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David Soyka reports on how Hytrol makes American manufacturing, warehousing and distribution systems more efficient, 70 years running.
Can there be too much of a good thing? “Our business is up 35 percent this year over last year,” notes David Peacock, president of Hytrol, a conveyor equipment manufacturer and materials handling solutions provider. “And over the last three to five years, we’ve seen phenomenal growth of roughly 16 percent annually.
That’s a bit of a problem when you’ve only planned for a growth rate of eight percent.” That’s a problem a lot of companies wouldn’t mind having. Mind you, it isn’t that Peacock is complaining, but he does point out that satisfying unanticipated growth of such magnitude does create challenges. “Over the last 24 months, we’ve invested $30 million to expand our capabilities to meet the demand for our products and services. We’ve also grown our workforce—in 2016 we employed 800, today we have 1300.”
Indeed, Peacock credits those employees as the reason why Hytrol has successfully managed to meet high customer demand it hadn’t planned on. “Every day our employees—whether they’re engineers or skilled tradespeople or assembly workers or managers—seek to make a difference here at Hytrol. To make us more efficient, to work faster, to get customers what they need when they need it. Without that kind of dedication from all our employees, there’s no way we would have been able to handle all this unforeseen work,” Peacock points out.
He adds, “We believe in the total well-being of our employees. That’s why we maintain an on-premises health club and medical clinic, as well as provide ongoing training and professional development through our learning lab.” The company also maintains relationships with local universities, technical colleges and vo-tech schools, as well as their counterparts in states contiguous to Arkansas. “It can be hard to find the people you need with the right skill sets,” Peacock says. “But whether we’re trying to recruit engineers or skilled tradespeople, we offer a range of benefits and programs and a culture that make Hytrol a great place to work; that helps us attract the people we need and we hope will make a career with us.”
Dedicated employees combined with management’s dedication to its employees resulted in Hytrol’s selection as the Arkansas representative at this past summer’s “Made in America Showcase” held at the White House.
“We have a series of events in honor of the company’s founder, Tom Loberg, who passed away in 2004,” Peacock explains. “Part of that celebration is for all our managers, myself included, to work on the factory floor. The idea is to experience first-hand with our workforce their daily practices and challenges; then everybody comes back with a least two ideas on how we can make things work better for our employees and our customers. Another part of commemorating our founder is a picnic for all our employees and their families. This year, in honor of what would have been Tom’s 100th birthday, we invited Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson to attend. Although he couldn’t make it, we did provide the governor’s office with information about Hytrol, our employees, and our community. We believe that played a role in our favor when the White House later contacted the governor’s office to identify a manufacturer for our state that exemplified made in America values.”
Meeting the President
The “Made in America Showcase” comprised three different rooms with 12 to 15 manufacturers in each, representing companies from the 50 states. Peacock attended, along with chief engineer Boyce Bonham, to display Hytrol’s ProSort 400 Elite family, high-speed sorters with high sort rates, rubber isolators for quiet operation, variable speed control and simplified integration with the company’s Plug-N-Go wiring.
“It was an honor to have been selected to represent the state of Arkansas in this event,” Peacock says. “We’re so proud at Hytrol to continue to invest in our community and our country by keeping jobs here, and we believe that’s an essential piece of what makes our company so successful.”
They had been told to expect maybe a 30-second meeting with President Trump. “We got lucky,” Peacock recounts. “We were the last company in the room the president met, and we actually had a three to four-minute conversation. He asked us some good questions and we had the opportunity to discuss what the government can do to promote American manufacturing.”
Quality That’s Quick
Hytrol’s extensive product mix encompasses a range of gravity, accumulating, sortation, belt, chain-drive and pallet conveyors, as well as transfer devices and intelligent control systems. “Our customers are manufacturers, warehouses, distributors, any business that needs to move materials efficiently,” Peacock says. “Customer needs can be as simple as ‘I need this product to fill a specific function’ to ‘I need a complete customized system to make a line more productive.’”
Hytrol has seen the biggest growth spurt with parcel customers. “Amazon, UPS, FedEx—any business connected with e-commerce that has to move product efficiently and minimize costs. The e-commerce sector is really where we’re seeing much of our growth,” Peacock comments. “The brick and mortar stores are suffering and still struggling with how to match what the e-commerce companies are doing in terms of fulfillment. But we think they’ll eventually start to catch up because they have to.”
Hytrol markets its conveyor products and solutions through its Integration Partner Network, comprising more than 100 independent companies throughout the world. The integration partner (IP) is the on-site single-point-of-contact for customers throughout the design, installation and support phases of a Hytrol conveyor solution. “It’s a three-way relationship,” Peacock explains. “The end-user, the IP and the Hytrol applications specialist work together to design and implement an optimal system. Our engineers work with the IP to ensure the solution offers the best combination of our products and can work most efficiently with other customer systems. We can dispatch our own service technicians if needed, and while we assign a project manager to ensure the customer gets exactly what’s needed, the IP is familiar with the customer and local codes and regulations to perform the installation and integrate our solution with other end-user systems. Of course, once the solution is up and running, there’s after-sale support to work out any bugs, provide start-up assistance and training, and ensure everything functions as it is supposed to.”
Hytrol systems are primarily sold in North America, though it does have a growing international business. “About eight percent of our sales come through IPs in Asia, South America, Australia and South Africa—we don’t currently sell in Europe. When you consider that some of our domestic IPs themselves sell internationally, our global sales are more like 12 percent,” Peacock notes, adding that, “The labor advantage to manufacturing overseas is beginning to erode as workers begin to demand higher wages. Consequently, we anticipate more international opportunities as those manufacturers focus more on automation and improved efficiencies to remain cost-effective competitors.”
While the equipment, in general, has a long life-span—“We get parts requests for systems that were originally installed in the 1950s and 1960s,” Peacock says—rapidly evolving technology is contributing to replacing systems that still work perfectly well. “Three years ago, the typical throughput rate to move a unit from point A to point B was 400 to 500 feet per minute. Today, it’s 800 to 900 feet,” Peacock says. “Our customers are focused on one thing: constant and continual improvement in efficiency. Advanced technology helps achieve that. In many cases, that’s a software solution rather than a hardware solution, but it could be both.”
Hytrol itself practices what it preaches. “We are a lean manufacturer,” Peacock points out. “Every employee is trained in lean practices and always looking at what we can do better. It’s why we put managers and engineers to work on the factory floor to better assess what we’re doing and how we can do it better. We also integrate 5S methodology, which is foundationally a good housekeeping practice, into everything we do. The idea is you can’t have high efficiency and high safety if you don’t have an orderly workplace where everything is where it should be. It’s also a way to reduce waste, both in terms of time and materials.”
Hytrol’s internal efficiencies coupled with its vertical integration explain how it can supply unsurpassed product delivery times. “Everybody has to compete on price and quality, that’s a given. But nobody else can provide price and quality and equal Hytrol’s on-time delivery,” Peacock says. “The industry average is a six months turnaround for a conveyor system. Hytrol’s is 10 weeks. We’re in the business of reducing time to move something from one point to another because time is money. We also save customers time and money by providing them the quality equipment that best fits their needs quicker than anyone.”
Which is why Hytrol’s long-term planning anticipates continued growth through 2030 at an 8 1/2 percent annual rate. What’s good for other businesses seeking to improve their processes is good business for Hytrol.