Friday, May 28, 2004

APRIL 22, 2004, cont'd

I have been talking with John Davis, plant manager at SNC in Emmetsburg, Iowa. We are at the King Street plant. John has been explaining what SNC does, and its history in Emmetsburg. Now we are ready for a tour of the plant.

We stepped out into the production area. Over there a woman was working magic at a machine. "Most things made here are made by hand," John said. "You can't mass-produce an order for forty-two pieces."

"Over here," he said, "is a toroid coil for a high frequency welder made by Miller Electric in Appleton, Wisconsin."

He said things like "That gets one hundred eighty turns of wire. This one requires exactly 48 turns." Then he was talking about "encapsulates" - varnishes and rubberized bake-on coatings.

All the employees in the department were women. John called it the "High Frequency Area." One of the women said it was more like "High Maintenance." She laughed and the other women smiled and nodded in agreement.

John and I moved into the next work area. "Our products get bigger as you move towards the back of the plant," John said.

A woman came up and introduced herself to me. I remembered her parents. She said they had hired my sisters to baby-sit her when she was little. Where did forty-some years go, I wondered to myself.

A woman at one work station was making what John called a "standard audio transformer." She said she could produce a couple hundred a day of them. If you've ever taken an old hi-fi cabinet apart, you should have seen something like what she was making.

John showed me a strand of the wire used in one piece SNC makes; it was as fine as a hair. The wire must be wrapped 6800 times to create the transformer; tolerance on this piece is plus or minus sixty-five wraps. "We have electronic counters," he said, "so we should be more accurate than that."

"This is a job shop," John said. "We have a lot of machinery working on different jobs."

Here they were making electronic brake controls for the Dings Corporation in Milwaukee, in different configurations and different voltages.

Not only do the products get bigger towards the back of the plant, the windings get bigger and some of the pieces get welded together before they're finished.

Here, a transformer for power sub-stations, made for General Electric. There, the transformer used to charge the battery on the E-Z-GO golf cart.

"E-Z-GO used to have three suppliers," John said. "They couldn't seem to get enough of the parts [a fero-resin transformer that converts AC power to DC; it works like a battery charger]. They wanted us to do a pre-production order of twenty-five, and the seemed surprised when all twenty-five of them functioned properly. Well - they were supposed to work."

"They asked us to have a hundred of the parts always in stock," John said. "When they ordered a hundred, we made a hundred more to replace what had been shipped. Over six months we shipped four hundred or five hundred of them. Then they asked 'How would you like to be a weekly supplier?' We said yes. 'Could you make twenty-five a day?' We said yes. 'You will be our #2 supplier,' they said. '#3 is gone.' A year later they asked us how many we thought we could make. They wanted three hundred a day, fifteen hundred a week. We ramped up to do it and now we are their only supplier of the part. We can make four hundred and twenty five of them a day if we need to. On an average day we'll make three hundred seventy five of them."

John pointed to a machine that is used to test parts, to make sure they work as they're supposed to. The testing machine itself isn't working today and John has been trying to get a technician in to repair it.

We got back to talking about transformers. "Now we've got another customer for a similar kind of part," John said. "Railway Equipment Company makes battery operated crossing lights for railroads. In that grey box you see by the railroad crossing lights there is a bank of batteries. They are using our transformer to charge those batteries with current coming off the power lines."

"Customers come to us by word of mouth," John said. "One satisfied customer will tell others. That's been the story of our success."

John had to get back to work. He's a hands-on plant manager and time was a-wastin'. And I was minutes away from another interview across town. I had seen SNC Plant #2, but not the Airport Plant. "Come back on another visit," John said, "and I'll show you the other plant."


MAY 25, 2001 (3)

At Five Corners the retired farmer works
his flower beds. He is sprawled there, weeding
and working the soil, he is sprawled as if
this were a Sunday picnic and he has
eaten his fill. Everything about him
shimmers. His red shirt. His baseball cap.
His cigar. The denim of his overalls.
The light which lays on him like a blessing

MAY 28, 1998

A storm this morning - long, low roar of thunder; rain. Lightning reflected off windows across our driveway. The farmers will appreciate the rain. So will the little green growing things in the farmers' fields.

Tires spit moisture from the street, leave tracks so you can see where they've been. A different song today, sung in a different key. Would the farmers take a rest, clean out their tool sheds, grease their equipment?

You can run away from home, but you can't run very far. What made you keeps you. A farmer's son is always a farmer's son. Cut yourself, Tom, do you not bleed green?

The peony blossoms are bent low with the weight of rain on them. The pond is dimpled. In places the road ahead mirrors the sky above. Grey, wet road. Grey, wet sky. Electric moisture. The clouds do not say we are at the edge of an ocean, nor even a very large lake. That takes different clouds.

Heavy rain now. At the Sina pig farm, children in slick, shiny rain coats wait for the school bus, which is not far behind me.

At Five Corners - to the southeast, white and purple flowers bloom close to the ground; to the northwest, peony blossoms on their bushes.

Despite the greyness, despite the rain, all is right with the world, or as near so as gratitude can make it.

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