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RTP Company: The Highest Standards of Process and Product Quality

  • August 13, 2014

One of the great truths of modern life is that we use dozens, if not hundreds, of products every day, yet we know so very little about the expertise, controls, and care that go into making them. One of the best illustrations of this maxim comes from a privately owned company in Minnesota named RTP Company, which combines precision manufacturing with the strictest standards of material purity.

RTP is in the business of producing custom-engineered thermal plastics. As consumers, we may encounter these ultra pure and clean compounds when they are utilized in critical applications such as drug packaging, biotechnology, electronics, food handling, and healthcare devices.

For its most environmentally sensitive work, the company has established a 3,300 square foot ultra-clean compounding center with three extrusion lines. Only approved persons and materials can enter the facility through a positive pressure-locked door. Clean-room controls mitigate against dust, aerosol particles and chemical vapors. Extrusion, cooling, pellet-forming and packaging can all be conducted in the clean room.

The extruders are automated with touch-screen controls, allowing immediate access to data and traceability. Employees are trained to ensure extrusions are accurately completed to precise tolerances. The facility can produce quantities of compounds ranging from 50 pounds to truckload quantities, and extensive quality assurance processes are in place to ensure quality regardless of compound or volume.

In addition to its headquarters facility in Winona, Minnesota, RTP produces compounds at other factories in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota; Fort Worth; Indianapolis; South Boston, Virginia; and Dup, Illinois; as well as abroad in France, Mexico, Singapore, and China. All of the facilities have extensive quality controls in place, and all are ISO 9001 registered.

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.  

STIHL Incorporated: Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing

  • December 20, 2013

After touring modern manufacturing facilities, visitors are often surprised not only by how efficient and clean the plants are, but also by the laser-like commitment that so many manufacturers make to continual improvement of their operations and products.

One such Great Manufacturing Story comes from Virginia Beach, where nearly 1,700 employees work at the U.S. headquarters of STIHL Inc., a manufacturer of hand-held outdoor power equipment, such as chain saws, blowers and brush cutters. The employees work in a variety of manufacturing, assembly, quality-control, engineering, sales, logistics, and management capacities.

This company was founded in Switzerland in 1896. Today, it employs 12,000 people worldwide, and sells its products through 40,000 dealers, many of whom are also authorized service providers for their products.

STIHL began manufacturing in the U.S. in 1974, and by 1986, it had already produced its one millionth 1120-series chain saw in Virginia. The Virginia Beach plant is comprised of 2.1 million square feet of manufacturing, office, and warehouse space.

Continual improvement is part of the company’s culture, by design. In 2013, the Virginia Beach plant received a coveted honor from the Association for Manufacturing Excellence. The assessment team from AME observed, “The Virginia Beach facility has made strides toward the establishment of a continuous improvement system, focusing on the implementation of advanced technology, integration of automation, data systems, work instructions, kanban and steps toward the establishment of flow.”

The evaluators called special attention to outstanding practices in terms of total-cost thinking for new product and process development projects, and the use of inventory flywheels to balance high-service levels and low-cost production linearity goals.

Another characteristic about STIHL Inc. is that it remains family owned. Its leaders say the company values its independence, emphasizing that they can focus on investing for the future without being distracted by shorter-term considerations. 

Their commitment to continual improvement is not something new. The Virginia Beach facility is also a past winner of the Virginia Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award and the inaugural Virginia Shingo Prize by the Virginia Manufacturers Association. More broadly, the company has established a world-wide employee feedback and suggestion system that allows employees to share in any cost savings or new revenue that their suggestion might generate. 

As the U.S. strives to be the best place in the world to do business and make products, companies like STIHL that focus on continuous improvement will be a big part of America’s manufacturing story.

Lockheed Missiles & Fire Control: Precision and Quality

  • November 29, 2013


PAC-3 Missile

More than 4,400 people work at the Lockheed Missiles and Fire Control plant, outside of Orlando. The plant is part of the Missiles and Fire Control (MFC) division that is headquartered near Dallas. In total, MFC employs 10,000 people in eleven states, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Between February and November 2013 alone, MFC received $840 million in contracts from the U.S. military and U.S. allies like South Korea and Saudi Arabia. MFC provides missiles, fighter-jet weapons-targeting radar systems, missile launch detectors, electro-optical fire-control systems for helicopters, flight-training systems, and war-gaming training, among other products and services.

In 2012, MFC received the highly coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. MFC’s return on investment had grown at a 23 percent compound annual rate, compared to a 13.7 percent rate at its nearest industry competitor. Its operating margin over 11 years had a compound annual growth rate of 6.2 percent.

