There’s a small metal label on the inside of my shower door:
Petty Products Inc. Manufacturer of Shower Doors. Olathe KS.
It’s intrigued me for years. Johnson County is better known for miles upon miles of suburban subdivisions, shopping centers and gleaming office parks — not factories. I wanted to see this company that takes glass and metal and makes something that is a part of my daily life.
Sadly, the recession’s housing slump and changing tastes in shower design have cut Petty Products production.
“I can’t in good conscience say we’re a manufacturer anymore,” said Diana Peterson, a second-generation owner of the 57-year-old company that continues to do lighter assembly and installation.
But Peterson was as intrigued as I was about the idea of finding “hidden” factories in Johnson County. “I’d like to know myself,” she said.
Other parts of the Kansas City metro area are heavier locations for heavy industry. But a fascinating array of things are being made in Johnson County if you know where to look.
Some factories are in industrial parks surrounded by farmland. You may drive by others on your daily commute. Some are housed in buildings that rival the most upscale white-collar office in appearance.
Over the last couple of weeks I had eye-opening visits to a sampling of manufacturers in the county. I found surprisingly diverse work forces and products, some incredibly expensive and complex engineering and equipment, and some really nice people. I also found several exporting companies that are doing their part to correct the U.S. imbalance of trade with China. And most are growing.
This isn’t a comprehensive county survey, of course. Businesses in the county make everything from false teeth to park benches, caskets to parts that go into wastewater plants. Here is a sampling of 10 manufacturers that allowed me to visit after they were called to my attention through word of mouth from chambers of commerce, industry associations and other business operators.
Take a look. See how what’s made in Johnson County connects with your life.
Lightwild doesn’t look like a manufacturer as much as it looks like a really cool lighting showroom. Its manufacturing on the day I visited consisted of a couple of guys affixing strips of LED lights to aluminum fixture housings on two tabletops.
Most of the activity came from lighting engineers sitting at their desks, designing cutting-edge lighting for everything from warehouses in Johnson County to hotels in Dubai.
The moving light display on the facade of the downtown Marriott? Lightwild’s. The green lighting banner cascading down the front of H&R Block’s world headquarters? Lightwild’s. The embedded lighting in the Kansas City Art Institute’s sidewalks? The big yellow-lit wall in the Sprint Center’s entry lobby? You get the picture.
But ceiling fixtures are the company’s mainstay. It designs a range from general illumination that could brighten a whole warehouse down to specific task lighting for a single desk.
The Overland Park showroom displays a rainbow of its lighting products, including bottom-lit liquor shelves and illuminated artwork.
Lightwild’s primary customers are architects, some of them designing glamorous entertainment projects around the world. But President Tom Stafford expects business to quadruple this year over last largely because industrial users are transitioning to more efficient LED lighting.
Stafford points out the economic value of a single growing company: Lightwild’s growth trickles down to about 30 suppliers in the Midwest that provide the company with cable, plastic extrusions, optics and other parts used to make the LED products engineered at Lightwild.
Falcon Design & Manufacturing
If the long arm of the law caught you speeding in Kansas, the law’s fingers probably were on buttons made at Falcon Design & Manufacturing.
The 25,000-square-foot facility, in the corner of the Bonner Springs Industrial Park that dips into Johnson County, makes the kind of embedded keypads that are used in radar guns, laboratory equipment and exercise equipment control panels.
The company started in 1978 doing a specialized kind of screen printing. Remember the little instruction panels on pay phones? To be durable, they required printing on the backside of clear plastic. They still do that kind of “second surface” printing, but a lot of the printing has evolved into a marriage with membrane switches.
What that means, says plant manager Daniel Shepherd, is that when you press a button — say on your garage door keypad or microwave oven — the pressure makes something electrical happen.
Falcon recently combined operations with Sterling Screen Printing, previously a “friendly competitor,” to increase their economies of scale and better compete with similar businesses overseas.
