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Urschel's new facility has some real leg room, eye on efficiency (photos)

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Seen from the air: At 385,000 square feet, Urschel Laboratories’ new manufacturing and corporate facility at Coffee Creek Center is not the largest building ever raised in the Town of Chesterton. That honor goes to Chesterton High School, at 506,000 square feet. But the Urschel facility is easily the largest industrial/commercial building in the town’s history. By way of example, it dwarfs the 62,000 square feet of the Jewel/Osco on Indian Boundary Road. Photo looks northeast.

(Aerial photo by Chuck Lukmann)

Open space: Urschel Laboratories’ new manufacturing and corporate facility at Coffee Creek Center encloses something like eight acres under its roof. Inside it’s cavernous and seems almost capable of making its own weather. Bill Schott, the company’s executive director of manufacturing, says that the facility’s openness is a welcome change from the current plant’s cramped, honeycombed floor plan--the result of nearly 30 expansions and ad hoc additions over half a century--and that the space will make production and logistics vastly more efficient.                                   (Tribune photo by Kevin Nevers)

 

By KEVIN NEVERS

After 28 additions and expansions over nearly half a century, Urschel Laboratories’ current works in Valparaiso looks--at least it feels--more like a rabbit warren than a manufacturing facility.

It’s cramped, labyrinthine, and about as efficient a place to produce precision reduction equipment as a two-car garage would be.

Urschel’s brand-new shop--under construction at Coffee Creek Center--is a different animal entirely: it’s vast but open, vibes airplane hangar more than factory, and has been designed, of course, to optimize production but also to simplify any future expansion down the road.

On Thursday a Chesterton Tribune reporter accompanied Town of Chesterton officials on a tour of the new facility, which is expected be fully operational by September 2015.

How much more efficient a space will Urschel’s new digs be? Bill Schott, the company’s executive director of manufacturing and last week’s tour guide, put it this way. The old facility has 235,000 square feet with fully 83 rooftop HVAC units. The new facility is two-thirds larger, at 385,000 square feet, but will need one-third fewer HVAC units--53 of them--to keep the place warm and cool.

“We gained a lot of operational efficiency by having open space, as opposed to the farmhouse model,” Schott told the Tribune after the tour. “Simply put, the new layout is more open, flexible, and efficient. One challenge with our current facility is that, with almost 30 expansions since the original building was constructed, all of the additions and separate rooms make for inefficient process flow. Now we’ll have fewer roll-up doors to walk through, small areas to try and wriggle production parts into, a lot fewer separate environments to control.”

The whole idea for a new facility had its germ in then-president Bob Urschel’s hope of jury-rigging a parking garage on the property. But “the economics simply weren’t feasible,” Schott said. Urschel’s son, and current president, Rick, instead persuaded his father it was time to build fresh.

In June 2011 a team of a dozen employees, including Bob and Rick Urschel, began meeting to commit a design wish-list to paper. They called themselves the Thunderbirds, represented all aspects of the business--manufacturing, foundry, operations, environmental, maintenance, management, and finance--and over the next 18 months convened for “brainstorming sessions many times.” Schott was a member of the Thunderbirds and recalls “kind of locking ourselves in a room,” until finally they had “reams of notes for what we wanted in a new place.”

“It’s kind of fun to think back three years ago and remember discussions where we hadn’t yet decided the size or shape, how departments would lay out, how the office would function,” Schott said. “So much opportunity to improve operations with a clean slate.”

Tonn & Blank Construction Company of Michigan City--hired, as it happens, way back in 1956 to build the current Urschel facility--then took the Thunderbirds’ notes and converted the team’s rough sketches into CAD drawings. “Many iterations later those became the construction drawings that are the road map to the facility,” Schott said. “Enough cannot be said about what wonderful partners the Tonn & Blank team has been throughout the whole process.”

The end result will make virtually every Urschel employee’s job easier, more efficient, and less wasteful of time, energy, and motion. Among other things, Schott noted that the facility’s test labs have been moved next to assembly, vastly improving “feedback”; that shipping and receiving are now on the same side of the building, “allowing us to share resources and reduce travel distances for parts”; that the machining areas “have been re-located in proximity to one another so that work-in-process flow is much more efficient”; that the engineering and R&D departments are now next-door neighbors, to make communication between the two more direct and responsive; and that the company’s milling machines, right now housed in “two separate areas far apart,” will find a new home in Chesterton in a single “large department.”

There are other changes too. The whole facility--including the foundries--will be air-conditioned. “That’s a big change for us,” Schott said. An innovative fiber-glass reinforced concrete has been used for the shop floors. “It shrinks a little differently,” by which Schott means that it’s practically seamless and perfectly flat and will accordingly eliminate the chipping to which the current floor is subject by the scraping of fork lifts and other equipment.

Perhaps the biggest conceptual change? The new facility has a 40-percent expansion capability built right into it, which would have been handy a generation ago.

“The employees we’ve been bringing through are starting to get excited,” Schott said.

Urschel spokesman Bill Baker anticipates the company’s taking occupancy of the new facility sometime in March 2015 and over the next few months moving functions and employees into it in phases. “Our goal is to have it running during the course of re-location,” he said.

Urschel is the world’s leading producer of precision slicers, dicers, and shredders for use in the food, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries.

 

Posted 8/12/2014