Focused on continual improvement, MFC used a lean-manufacturing process called value-stream mapping to evaluate 8,500 processes from 2000 to 2012. This mapping covered 90 percent of the enterprise direct costs. The studies found that supplier on-time delivery had been near 100 percent. Time reductions associated with process and performance improvement saved an estimated average of $225 million per year. Facility uptime had been at 100 percent since 2007 despite nearly 2,000 potential disruptions. Equally impressive, MFC achieved a 99.4 percent on-time delivery record while experiencing a 1,000 percent growth in annual deliveries over the 11-year period.

Achieving these results requires a complex system of procedures that is followed carefully, coupled with a corporate culture that emphasizes excellence. The results are also a reflection on Lockheed’s supplier companies, who manufacture precision parts to specification and deliver them on schedule.

The work of defense contractors and their suppliers is becoming ever-more difficult in an era of scarce budget resources and sequestration. Companies like MFC will continue to be challenged to push the limits on productivity and budget efficiency without compromising product reliability, quality and timeliness. As an essential foundation of the U.S. industrial base, the success of MFC and other defense contractors in meeting that challenge will be critically important.

Yet, it’s important at the end of the day to remember that defense contractors, like all manufacturers, are people. And in that regard, it’s worth noting that MFC employees donate, on average, more than $2 million per year to charities in their home communities. That is just another reason that Lockheed Missiles and Fire Control constitutes a Great Manufacturing Story.

To read other Great Manufacturing Stories, click here.

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.

L.B. Foster: Award-Winning Quality

  • November 26, 2013

When the L.B. Foster steel pipe coating plant in Birmingham, Alabama received the Level 3 Excellence Award from the Alabama Productivity Center this year, it marked the latest achievement at a company obsessed with quality.

Founded in Pennsylvania in 1902, L.B. Foster made its name in business with an ironclad warranty. In those days, the company refurbished and resold used rail, retrieved from abandoned railroads and urban transit systems. To set itself apart from competitors, the company guaranteed: “If the material is not up to the standard represented, ship it back and we will pay the freight both ways.”  

Today, L.B. Foster is a publicly traded company with operations in several states, manufacturing tubular, rail industry, and construction industry products. The steel pipe coating plant in Alabama, which employs 50 to 60 employees based on customer demand, is ISO 9001:2008 registered. With superb precision, it applies fusion bond epoxy corrosion protection on 10.75" to 24" diameter steel line pipe. The plant recently reached one million employee hours without a lost time accident.

The award received by L.B. Foster Award is a state-level distinction patterned after the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. For its commitment to quality and customer satisfaction, L.B. Foster and its steel pipe coating plant make for a Great Manufacturing Story.

Hyundai: The 5 Keys to Automotive Success in America

  • October 1, 2013


As the U.S. emerged from the deep recession, Hyundai Motor Manufacturing helped pace the auto industry’s comeback in North America. How Hyundai has achieved and contributed so much is a Great Manufacturing Story. 

The firm’s first key to success was becoming an American automaker, rather than simply shipping vehicles here. Hyundai invested $1.7 billion in their highly advanced assembly plant that employs 2,500 team members in Montgomery, Alabama. The company also has R&D facilities in California and Michigan, and a headquarters and test track in California, as well as its distribution centers. By demonstrating its commitment to the U.S. market, consumers knew Hyundai was committed for the long haul. Today, more than half of the cars Hyundai sells in this country are made here.

The second factor has been quality and reliability. Hyundai has received honors for product quality and backs up its cars with an industry-leading warranty.

Product design is a third key to the company’s success in North America. Hyundai understands the importance of combining quality with styling. The Sonata and the Elantra, which was named North American Car of the Year, were designed in California.

The fourth key to Hyundai’s U.S. success is their vehicles’ value and fuel economy. Thanks to their inspired workforce and state-of-the-art production facilities, Hyundai is able to deliver quality, fuel-efficient vehicles at very competitive prices. The company is devoted to developing and rewarding its workforce.

Last yet not least, the fifth key to Hyundai’s growth and success is its ability to stay flexible to anticipate and respond to market opportunities. This capability traces back not only to its workforce, but also to decisions made early on to allow them to produce different vehicles on the same assembly line, and to continue enhancing their plants, as with the $173 million expansion of an engine shop in Montgomery.

The results speak for themselves. Sales have risen substantially. Product reviews are strong. Additionally, restyled models of Sonata, Santa Fe and Tucson just arrived this autumn. Hyundai operations support – directly and indirectly – 94,000 jobs in the U.S. It all adds up to a success story that is benefiting consumers while having a positive economic impact on the U.S. economy.