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VOL. 129 | NO. 7 | Friday, January 10, 2014

Electrolux Cooks

New oven plant makes public debut

By Bill Dries

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Executives at Electrolux Major Appliances North America formally opened their Memphis plant Thursday, Jan. 9, at Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and other elected leaders were given a tour of the Electrolux Major Appliances North America facility, which formally opened Thursday.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But as Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and local elected leaders toured the facility, there were plenty of indications the $266 million plant has been turning out ovens and stoves for a couple of months.

The workforce of more than 500 people, 95 percent of them from Memphis, looked up from their stations as the dignitaries wearing safety glasses walked along their assembly lines and past press machines bearing the names “Bliss” and “Aida” across from a waist-high bed of rollers where workers watched KPI boards roll through, turning them as they went.

The rhythm of the press machines changed just a few yards away to the rhythm of robots that worked on the same stove and oven elements the workers had been overseeing at another part of the process.

Electrolux North America president and CEO Jack Truong said the robotics is what makes the plant sustainable. It and other technology as well as computerized assembly line stations used by Electrolux workers cut what would otherwise be a three-hour manufacturing process in half.

With that shorter time, Truong says Electrolux should be able to make 600,000 of the ovens and stoves annually.

“Currently we are still scaling up our production here in Memphis,” he said, adding that when Electrolux Memphis hits its production goal, there should be 1,200 people working at the plant. And new product lines are a possibility.

A year ago this month, Electrolux executives gave the first tours of the 750,000-square-foot plant. The manufacturing center was still a work in progress at the time.

A testing center to simulate 20 years of use was stocked with shiny ovens, stoves and ranges that were waiting. Hundreds of the products were being tested Monday in a room that was warmed by their heat as five pots of water simmered on each stove top in rows that stretched for yards – 380 in all being tested for reliability at the same time.

The first ovens and ranges and other cooking products that are the specialty of the Memphis plant began rolling off the line in May.

On the other side of a canyon formed by pipes and steel-walled “confined-spaces” with overhead walkway grids on the outer rim, the different sounds of the assembly line gave way to the “powder enamel room” where the “cavities” or range and oven outlines are coated with a porcelain finish.

Ducking or walking between the coated cavities moving on a line into a quieter area, Truong pointed to the parts of the assembly line with yellow railing.

A year ago the area was nothing but a large open warehouse that the Memphis company Integrated Solutions was about to begin work on.

Integrated Solutions got the contract from Electrolux in a nationally bid contract for a major part of the Memphis plant.

It is part of a warren or maze of different parts of the process that includes a small area with video screens that Truong described as the “heart” of the plant. Photographers were banned from the small but technology-rich area because of the proprietary nature of the technology displayed there.

Wharton recalled Integrated Solutions executives calling him for information on how to bid and what work would be available as soon as Electrolux announced it would build in Memphis. He also recalled them calling him back when they got the contract.

“I thought they were calling to tell me something had gone wrong,” Wharton said, talking of the near misses the project had along the way.

Truong also mentioned another – the problems he had initially finding a specific pool of workers with the necessary training to work in a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant that uses robotics and computer software to control parts of the process.

That problem was remedied with a rapidly developed workforce training program through Southwest Tennessee Community College and the local Workforce Investment Network program along with state and federal grant money. The training has become a model for the return of manufacturing on new terms to the Memphis area.

The close proximity of assembly line workers and robotics shows the mix of entry level and high tech jobs at Electrolux. Truong and Haslam both emphasized that the robotics is not an element that runs on its own. It requires skilled workers to keep that part of the process running smoothly and to change it to meet different product specifications.

“The market’s real clear what they are telling us they need,” Haslam said. “They need engineers and welders and nurses and truck drivers. That’s on us to make sure we go back and provide that capacity.”

Haslam also touted the return of manufacturing to Tennessee in general.

“There has been a lot of talk recently that America has lost its edge when it comes to manufacturing – that we don’t make things anymore,” Haslam said. “It’s just not true. In Tennessee, we still make things and we are very proud of it. … We can do all that in Tennessee.”

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