A U.S.-based manufacturer whose “Invested in America” battle cry sounded a charge for domestic production two years ago has unveiled the latest piece of that investment.
And it’s a big part of Bradley County’s growing economic landscape.
Whirlpool Cleveland Division, which is continuing the transition of its diverse manufacturing operation from King Edward Avenue to the new state-of-the-art plant on Benton Pike, has now opened the doors to the second key component of its expansive 120-acre complex.
Informal open house ceremonies were held Friday for the 400,000 square-foot Factory Distribution Center that is physically connected to the 1 million square-foot plant by a 1,000-foot conveyor.
The LEED-certified FDC, which consolidates existing warehouses at the King Edward site and a leased facility on Tasso Road, is located at the back side of the new plant and it runs parallel to Michigan Avenue Road.
Special guests at Friday’s FDC opening were 32 Whirlpool employees, all of whom are or will be transferring over to the new facility from the current warehouses. Family members, and other Whirlpool plant employees, also were invited to tour the cavernous distribution center.
Technically, the FDC began receiving finished goods Jan. 7, and the first out-bound shipments of product from the warehouse came Feb. 4. But Friday’s open house made it official and slapped an employee seal of approval on the completion of Phase II of the massive Whirlpool relocation project whose total investment will approach $200 million once all construction dust has settled.
“It’s exciting!” exclaimed Roger Thompson, an FDC squeeze truck operator who has worked for the company — and two of its predecessors — for 44 years.
Thompson came on board with the Cleveland-based manufacturer on July 29, 1969, as a young 18-year-old.
Then, the operation was called Magic Chef Company, whose roots dated back to Dixie Foundry, Dixie Products, Hardwick Stove and Cleveland (Tennessee) Enamel.
In 1986, the Maytag Company merged with Magic Chef, creating the Maytag Corporation whose local operation was called Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products. Whirlpool acquired Maytag in March 2006, resulting in the local plant’s renaming to Whirlpool Cleveland Division.
Since 1916, the ever-expanding cooking products manufacturer operated locally as a montage of former companies and aging buildings. That changed on Labor Day 2010, when Whirlpool Corporation announced plans to consolidate its various Cleveland facilities into a new manufacturing complex on Benton Pike. It was one of several key capital improvement projects across the U.S. announced simultaneously by the company that led to the “Invested in America” theme.
Thompson’s 44 years with the company represents one of the longest tenures at the cooking products site. In that time, he has seen plenty of changes but none like the new manufacturing and distribution center complex.
“This is real nice,” he said of the new FDC. “ ... We’ve been in the old ones (warehouses) for so many years. The floors are good, and they’re smooth.”
Glenda Coe is another Whirlpool warehouse associate who also drives a squeeze truck (similar to a forklift). Her assessment of the new FDC is almost identical to Thompson’s.
“I like it,” Coe, a 15-year employee who has worked in the shipping department for the past five years. “I like the way this is laid out. And it’s all on one level. Everything is new and clean.”
She added, “This will make our jobs easier.”
Dicky Walters, plant manager who has worked closely with the entire construction project from day one, was also on hand for Friday’s open house and mingled with shipping employees and their families. Much of his time since September 2010 has been spent balancing production at the old King Edward Avenue site with keeping the new construction on schedule on Benton Pike.
“This is another huge milestone for us,” Walters said of the FDC opening. “It is every bit as exciting to us as the groundbreaking, ribbon cutting and dedication for the new plant. We can build as many high-quality cooking products as we want to at the plant, but we’ve got to have a place to put them before sending them out to our customers. That’s the purpose of an FDC, and this one is just like the plant — state of the art and LEED-certified.”
He added, “Obviously, we’re very proud of both.”
The same is true for two Whirlpool warehousing leaders. One is Brad Turner, the distribution manager for Whirlpool Cleveland Division, and the other is Jeremy Whitlock, project lead for the Integrated Supply Chain whose new responsibilities now keep him at Whirlpool Corporate Offices in Benton Harbor, Mich. Whitlock had served as Cleveland distribution manager for five years before accepting the corporate promotion six months ago.
