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Home Grown Success

Sept. 19, 2006
Enabling employees is key to success in rural Kansas.

Bruce Gibson inspects trailer ball coming out of twin turret lathe.

When you operate a manufacturing-business more than 100 miles from the nearest large urban center, finding qualified and experienced employees can be next to impossible.

"We've always had difficulty been able to hire machinists or programmers or even electrical technicians," said Mike Mueller, plant manager at B&W Trailer Hitches in Humboldt, Kansas. "We hire local people at an entry level and train them using our skilled people. We try to get them involved here, get them to use their ingenuity and so far it's worked."

Saying "it's worked" is an understatement. B&W has averaged at least 35 percent to 40 percent growth per year for more than 12 years.

Joe Works, the owner and president, helped start the company in a small garage in 1987. In 1994 business began to boom and has doubled in sales volume about every two years since them.

"We came out with the right product at the right time," said Works. "We came out with a revolutionary trailer hitch about the same time that everyone began buying trucks and we've been working hard to keep up with demand ever since.

"We completely outgrow our production capacity about every two years," said Mueller. "We added 45,000 sq. ft. in 2000, another 45,000 sq. ft. in 2002 and 70,000 sq. ft. in 2005. We keep adding machines and capacity trying to keep up with sales demand and it has forced us to rethink our entire process and work flow about every two years."

And it's the employees along with Mueller and Works that do the rethinking. More than 90 percent of their welding is done using robotics and yet they have never had a robot integrator in the shop or had anyone else build them fixtures or help set up the systems. All of the integration and programming is done by B&W's selftrained welders and during the last five years they have completely redesigned their welding processes three times using different metals, different advantage of new technologies.

"I'm familiar with lean manufacturing," said Mueller, "but we mostly use the visual factory technique where everything has a place and you know what you need to run based on what you see. We don't need to rely on the computer inventory system when we can look and see an empty bin that needs to be filled."

A master production schedule is made at the beginning of each week that gives all of the operators a clear idea of what has to be made over the next three weeks and then it is up to the operators to see that the work gets done. In addition to outgrowing their production capacity and facilities they have also outgrown their computerized tracking system and are in the process of installing a fully integrated manufacturing system from Exact software.

"If there is one thing in particular that has made us successful it is our people," said Works.

B&W Trailer Hitches Humboldt, Kansas
Number of employees — 175 (30 in machine shop)
2006 sales — N/A
Markets served — Custom truck beds, trailer hitches and small trailers

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