Earlier this summer, during President Donald Trump’s “Made in America” event celebrating products manufactured in the United States, conveyor manufacturer Hytrol was invited to represent the state of Arkansas. This year the company celebrated its 70th anniversary and recently invested nearly $18 million in a facility and capacity expansion.
David Peacock, who was promoted to president in 2015 upon the retirement of Gregg Goodner, and chief engineer Boyce Bonham traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the White House event. Hytrol (along with Mississippi-based Taylor Machine Works, a forklift manufacturer) represented the material handling industry, and Peacock and Bonham had the opportunity to speak to President Trump, who inquired about Hytrol’s business and its competition. “He asked a lot of really good questions, drawing on his business background,” Peacock notes. “It was pretty exciting to be able to have that kind of conversation with the President.”
After the event, MH&L caught up to Peacock to learn more about “Made in America” and Hytrol’s role as an enabler of the drive to automation among U.S. companies.
MH&L: What was the overall feeling at the White House event about U.S. manufacturing?
Peacock: Most of the people that I talked to were pretty excited about the attention that’s being given to the idea of “Made in America.” Every manufacturer at the event is enjoying some success right now. We all had a good story to share about our companies and the success we’re having. But the big takeaway for me was the appreciation for Made in America.
MH&L: What do you see as the biggest challenge that U.S. manufacturing companies are facing right now?
Peacock: Without a doubt it’s labor, whether it’s engineers or maintenance people or assembly people or fabricators. Finding and retaining the talent that we need is without a doubt the biggest challenge that we face on a daily basis.
MH&L: What steps are Hytrol and your industry peers taking or should be taking to improve that situation?
Peacock: We’ve got to take advantage of our own products to process the work through the facility. So for example that means having our shop orders move from function to function on a conveyor as opposed to being manually pushed from place to place. That gives us the control to make sure we’re working on the right products in the right sequence. It gives us visibility on throughputs more clearly than if we weren’t using that technology.
Also, we’re in the process of installing welding robots. Now, we’ve got 1,300 employees, and we’ve grown by more than 400 people in the last 18 months, so we’ve added people and we’re going to continue to add people. But using robots gives the workforce the opportunity to have higher-skilled responsibilities so that if you’re a maintenance person and you want to move into a robot-tender type role—which is a higher skill level—it gives you an opportunity to make a higher wage. Automation creates opportunities for everybody in the organization to go out and seek greater value-added type of roles.
Unemployment in northeast Arkansas is less than 3%. It’s a challenging market, so we have to make sure that we give everybody the tools to be as successful as they possibly can while they’re here.
MH&L: What role do you see the material handling industry playing in today’s economy?
Peacock: We talked earlier about access to labor being the biggest challenge that we face. That’s a universal challenge for everybody, and our industry provides a means to address that particular challenge. If you can automate the flow of materials through your facility, then that reduces the need that you have for indirect labor in the process, and it makes your direct labor that much more efficient and helps to increase your throughput. So I see us and the rest of the industry playing a key role in bringing manufacturing back, but I tell my guys all the time, “We’re not really a conveyor manufacturer. We’re a quality-of-life manufacturer.” Whether it’s somebody who needs medicine, somebody who’s buying a Christmas present or somebody who’s going back to school, the products that people are buying are being conveyed and moved with material handling equipment.