Restoring Rockford’s Manufacturing Legacy

May 01, 2018

By: Meaghan Ziemba, Content Marketing Manager, AME

A news clip from the Register Republic in 1970 highlights Rockford manufacturing during its prime.The origin story of Rockford, Illinois as a machine tool mecca was back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The demand for fasteners that rose with the demand for war-time machinery around the 1940s led to Rockford’s proclamation as the Screw Capital of the World. The city and others nearby dominated the machine tool industry. The area was strong in aerospace, heavy machinery, automotive, fastener and cabinet hardware products, and packaging devices--making it the place to be for industrial manufacturing.

Due to a few bad recessions, including in the early 1980s, many of the prosperous companies went out of business or relocated, causing a rapid decline of manufacturing job opportunities and increasing the level of poverty within the city.

The infrastructure that supports aerospace and other machine tool industries still exists, along with a rather sophisticated supply chain that supports manufacturing; however, it is scaled down from what it used to be due to challenges including:

Lack of Support - In Illinois, manufacturing is not supported in the way it ought to be. Workers compensation and insurance are high, and there are other regulatory hurdles that some manufacturers have to jump to be successful such as high taxes.
Lack of Skilled Labor - The whole of manufacturing has taken a major hit in the last few decades, but there has been a resurgence due to a renewed commitment to the industry as a result of insourcing and reshoring—but, how do we find the skilled people to fill the vacant positions?

As Andrew M. Davis points out in his book Town Inc.: Grow Your Business. Save Your Town. Leave Your Legacy, there is a simple link between building a booming business and growing a prosperous town. To restore Rockford’s position as a prosperous manufacturing powerhouse, it’s going to take a three-legged stool in which the private, public, and academic sectors need to align with one another to find solutions for these challenges.

Public Sector

Dietmar Goellner, President and CEO of Advanced Machine & Engineering (AME), believes that favorable proposals from the local government are a critical component to the solution. “Such proposals would spur investment into the Rockford community and entice companies that are already here to stay and attract new companies to locate their businesses here.”

Local authorities also need to come together on solutions that address some of the city’s social problems. The public-school systems need work, and there is an increase in violence that would make outside businesses apprehensive to locate in this area.

Rockford needs to revive its origin story, which Davis defines as the back-story of a person, place, or thing—it’s the legend behind the comic book character, a corporation, a product, or even a sport. In Rockford’s case: machine tools and industrial manufacturing.

Private Sector

The Atwood building opened in 1925 off of N. Main street to manufacture innovative automotive products such as telescoping props for holding open trunk doors and forward-aft seat adjusters.The public sector can’t do it on its own. Local visionaries, business owners, and citizens need to embrace Rockford’s manufacturing history of machine tools and industrial production to stake a unique claim that in turn, creates a sense of community pride. According to Davis, claims have the power to change the demeanor of an entire town from the inside out and to reinstate three things that may have been missing within the city:

  • Optimism about the future
  • A true sense of community pride
  • A productive spirit of unity

Industry surveys from the Federal Reserve have revealed significant gains in manufacturing across the U.S, creating a sense of optimism that Rockford can thrive in industrial production as it once did before. To recreate Rockford’s community pride and productive spirit of unity, the private and public sectors also need to collaborate with the academic sector.

Academic Sector

“Academia needs to provide more services that support Rockford manufacturing at a greater level than it is now,” says Goellner.

One solution involves robust apprenticeship programs with local community colleges and universities such as Rock Valley College and Rockford University. These programs help students learn various skills associated with the trade by providing them hands-on experience in parallel of schooling.

A good example is the “build our own” apprenticeship model from AME. “It is extremely difficult to find skilled machinists and CNC operators,” says Goellner. “That is why we believe in training our own.”

AME’s program is a federally approved, four-year program administered through the Rock River Valley Tooling & Machining Association (RRVTMA). Students are required to complete 8000 hours of manufacturing training in parallel to 4 years of schooling. It’s similar to the European apprenticeship model that AME founder, Willy Goellner, went through during his training days.

Another solution involves non-profit organizations, such as Transform Rockford and Alignment Rockford. These groups bring community members together in a unifying force through strategic and tactical solutions in areas of the greatest need. Alignment Rockford, in particular, helps attract younger generations to areas like machine tooling and industrial manufacturing by incorporating the skills into their daily curriculum.

The Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) Institute out of the University of Wisconsin - Madison (UWM) is another helpful movement that has been very active in Rockford. This approach helps educate businesses so they can increase their overall competitiveness on a global basis by decreasing their lead times in all phases of manufacturing and office operations.

“QRM focuses on any process and analyzes wait time (white space) vs. actual work time (gray space) so strategies can be developed to eliminate the white space,” says Noah Goellner, Vice President of Global Business Operations at Hennig, Inc. “Less white space means quicker response time to your customer.”

At the QRM institute, students and faculty work with various businesses within a community to help push the success of that company, which in turn pushes the progress of the community. As Davis mentions in his book: “You must leverage the power of your progress to create location-envy in the minds of others.”

Location-envy is built on a community’s visionaries and the power of their origin stories, the cornerstone’s they’ve founded, and the places they’ve helped create. Machine tools and industrial production are the roots that the Rockford community originated from.

To restore Rockford’s manufacturing legacy, the public, private, and academic sectors have to consistently collaborate with one another to see how the needs of the community are being aligned to the manufacturing environment. They also need to develop strategies to attract outside companies to relocate their business here or encourage them to do business in Rockford.

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