Innovation Drives Manufacturing Success in Georgia

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Over 200 manufacturers from across the state united for the third annual Next Generation Manufacturing Signature Event on September 17.

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Did you know that more than 70 percent of export goods from the U.S. are manufactured products? Or that manufacturers contributed $1.87 trillion to the U.S. economy in 2012, according to the National Association of Manufacturers? In other words, manufacturing in the U.S. is big business and will continue to grow as manufacturers invest in greater innovation.

As home to more than 10,000 manufacturers, Georgia’s manufacturing sector serves as a beacon of strength for the state’s future economic growth. In fact, according to Atlanta’s Hire Dynamics, the job postings in manufacturing have increased over the last three years in Georgia, specifically in the Atlanta and metro Atlanta areas. Today in Atlanta alone, there are 16,837 manufacturing job postings. The state is enjoying a renaissance in manufacturing as companies bring jobs back onshore from overseas and seek out Georgia as a viable location for their plants.

Innovation and a focus on workplace culture is sweeping across Georgia manufacturers, as they diversify by introducing new product lines, improve process control and innovate their workplace and operations to improve employee quality of life. During Next Generation Manufacturing’s third annual signature event, keynote speakers from leading Georgia manufacturers like E-Z-GO, Blue Bird, Caterpillar and YKK Corporation America, addressed the innovation taking place within their plants and the difference it has made to their production, customers and people.

The success of any company starts with its people, and employee quality of life plays a big role in that success. For E-Z-GO, the leading manufacturer of golf carts, innovation was needed in the Company’s workplace to revitalize employees. E-Z-GO was faced with a dark, dingy workspace with outdated equipment and an unengaged workforce before 2005. “I would lay my body across the entrance before I’d let a customer see the plant,” said Kevin Holleran, president of E-Z-GO, of the plant’s conditions when he joined the Company. Holleran and John Collins, Vice President Integrated Supply Chain at E-Z-GO, discussed the specific actions taken to rectify the Company’s problems during the Next Generation Manufacturing event. Actions include a communications cadence with regularly scheduled meetings and daily pre-shift communications, as well as an initiative to drive down knowledge, increase training, develop leaders and reward excellence, through a pay-for-performance program. E-Z-GO’s innovative ideas have re-engaged its associates, a step that has improved productivity and morale.

Blue Bird, the world’s leading school bus, specialty bus, activity bus and green bus manufacturer, is also innovating from the inside-out. To date, the company has innovated internal operations and cut back on product offerings to provide more value to customers. According to Dave Whelan, Senior Vice President of Manufacturing and Quality at Blue Bird, following an internal survey of employees on quality of life, the Company implemented a crew work schedule that allows Blue Bird to scale the workforce to meet demand for the very seasonal business. Under this structure, only two-thirds of the workforce works at any one time and Friday and Saturday are reserved for overtime during peak seasons. This schedule prevents the company from mass hiring during the busiest times of the year, and mass layoff when demand slows.

Caterpillar is innovating its operations as well, increasing its focus on process control, straight-line lean manufacturing and standardization, while bringing manufactured goods back into the U.S. The products that will soon be produced in Caterpillar’s new Athens facility are currently being made in Japan, and, ultimately, 1,400 new jobs will be created at the facility. The Japanese plant will be repurposed by the Company so jobs will be staying there as well. This transition creates a challenge of quality for the company as they try to recreate the high-quality product produced in Japan within the U.S. To achieve this, the Company is innovating and introducing stringent process controls to guarantee standardization across the entire organization. These innovations will guarantee that the quality of a Caterpillar product is not compromised regardless of where it’s produced.

When YKK Corporation of America was faced with a changing garment industry they, too, had to innovate. The Company diversified its product line to stay relevant in today’s economy. The garment industry has been on the decline over the past few decades in the U.S. and today 98 percent of all garments are imported into the country, a difficult pill to swallow for a company that produces zippers in the U.S. For example, in 1998 Levi had 28 denim factories in the U.S.; today that number has been reduced to zero. The same can be said for Wrangler/Lee. In 1999, there were 31 Wrangler/Lee denim factories in the U.S. and zero exist today. To continue to grow, YKK innovated its product offerings, expanding the company to specialize in architectural products like the ProTek glazing system for hurricane resistant windows, and thermal products in decrease energy costs.

Whether innovating within the workplace, diversifying product lines or improving operations, culture is the glue that holds it all together and makes innovation possible for the manufacturers represented at the NGM event. Strong workplace culture unites a company and increases commitment to the Company and its mission. As Blue Bird’s Whelen said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch” and it’s true. A company can innovate, invest in technology and train employees all they want, but without a strong culture you’d be missing an opportunity to strengthen your company from the inside-out.

“Manufacturers using innovation strategies to compete in the marketplace, over low cost strategies, have been found to have higher returns on sales of over 10 percent, and higher employee wages, according to the 2012 Georgia Manufacturing Survey,” said Richard Kopelman, founder and chairman of Next Generation Manufacturing and CEO and managing partner of Habif, Arogeti & Wynne, LLP. “Innovation is the driver that will make manufacturing once again the backbone of the U.S. economy. Manufacturers must continue to innovate and introduce new products and technologies into their plants while maintaining a focus on their people and workplace culture.”

For more information about Next Generation Manufacturing or any of the speakers mentioned above, visit or contact Regina Maddox, executive director, at regina(dot)maddox(at)nextgenerationmfg(dot)com or 404-431-6612.

About Next Generation Manufacturing:
Founded in 2011, Next Generation Manufacturing is a non-profit supporting the growth and development of manufacturing in the state of Georgia. The mission of Next Generation Manufacturing is to make Georgia manufacturing companies aware of the breadth of local services available to them, such as the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Technical College System of Georgia, the Georgia Association of Manufacturers and Georgia Quick Start. By utilizing the resources available to them in Georgia, manufacturing companies will be able to realize the key to growth: innovation.

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Jean Creech Avent
Habif, Arogeti & Wynne, LLP
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