About 30 employees design keypads, create color separations for screen printing on various plastics and glass, run equipment that applies the printed overlays on the membrane switches, and ship orders out the door.
“Business is picking up a bit,” says CEO Terry Shepherd. “We’re a small business that deals with small business. But we’re even shipping some products to China now.”
Have you ever watched a TV news truck drive up to a scene and seen the satellite dish turn on top? The dish is an antenna that’s being positioned to find a communications satellite.
A tiny Johnson County company may have made that movement possible — and accurate. Research Concepts builds electronics that control where a truck- or ground-based dish points.
Two engineers who understand spherical trigonometry and aircraft navigation developed the niche business. It’s grown from three workers in 1987 to about 20 employees now. This month, it’s grown in another way: It moved its $1 million inventory and production from 9,600 square feet in Shawnee to 20,000 square feet in Lenexa.
Even with the expansion, “our industry is small,” says Vice President Jim Ronnau. “We’re growing through custom design and electrical engineering services for antenna manufacturers.”
Engineering and software design are at the heart of the business, but painstaking point-to-point wiring and screw-driver turns — by hand — make it possible to ship the antenna control boxes out the door.
You’re on an airplane and the flight attendant starts the pre-flight safety talk. That demo oxygen mask equipment in his or her hand? It probably came from the B/E Aerospace factory out on Pflumm Road.
And the real one that will drop down in an emergency? Ditto. And the really important heavy duty oxygen mask that will allow the pilot to keep flying the plane? Ditto.
And, forget an emergency. What about the coffee you get on a routine flight? It might have come from a beverage container in the galley that, too, was made in Johnson County.
A small showroom at the front of the factory — a mockup of a couple of rows of passenger seats and a partial cockpit simulator — helps you visualize exactly what “aircraft passenger cabin interior products” are fabricated in Lenexa. In addition to oxygen mask equipment and beverage containers, the factory makes jet-approved coffee makers and smoke protection headgear for aircraft firefighters.
But some of its most specialized manufacturing includes clean room production, where white-suited, masked employees assemble component parts of high-pressure regulators that attach to oxygen cylinders. The plant also makes chemical generators that can produce oxygen from a lighter-weight source than the oxygen cylinders.
It’s a detailed, test and then re-test process. No failures allowed.
B/E Aerospace, a $3 billion company, has global facilities. It declines to report business statistics, such as number of employees or plant square footage, on a local basis. But Sebastien Ramus, general manager of the Lenexa location, is happy to share what information is permitted, including the fact that 27 nationalities are represented in the plant’s work force.
Ramus, from France, has been at the plant for 14 years. He says he appreciates its employee diversity and the diverse skill sets in manufacturing, assembly and engineering design that workers bring to the job.
If you only know Garmin as the maker of portable GPS devices, you’re missing what they make in Olathe. But if you’re in aviation, you know.
At the world headquarters in Johnson County, about 100 of Garmin’s employees are working two shifts a day in a manufacturing operation that turns out 430 unique circuit board designs that end up in general aviation cockpit instrumentation.
Garmin’s consumer products are made in Taiwan. But walk the squeaky clean shop floor in Olathe (covered, by the way, with a $1 million surface that eliminates static) and you’ll see ranks of highly computerized, enclosed production equipment that makes Federal Aviation Administration-certified products.
“We start out with circuit boards and end up with panel-mount products to be installed in general aviation airplanes,” explains production supervisor Brian Gayley. “It’s what we call the ‘glass cockpit’ ” — a flat-screen display panel that should replace any retro image you might have of pilots flipping switches and turning dials.
Garmin follows a vertical integration system in which all design, manufacturing, testing, warehousing and marketing is done inhouse.
Some of the blue lab-coated manufacturing floor employees monitor the automated circuit board production. Others put the products through real-world temperature simulations. Others retest the products that are designed to help keep people safe when they’re taking off, flying and landing.
The general aviation market is hungry for what they do. “We’ve been crazy busy the last few months,” Gayley says.
