On Tuesday, March 28, Milwaukee Tool held a media event and tour of the company’s Greenwood, Miss., plant, which manufactures reciprocating saw, hole saw and band saw blades.
Opened in 2001 with 87 employees, the plant recently expanded to a second building and now employs 670 people. According to Scott Griswold, president of power tool accessories, the company has experienced this kind of growth throughout its corporate structure, and he characterizes Milwaukee Tool as a "growth company."
This facility comprises two buildings. The first building is the original plant at 120,000 square feet, and it is still in operation, churning out the company's blades 24 hours per day. The second building is 220,000 square feet, but only 100,000 square feet of that is currently in use. Milwaukee was cryptic about its plans for the remaining capacity (the company is notorious for its tech-company-like secrecy), and event visitors weren't allowed to see what was going on behind the massive curtains, but the spectacle came with a promise that their plans would become clear in the future.
To provide some context of Milwaukee Tool’s production volume at the facility, Jack Bilotta, plant manager, told the tour group the number of Sawzall blades the company produces yearly could cover every square foot of the Empire State Building nine times. He also said, since the Holedozer hole saw launched in 2015, the company has produced enough units to surround the Washington Monument, from base to tip, five times. Finally, Bilotta said, with the amount of paint the facility uses to coat its blades, the company could give the White House a fresh coat every week.
One of the event’s main themes was Milwaukee Tool’s demonstration of what it calls its “outside-in” approach to product development. Essentially, rather than developing a product and bringing it to market and then refining it after receiving user feedback, the company begins with a round of research in which it consults contractors and other tradesmen. Milwaukee Tool then creates a small number of prototypes for these users to test and provide feedback. From there, the product moves into branding and production. The company then typically issues a challenge to its users: put the product to the test.
From that challenge, Milwaukee Tool garners some entertaining use cases, such as the experience Brad Urban, product manager, relayed in which one user reportedly used an Ax Sawzall blade to cut a competitor’s drill in half.
The tour of the facility included a thorough explanation of the complicated manufacturing process. The metal comes off of the pallet in big reels of metal ribbon, which are fed into machinery that blanks, grinds, and sets it. From there, the metal is cut, carbide tipped and heat treated. Then robotic machinery stacks and moves the blades to be powder coated and painted with a UV printing process. Then, the blades are hand packed, weighed, and secured with an RFID chip, all in house.
Even though it produces blades at such a high volume, they are still heat treated in small batches to ensure consistent treatment at the right temperature. As our tour guide explained, with bigger ovens, there is a greater chance for some blades to be treated at lower temperatures. Small-batch heat treating means consistent quality.
“You can think of them like little pizza ovens,” said Chad Givens, production engineer.
Touring the plant seemed a relatively safe endeavor partially because the manufacturing facility minimizes forklift traffic. Though the plant features standard forklift lanes with ample warning signage, the only forklifts visible on the tour were at the loading dock. The idea is the product moves itself along the line.
Milwaukee Tool uses two different processes for its hole saws: For low volume, small models, the company uses a cold form process in which heavy machinery cuts, pounds, and bends the metal into the cylindrical shape. The other process is a hot form with which the company makes its high volume, big hole saws. In this process, the metal is cut, heated, bent, and welded.
Holedozer saws are then moved on to painting, where they are coated with a thermoset material, an innovation the company released in 2015 and greatly improved the saw performance. At high temperatures, the paint does not gum up, so it doesn't clog the hole saw.
According to Jack Bilotta, the new paint also improved the quality of life for the plant workers. On this point, Bilotta said the company has made significant investment in ensuring the facility cools the building to create a comfortable work environment. This was apparent even in the heat-treating and paint-curing areas where the hot air is pumped from the building.
This kind of commitment to the company's employees and their communities was evident. Greenwood, Miss., is an impoverished area, and the plant employs people of all education levels. Milwaukee has helped its employees earn GEDs, and the company offers college aid. They are involved with Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). Each year, the company brings in 10 people with engineering educations.
For the benefit of its workers, Milwaukee Tool also employs a nurse practitioner at the plant to provide free healthcare.
"We did it not because there was a financial reward but because it was the right thing to do," Bilotta said.
The sense of providing greater purpose to the company's employees was a running theme throughout the event.
"Everyone down here takes a tremendous amount of pride in what they do," said John Rossi, director of product management.
As Griswold characterizes Milwaukee Tool as a "growth company," it certainly has grown substantially in the last decade, but beyond profits and market share, there's a conversation that's apparent within the company's ranks, and it's regarding culture and community.
"We do more than make tools. We give people the tools to provide for their families," Bilotta said. "We built a culture in Greenwood, Miss., that we're proud of. [Our employees] understand what they do is important to other people's lives."