Archive for Sunday, September 19, 1999

SAUER-SUNDSTRAND CO. - GROWING UP CLEAN

September 19, 1999

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White, bright and clean operations are key for Sauer-Sundstrand Co., an $80 million-a-year manufacturer in the East Hills Business Park.

Sauer-Sundstrand Co.'s new plant in the East Hills Business Park is breaking the mold for manufacturers.

The plant's concrete floors, block walls and steel ceilings are painted white, indicative of the cleanliness that borders on religion for its 75 employees. The place is so clean, in fact, that Mayor Erv Hodges once joked he would be comfortable eating off its floor.

Paper, too, is virtually invisible. Production workers and accountants alike rely upon computers to track each part, process and delivery system for the $80 million worth of hydraulic equipment produced this year, and executives communicate with other plants using Lotus Notes and videoconferencing equipment.

Both sides of the operation don't mind showing it all off, either. Only a glass wall separates the plant's offices from its brightly lit production floor, reminding everyone in the 162,000-square-foot plant that they're all on the same team.

"We're trying to break down the traditional organizational structure," said Keith Folkmann, director of plant operation in Lawrence. "We've undergone a cultural revolution during the past 10 years, and this is a good example of what people can do when they plan for it."

With plans for $35 million in facilities and equipment during the next few years, Sauer-Sundstrand is making the largest single private investment in Douglas County history. The Lawrence plant also is the company's newest, and is expected to welcome as many as 350 or 400 employees in the coming years.

And the growth is on its way.

A line on growth

Just last week, the company dismantled a production line in Ames, Iowa, and reassembled it in Lawrence. The process took a little more than five days, involving a team of employees who loaded and unloaded five 18-wheel tractor-trailers.

The line -- producing hydrostatic pumps for use in medium-duty equipment, such as Bobcats and tractors -- already has generated 31 new jobs for the plant, with another seven still to be hired.

With last week's announcement that the company's parent company, Sauer Inc., intends to merge with Danish manufacturer Danfoss Fluid Power, plant officials are looking forward to even more work in the future.

As envisioned, the new Sauer-Danfoss Inc. will become a global leader in mobile hydraulics, with annual sales of $860 million and 6,200 employees in North America, Europe and Asia.

"With that global leverage, we expect our growth to continue," Folkmann said. "We're here to grow."

There's plenty of room.

Less than 30 percent of the plant's available production area is occupied, leaving enough finished space for a hockey rink between the offices and production lines. A second-floor office area remains vacant and without walls, looking like it could play host to a high school prom.

Outside, there's even more room to grow. Located on a former 19-acre soybean field, the plant could double in size with the simple removal of its south wall and the addition of concrete, steel and glass.

"We're probably not going to grow any larger than 300 or 350 people," Folkmann said. "If you grow any larger than that, it's hard to keep a one-team feeling."

Trust in team

Karen Hilker, a team facilitator, oversees an assembly line that produces pumps for some of the leading construction-equipment manufacturers in the world, including Caterpillar, Melroe and Case.

Computer screens connect the dozen employees on each shift, and a series of lights -- green means go, red means stop and amber means new parts are necessary -- helps maintain quality control at the point of work.

The company has neither inspectors nor quality-control managers, relying instead on each employee to maintain the industry's highest standards.

"We've put the tools in place for our POTs (production operations technicians) to be successful," said Hilker, who's been with the company for 25 years.

Once assembled, each pump is tested for leaks and plugged before moving on to robot-equipped booths for priming and painting. From there they are shuffled into a linear drier that subjects the metal pieces to desert-like conditions -- 22 percent humidity and 90-degree temperatures -- before rolling ahead for packaging for shipping.

Elapsed time: 30 minutes.

A few feet away, the relocated production line from Ames uses older equipment -- it started six years ago at the company's North American headquarters -- but reports similar results.

Using a "lighted bin" system, workers press individual buttons to release the 150 parts needed to assemble each hydrostatic pump -- one of at least 350 produced daily. But technology isn't the focus.

"We have an excellent group of people on this team," said Craig Amenson, the line's facilitator.

One more thing: "As soon as you see oil on the floor, you mop it up," he said, a few hours after the line's first pump was assembled in Lawrence. "Then you find the source and fix the problem."

Debi Moore, director of economic development for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, still has to remind herself that Sauer-Sundstrand is a manufacturer. She's been in enough "dark, dingy and dirty" plants to know something special when she sees it.

"What Sauer-Sundstrand has is not the norm," she said. "Sauer-Sundstrand is definitely committed to having the best product and the best way to communicate with their customers. They're really committed to making sure they have the best, and they do."

-- Mark Fagan's phone message number is 832-7188. His e-mail address is mfagan@ljworld.com.

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