Kocher + Beck
The pristine building a few blocks west of Lackman Road in Lenexa broadcasts scant clue about the industry inside. And, unless you understand “production flex tooling” or know what “flexible dies” are, you still won’t have a hint what goes on in there.
This sophisticated manufacturing operation houses machines that make the cutting tools that make it possible to turn sheets of paper into envelopes, or make labels for jars and bottles, or even cut out that little Intel Inside sticker on your computer.
“We don’t make the labels. We make the tools that are used to make the cuts to make the labels,” explains Daniel Grammatikos, who came from Germany six years ago to help the German-owned Kocher+Beck manage the Lenexa plant.
Situated to take advantage of the central U.S. location, geographically and time zone-wise, the plant has about 60 employees working two full shifts and an overnight skeleton shift when needed. Grammatikos says he’s “always hiring,” always looking for hard workers with tool shop, engineering, or computer design backgrounds.
The plant ships about 200 orders a day to business customers, ranging from small metal dies the size of a credit card and costing as little as $39, to poster-size flexible dies costing several thousand dollars.
We can’t take pictures of some of Kocher+Beck’s proprietary equipment that’s designed to make possible extremely precise cuts with a tolerance just one-tenth the thickness of a human hair. But the next time you see an intricately cut sticker — or maybe the label on your Bud Light beer bottle — you can imagine that a machine at Kocher+Beck made the cut-out pattern possible.
It’s easy to understand what’s made in the Hostess Brands plant in Lenexa. It’s a bakery. You can smell it. You also can eat its consumer-familiar Wonder bread, Homepride wheat bread, and hamburger and hot dog buns.
Unlike most of the Johnson County manufacturers that sell exclusively to other businesses, you can buy Hostess products at your grocery or directly from the Hostess shop that adjoins the Marshall Drive bakery between 87th and 95th streets.
About 200 employees work three shifts a day on the bread line and two shifts a day on the bun line. The process starts with the raw materials — such as 50,000 pounds of flour for one eight-hour shift. Production ends with plastic-packaged, twist-tied bread and buns heading out the door to shops throughout the Midwest.
A giant, open-mouthed, 175-foot-long oven heats the bakery as it turns out 180 loaves a minute. Workers in white uniforms, hair and beards netted lest a stray hair slip away, do quality spot checks for temperature and size as bread pans slide along a conveyor path on their 21/2-hour journey from batter to bagging.
Plant manager Tim Gentry figures that about 62 million “units” are shipped each year from the Lenexa bakery. Translation?
Forty transport truckloads a day leave the plant, one of the company’s two or three largest bread bakeries in the United States. (There are larger Hostess cake bakeries, such as the Emporia, Kan., plant, that make Twinkies and other sweet snacks.)
It’s steamy hot in the bakery, yet Gentry says some workers have been there since it opened in 2001, replacing a former three-story bakery on Troost Avenue.
“We have a good crew,” Gentry says. “It’s neat knowing that what we make today will be on grocery shelves by 4 a.m. tomorrow.”
Robbie Fantastic Flexibles
Have you bought a rotisserie chicken that came in a plastic pouch with a built-in handle instead of a clear, rigid plastic carton? Have you picked up a pack of Chinet plates? Or maybe a shrink-wrapped multi-pack of AriZona tea?
The list of consumer food and household products wrapped in Robbie plastic packaging is immense. You’ve no doubt handled a plastic bag or product wrap that came out of the Lenexa plant.
Co-founder and CEO Irv Robinson says packaging innovation and quick order turnarounds are keys to staying ahead of competitors. A costly new 10-color printing press — the size of a small Prairie Village ranch house — that’s designed for “next generation” plastic printing is being installed this month.
The facility, a 100,000-square-foot plant and adjacent 25,000-square-foot plant, on Pflumm already is chock-full of equipment that prints on packaging plastic. Some machines start with rolls of clear plastic and print product designs and information on it. Other machines fold and fashion sheets of printed plastic into bags. Another laminates printed plastic with a protective layer to protect the printing. In the end, the plastic products are shipped to other businesses that will do the actual packaging.