“The distribution strategy is very similar to the manufacturing strategy,” Whitlock said. “Consolidating to one campus ... will give us efficiencies gained from the entire operation.”
Consolidation of the existing warehouses into the new FDC should be completed by July 31, Whitlock said. And, later this week the last of five elevators on the plant’s manufacturing floor should be tied into the conveyor system that connects the factory to the FDC. This means most assembly line products — but not quite all — will be transfered from plant to warehouse via the elevated conveyor.
One product that will continue to be shuttled from plant to FDC by truck is a massive commercial oven that is too large and heavy for the conveyor. Products still being manufactured at the King Edward site are also being shuttled to the FDC by truck.
Whitlock and Turner are equally as enthused about the FDC because it is state of the art, but it also represents a Whirlpool commitment to U.S. manufacturing, and to the Cleveland and Bradley County community.
“From my pespective through the planning process and the construction process, there was a lot of excitement around building for the future,” Whitlock said. “As a distribution team, this meant we were going to be able to integrate further with the manufacturing team for the longterm success of Cleveland.”
Turner pointed to another source of excitement enjoyed by FDC managers, employers and the Whirlpool Corporation; that is, the new warehouse has been designed with the latest technology.
“From a building management system, we can monitor humidity inside the building now better than we’ve ever been able to,” Turner said. “ We have signals, visual aids that actually email us when humidity rises, or lowers, which could cause the product to fall.”
Extreme humidity levels can weaken cardboard packaging which in effect can cause stacked boxes to collapse upon one another.
“From a quality perspective, we have made leaps and bounds thanks to technology,” Whitlock added. He said Turner’s warehouse team now has “a leg up on quality.”
As large and as technologically sound as the new FDC already is, it was designed keeping the future in mind, Whitlock pointed out. Depending on future product volume, and space needs, the FDC can be physically expanded by about 125,000 square feet, he said.
Another key strength is the new site’s access to rail. Logistics, and transportation and fuel costs, might one day create the need to begin shipping out products by rail. The new FDC is positioned to accommodate rail spurs if this need materializes, Whitlock said.
Railroad access is already a key component to strategically located Whirlpool Regional Distribution Centers (RDCs). In a typical Whirlpool RDC, three to six box cars will be brought into a rail shed where they will be loaded by forklift operators and then pulled away for delivery to other cities.
Shipment by rail was a big part of past manufacturing operations; however, it never went away, Whitlock explained.
“It’s a means of the future, but it depends on what is that right product mix that really allows you to efficiently operate in that rail space,” he noted. “Right now, product space [in Cleveland] is more suited to over-the-road (trucks) as opposed to rail.”
Logistics and transportation costs are key drivers, Turner added.
The Cleveland distribution manager, who joined Whirlpool only four months ago, pointed out working in a new warehouse is new to him.
“I’ve never worked in a new facility so this is like having a new home,” Turner said. “So you want to protect the house and leave all the bad tendencies that you had, and start off fresh.”
He added, “My team here is very blessed to be working in this new facility.”
Whitlock views the new Whirlpool plant and FDC complex as evidence of the company’s “Invested in America” commitment.
“Whirlpool as a whole has made that [Invested in America] commitment with the entire premium cooking products facility campus here in Cleveland ... with the distribution center being a key component of that operation,” he said. “For us, it really ensures that we are part of the team and a part of that continuing theme.”
The entire Whirlpool project in Cleveland is recognized as a three-phased operation.
Phase 1 is the massive plant into which the transfer of all remaining assembly operations and processes will be finished later this year.
Phase II is the FDC which is now open and will be fully operational once the plant tie-ins are completed later this week.
Phase III is the completion of a Global Product Organization center (recognized as Phases 3A and 3B) which is under construction now. GPO is the Whirlpool equivalent of design and engineering. Some companies call it Research & Development (R&D). Phase 3A is comprised of offices; Phase 3B is testing labs.
The GPO center is being constructed, and physically connected, to the new plant along the front side.