Building Good Relationships Pays Off

A Company Can Be a Good Neighbor by Building a Community Where Engineers, Operators Want to Work

By Aaron Hand

Anyone visiting Disney World's Magic Kingdom in August is likely to appreciate the sweet relief of the cool, slow boat ride of It's a Small World — followed by the frustration of realizing that the sugary, sticky song will never, ever, leave your head. Yes, it can be a surprisingly small world at times, and as I look ahead to next year's coverage of our Global Machine topic, my mind is focused on the ways that machine builders can not only survive themselves, but help their customers compete globally.

And yet, I'm equally struck by the steps manufacturers take to operate on a local level as well, building good relationships with local suppliers and the communities that they live and work in.

In September, Lenze Americas celebrated the official opening of a new production facility in Glendale Heights, Ill. That's just a stone's throw from our office, so Joe Feeley and I checked in on them to take a look at the new digs.

In deciding where to locate their new 100,000 ft² assembly and logistics facility, Lenze got some university folks to run some models. They figured out that the center of Lenze's universe was about 100 miles south of here, so they ultimately settled on this small western suburb of Chicago, where there's no shortage of industrial activity.

While showing us around their production facilities, Lenze officials repeatedly commented on the great relationship they've formed with KMI Systems, a turnkey system manufacturer about an hour up the road in Crystal Lake, Ill. KMI makes the conveyor systems that carry Lenze motors and gearboxes through paint and bake processes.

Lenze necessarily gets some of its supplies, including home-ground gears, from its parent company in Germany, and those supplies take some five weeks to reach the Chicagoland facility. But the facility is also trying to localize sourcing as much as possible, according to Gene Wood, director of operations for Lenze Americas, to help reduce leadtimes and transportation costs, for example. KMI is just one example of those great neighbors you hear about in old movies and State Farm commercials. "There's an abundance of people in the machine business here," Wood notes.

With our publishing offices located in Northwest Chicagoland, we're surrounded by some pretty great neighbors as well. I got to meet several of them at the latest IMTS show — DMG/Mori Seiki in Hoffman Estates, Ill.; Fanuc FA America, also in Hoffman Estates; and Mitsubishi Electric Automation in Vernon Hills, Ill., just to name a few — and we talked about getting together for future play dates.

When I covered semiconductor manufacturing from Chicagoland, I never got that sense of community that my Silicon Valley-based co-editor did. But covering machine automation from Chicagoland — now that's a different story. And it actually surprises me that in this day and age of global coverage, there's something to be said for the closeness you feel to your neighbors.

I've got a similar feeling of camaraderie with my neighbors where I live in Northwest Indiana (i.e. Southeast Chicagoland). I coach their kids in soccer, we carpool to early-morning choir practices, and they tolerate the collapse of their lovely brick mailbox when my 300 lb trampoline sets sail in a wind storm (well, the insurance money probably helped).

So I wasn't too surprised last night when a young neighbor from across the street brought us over a big six-pack of white cheddar shells that her mom had brought home from work. What I was surprised about was to hear that this mother works for the company that makes the machines that shrink-wrap the boxes of noodles. Her company, Arpac, is located in Schiller Park, Ill., just east of our offices here, so we share a very similar commute, skirting the boundaries of the city. I see more carpooling in our future, and I think we'll be having a few more conversations about the world of food packaging machinery.

And what's one of the first things she tells me? How difficult it is to hire engineers and technicians. How many times have we heard that? And what was the No. 1 difficulty Lenze faced when setting up its new shop? Finding the skilled workforce. Wood marveled at the fact that about half the job candidates didn't even show up for their first interviews.

Meanwhile, one thing a company can do is be that good neighbor, building a community where engineers and operators want to work. It's a small world, after all.