A hot new product is Robbie’s Hot-N-Handy pouch, a freestanding, microwavable bag with a resealable closing that can be used to get the aforementioned rotisserie chicken home from the store. Robinson figures they’re turning out close to a half million of them a day.
Robbie is “crazy busy,” Robinson says. The plant runs 24/7, three shifts a day every day of the week. About 30 of Robbie’s 175 employees are fairly recent hires. “We didn’t have recession,” he says. “We’ve never had a layoff.”
Some of the plant’s strong employee retention may have something to do with the company’s perks. Robbie has a full-scale employee gym with equipment to rival any fitness facility and offers other kinds of wellness and onsite health services.
Robbie has another big push: sustainability and recycling. The plant has eliminated a million pounds of waste a year from going to the landfill. One example? It sells its scrap plastic to a cement plant that burns it to help create electricity.
Operations Vice President Bert Benton is patient as he guides me through the Lenexa plant, picking up this metal component and that to explain its role. He’s showing me “process instruments” for the oil, gas, power and nuclear industries — more precisely, pressure and level measuring equipment.
It does an injustice to the technical nature of SOR’s production to say that some of their products — level switches — look a bit like the float device inside your toilet tank. But the concept is similar. They measure and control the level of liquid in industrial tanks.
“Our products measure temperature, pressure level, and flow — as in pipelines — and help people understand and control what’s going on in their industrial processes,” explains CEO Mike Waters. “One of our most interesting facts is that 65 percent of our revenue is generated from exports, and our single largest use market is China.”
About 90 of SOR’s 170 employees, including welders, machinists, assemblers and people skilled in process engineering and the petrochemical field, work in the manufacturing part of the 110,000-square-foot building that has room to grow. But SOR already has done a lot of growing since its founding in 1946 as a small machine shop.
Eventually, it became Static O Ring, later shortened to SOR, named after its niche in making an instrument that used, you guessed it, static O rings as a key element.
Today, the factory focuses on three product lines: mechanical pressure switches, mechanical level switches and electronic instrumentation.
“All of our work is build to order,” Benton says. “We’ve come back strong from the Great Recession. The oil and gas market is strong, and power in China is strong. We’re shipping parts to Chinese power plants once a week.”
How does SOR relate to you? Every time you turn on a light switch or put gasoline in your car, Waters says, you’re seeing the end result of a process that SOR helped control and manage safely.
Have you signed a check lately? It might have been printed in Lenexa.
Deluxe prints millions upon millions of them. Three million individual customer orders a month leave the Lenexa plant, one of the biggest production facilities among Deluxe’s 15 sites that print checks.
Plant manager Chris Matheny is proud of its state-of-the-art digital printing and packaging processes. We can’t show you or even tell you exactly how big the plant’s operations are. That’s considered proprietary information.
What Matheny does say is that about 300 of Deluxe’s 600 employees in Johnson County work on the manufacturing side, where “we’ve made lots of new capital investment in the printing and packaging equipment within the last three years.” He says the company has evolved to add a call center and other business services to augment check production, but there’s little indication in the check-printing plant that the financial world is going paperless.
Deluxe has two buildings in the Southlake Technology Park. One plant prints “base stock,” the background images — Americana, puppies, flip flops, or basic “security” blue and the like — on the paper.
The other plant prints the check personalization for each order. Sophisticated bar-code readers shepherd each check order through a network of conveyors. Checks are printed 12 per sheet of paper, cut into separate checks, bound, stacked, packaged in plastic shipping envelopers and dropped into man-sized ZIP code-ordered bins for shipping.
The manufacturing process, from order entry to mailbag, takes three hours.
Matheny says headcount has grown 12 percent in the last three years, and turnover is small. The average employee tenure is 16 years. “Our employees recommend their friends and relatives to work here,” he says. “We don’t have any trouble filling jobs.”
Reach Diane Stafford at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 816-234-4359.