Day 10: Crafty Americans

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For those of you who are looking for the Day 9 post, I offer my sincere apologies.

The cliff notes version of Day 9 is this: we didn’t visit any factories. Instead, we did lots of driving. After we left Nashville, we drove to Louisville where we spent the night. From Louisville, we drove to Cranberry Township (just above Pittsburg) and spent the next night there.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Hyatt Place in Cranberry Township. But I was impressed.

Like the whole Cranberry Township area, there is a hip, corporate vibe. Things are modern, clean and wi-fi connected. The town must be doing something right – the whole area is bustling.

But not all Pennsylvania is bustling. As we drive north and ride through a town for our next factory visit, we see people are working hard to get from one day to the next.

The cars are from the 90’s, the houses need a coat of paint, the gas stations have shuttered.

We drive into the factory parking lot and Mark, the owner, comes out to meet us. It’s Friday, but since the company now runs on a four-day workweek, Mark has come especially for us -- to personally show us around.

He guides us into the plant and turns on the lights. The place is massive. It’s not unlike an airplane hangar.

Mark’s company makes wooden signs and plaques, boxes, frames and desk clocks.

He explains that in the eighties and nineties, the place was so busy, there were two shifts. One of their products kept production in constant motion.

But over the years, more and more business went overseas where materials, and labor, were cheaper.

A deskclock might cost $40 to make in Pennsylvania. Or $12 in Taiwan.

As Americans did more business with Asia, Mark’s orders dwindled. He had to cut back production and cut back his workforce.

Too many American businesses had tried to stick it out and wait for business to come back. Companies that didn't adjust are now gone.

Today’s US businesses have survived the ultimate stress test. Asia was only one factor. Within the past decade we’ve had the internet re-configure the marketplace, seen our banks and insurance carriers close, our property prices plummet, environmental rules tighten, energy costs double and healthcare costs sky rocket.

Mark decided he needed to re-invent his business. Today, he looks at things strategically.

He isn’t focused on producing 10,000 items. He’s fine making 24.

He knows that people would prefer items they can design from scratch: picking the wood, the stain, the size, the shape. Mark doesn’t limit you to cookie-cutter products. He let’s customers be a part of the design process.

He realizes people want products faster and faster. So he’s developed efficient workflows and invested in computer-guided machines and lasers to help create quality products and reduce production time.

For a company in Taiwan, low-quantities, customization, and speed would be a problem. For Mark, they’re a piece of cake.

He takes us into the wood shop. He shows how the wood comes in roughhewn, how it’s planed down and cut into the smaller pieces he needs for the wood boxes he plans to make.

Another room contains hundreds of wooden box bottoms and lids, all freshly stained with a dark mahogany color, all waiting to dry so they can continue to the next stage.

The next room is the assembly stage, where hinges and latches are added to the lids and bottoms, and the two parts finally unite and become a whole box.

Mark takes us to the last room – the laser room. A wood box is set down on the platform, Mark loads a program, and the laser darts around, burning a logo into the wooden lid. It’s a fast process – perhaps a minute per box – but it’s in this stage that the box becomes a collectible or a valued award.

setting computer with laser imprint instructions

The company is all about flexibility. His wood worker stays home to watch his child during the day, and comes in at night to cut and finish the items for tomorrow’s orders.

Dwayne comes in to stain and varnish the items in the morning, and piece them together the next day. And Sandy comes in to add the custom etchings in the afternoon.

This workflow means that Mark can produce custom, heirloom-quality wood objects in under a week.

Mark is quick to point out that the company can make nearly any kind of wooden item you can imagine. They’ve done small wooden award boxes that fit six golf balls, and large wood boxes designed for gun collectors, and award plaques with etched logos and text, and pencil caddies, and keytags, cutting boards and puzzles.

Mark’s business is now about being flexible, highly skilled and fast.

In truth, these are the attributes we’re seeing at most of the factories we’re visiting.

And it’s why I’m optimistic about the road ahead for American manufacturing.

Marj and I thank Mark for spending part of his Friday with us, and showing us how he and his company have helped keep American craftsmanship alive and kicking in a hard-hit Pennsylvania town.

We’re on to our last factory on our Made In America roadtrip. It feels bittersweet -- I've met so many great people and learned so much about their factories and their products.

I feel the time is approaching where I should return the favor and do what I can to help them get out their message -- that America's factories are open for business.

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