing nails made them long-lasting and rust-proof.

Today, Maze Eco-Nails is one of the few manufacturers of nails in the U.S. Their story of success is built around innovation and environmental stewardship. They pioneered the automated hot-dip galvanization process for their Storm-Guard nails; developed spiral-shank and ring-shank threading to improve the holding power of nails; and introduced new nails designed for siding and fencing.

Maze manufactures its nails using 100% recycled steel, requiring no additional mining. They convert harmful, spent acids into useful raw materials.  Waste zinc is recycled into materials that go into products like tires and paint pigments. And all of the company’s nails come in cardboard boxes made from recycled paper. Their nails are an environmentally preferred product as defined by the US Green Building Council.

So the next time you pick up a box of Maze Eco-Nails in the hardware store, remember that it’s a Great Manufacturing Story, too.

Merle Norman Cosmetics: Committed to Manufacturing in America

  • October 26, 2013

Merle Norman products have been produced in the U.S. since Merle Norman started making cosmetics in her kitchen in Santa Monica, California in 1931.

Eight decades later, the company that bears her name employs nearly 500 people to research, manufacture and package products at their Los Angeles headquarters. In fact, if you have ever rented a car from Enterprise at LAX Airport, then you have driven right past their building on Bellanca Avenue.

Given the company’s close proximity to Hollywood, their products have been used in many a movie studio. The retail-bound cosmetics are shipped to 1,500 Merle Norman franchised retail “studios” across the U.S. and Canada, where they are sold directly to consumers. Stores have recently have expanded to the Middle East, as well.

Merle was a contemporary of Helen Rubenstein and Max Factor. It was Merle herself who popularized the “try before you buy” makeovers philosophy, which is still practiced at the Merle Norman studios today. She grew the business in conjunction with her nephew, J.B. Nethercutt. Merle passed away in 1972. Nethercutt passed away in 2004, but his classic auto and antique furniture collection can be seen in the Nethercutt Collection museum in Sylmar, California.

Still a family-owned company, Merle Norman continues to innovate, introduce new products, and bring on new franchisees. For the popularity of its cosmetics and its commitment to manufacturing in the U.S., Merle Norman is a Great Manufacturing Story.  

To read other Great Manufacturing Stories, click here.


Burke Industrial Coatings: Durable Liquid Stainless Steel

  • September 8, 2012

If you ever have a chance to see the Bonneville Lock and Dam on the Columbia River east of Portland, Oregon, you’ll see an industrial coatings success story.  All of the metal on and around the Dam was painted in 1973 with water-based acrylic stainless steel paint manufactured by Burke Industrial Coatings. Today, four decades later, the protective finish still looks great.

Burke is a small manufacturer founded in 1948 in Washington State specializing in engineered coating systems. It produces liquid stainless steel and antimicrobial coatings, and sells them to customers in the U.S. and, increasingly, around the world. .

Their water based coatings have stainless steel flake embedded to stand up to demanding environments. Since liquid stainless steel is essentially inert, it provides resistance to nasty weather, coastal environments, fumes, spillage and abrasion. Harley-Davidson motorcycles and some of the automakers are among their customers.

Burke’s antimicrobial coatings (a newer product line) are now being used in industries such as food and beverage production, HVAC , and medical equipment – settings where bacteria can be a major problem.

From the Bonneville Dam (below) and Harley-Davidson bikes to industrial and medical applications around the globe, Burke Industrial Coatings is a Great Manufacturing Story.

Codonics: Growth through Exports

  • November 14, 2011

When the federal govenrment set a goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years, it had growing companies like Codonics in mind. The firm designs and manufactures devices used to safely and accurately record and store vital data, and  improve workflow, in operating rooms, radiology labs and other medical settings. Their products range from the Horizon three-in-one radiological imager (it is a dry film imager, a color imager, and a grayscale paper imager that requires less than two feet of desk space) to FDA-approved label systems and disc importers and publishers.

With just under 200 employees, the northeast-Ohio based company exports products to 110 countries. Exports account for 70% of total sales, making the company a model for export-driven growth. Codonics now has 30,000 product installations worldwide, and has opened sales offices in Europe, Latin America, Japan ,Malaysia and China.

Codonics was recognized for its export success with the Commerce Department’s E Award in 2010. With the growing emphasis on electronic medical records, the company is well positioned for future growth, as well, making it a Great Manufacturing Story.