Transitioning into a sleek, ultra-modern, 1 million square-foot manufacturing facility is admittedly a healthy productivity move for Whirlpool Cleveland Division, a heritage-rich factory whose multi-generational workforce is more accustomed to spending 40-hour work weeks in a collage of patched, yet historic century-old buildings.
But the improved measure of health isn’t just about bottom-line profit margins, product quality and schedule attainment for one of the world’s leading appliance makers. It’s also about the workers.
One conspicuous example is the new Cleveland factory’s maintenance technicians who have all but abandoned their fleet of greasy, battery-powered, four-wheeled carts that still roam the manufacturing floor aisles at the old factory on King Edward Avenue. At the new facility on Benton Pike, maintenance techs are riding high on three-wheeled bicycles. Their trusty toolboxes packed full of big wrenches, pliers and screwdrivers are connected to the back of the cardio and leg-friendly bikes.
“I like it,” said veteran Whirlpool maintenance technician Scott Jones as he prepared to saddle up and pedal his way to his next manufacturing floor job.
Jones, like most other members of the Whirlpool maintenance crew, have been busy the last few months installing new and relocated equipment on the plant floor while also tearing down existing assembly lines, presses and heavy equipment at the old facility, some parts of which date back to the late 1800s.
The oldest is the four-story, former Hardwick Stove Company plant located at the corner of Third Street and Euclid Avenue that now sits about half empty. Known at Whirlpool as Plant 2, the structure was the first to begin losing its assembly lines to the new facility. Plant leaders expect it to be the first emptied as the manufacturing transition heads into overdrive in order to meet original projections to be finished by mid-2013.
Outside contractor crews, the employees, facility engineers and the maintenance techs are the ones making much of the move happen. Jones didn’t call the long hours and exhaustive efforts toward relocation a labor of love, but he said plenty of employees are happy to be getting into the new plant.
And the techs like their new mode of transportation.
“Most of the other guys like these [three-wheeled bikes] also,” he said. Asked if his physical conditioning was improving since being assigned to the new ride, he just laughed.
The three-wheelers offer multiple benefits. One, the only energy they burn is the leg muscle power of their pedalers. No expensive batteries. No external fuel. Nothing needs grease. No emissions. And their ride is as quiet as the maintenance technician chooses to make it. Those who like to talk or sing while pedaling, that’s another matter.
The maintenance techs aren’t the only riders. Manufacturing floor supervisors and support staff whose mobility is critical to the plant’s day-to-day operation are also licensed users.
The new plant itself is more rider-friendly than the old buildings, several of which were built decades and decades ago on hilly terrain; hence, the need for the powered carts whether the techs were traveling inside a massive old plant or outside trekking from plant to plant.
“Here, everything’s level,” Jones laughed. “That makes it better.”
Another maintenance tech busy with his manufacturing floor chores was Scotty Shubert who whisked by on his own three-wheeler to a press to check some wiring. Shubert, whose tool basket was filled with some of the same weapons of heavy maintenance as Jones, agreed to stop for a quick photo opp while enduring some lighthearted jeering from a pair of co-workers who watched the photo session from a distance.
Because he was preoccupied with the press circuitry, Shubert didn’t have much time. But he acknowledged he liked his three-wheeled ride.
Jones, Shubert, a wave of additional maintenance techs, tool engineers and a 1,500-strong workforce remain on track to complete the physical relocation into the new plant on schedule.
Plant Leader Dicky Walters said the move currently is about 30 to 35 percent complete. Some 350 employees are now assigned to the plant and seven assembly lines have made the transition, and are in full operation.
When relocating the assembly lines, presses, fabrication and finishing processes, and entire departments, it’s more than packing a few suitcases, buying a ticket and catching the next flight. One key to such a complex relocation is watching the economy and consumer demand. When a particular product model is hot — that is, business demand for it is high — decisions must be made on when to move the assembly line that builds it.
If customer orders are clamoring for a product, plant leaders won’t move the line. It’s not a manufacturing term, but it’s known by laymen as “not messing up a good thing.”
“This is a complex transition, and we have a good bit of flexibility built in to account for changing economic conditions and to adjust as needed to address consumer demand for our products,” Walters said. “We are fairly well on track with our planned timetable.”
As floor space at the old facility is emptied of assembly lines, equipment and processes, the vacated area is given a good cleanup and not reused for warehousing or storage.
“As of right now, we’re just cleaning up the [emptied] space and not using it for anything,” Walters pointed out. “Plant 2 is the first plant that will be completely empty. It is about 50 percent moved right now.”
The longtime Whirlpool manufacturing leader, who came to the Cleveland operation a few years ago to lead a Factory Master Plan team whose work actually led to the corporation’s decision to build the new plant, said “flexibility” is critical in moving to a new facility.
“So far, the move has gone as planned,” he stressed. “But with a move this complex, we must remain flexible and [be prepared] to adjust as things that are outside of our control change.”
The up-again, down-again rollercoaster economy is one such factor.
Being a veteran manufacturer, the Whirlpool Cleveland operation and its leaders have an experienced understanding of how to make best use of available time. One way is during plant shutdowns on major holidays. When much of the workforce is enjoying a few days off, the maintenance team and others are still busy back at the plant.
“We utilized the week of July 2 (the seasonal summer shutdown) and moved several items that week,” Walters said. “We anticipate doing the same thing over the extended Labor Day weekend, during Thanksgiving and through the Christmas shutdown.”
Whirlpool is also transitioning a few members of its administrative staff. Some have been assigned to the new plant full-time and others are splitting their time between old and new facilities while traveling back and forth.
As the big move continues, Whirlpool remains active in working with the Cleveland Southside Redevelopment Task Force, a group of government, business and community leaders appointed by Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland whose job is to design a future repurposing for the 90-acre Whirlpool site and its perimeter areas.
“We are working with the task force and will support it in any way necessary,” Walters said.
Whirlpool employees have had plenty to celebrate over the past couple of years, but the latest — and a development for which Walters is especially proud — is the most recent edition of Consumer Reports magazine. The periodical, which rates a variety of products from home interior goods to automobiles, has scored a Whirlpool wall oven (model number WO692ECOAH) as tops in its category.
In the same electric wall ovens division, the magazine also scored another Whirlpool model in a three-way tie for second with similar products by Thermador and Bosch.
Walters’ excitement over the strong Consumer Reports scoring is based on the fact that both are new Whirlpool products, and each is manufactured in the new Benton Pike plant. Appliance makers, as well as many other American manufacturers, closely watch Consumer Reports because the publication’s laboratory testing of their products is critical in getting out the word about new innovations and product performance.
Any appliance manufacturer is always happy with favorable product ratings, but Walters described this one as especially sweet because it was built in the new Cleveland facility.
Chances are good that’s reason enough for another Whirlpool Cleveland employee celebration.