Sunday, May 30, 2004

APRIL 22, 2004

Michael Webb doesn't look like he is president of IEI. It's clear he goes to work to work. It was 2:45 p.m. when I met him at the IEI plant at the east edge of Emmetsburg, along Highway 18. The plant is entirely a production facility, so I had a little difficulty finding the office end of it. The company's offices are at the other plant in Emmetsburg. As president, Michael is support by a director of manufacturing, an engineering manager, an estimating manager, a quality assurance manager, and accounting.

IEI is Institutional Equipment Inc. The company started out as the Iowa/South Dakota dealer for institutional grade cabinets and counters with a plastic laminate coating similar to "Formica" but made by LSI. They have added a wood laminate now, made by Campbell Rhey. In addition to selling these product lines, IEI now manufacturers cabinets, countertops, and doors, plus outsourcing "fixtures" to complement the products they make in Emmetsburg.

"We do a lot of component manufacturing," Michael said. "Our largest customer is Winnebago. The pieces we make for them get more sophisticated as the RVs [recreational vehicles] get more stylish. We've had a lot of growth as a result of our association with Winnebago."

I'm new to this industry, so as we talked I had to ask for more explanation than I'm used to. You'd hear Michael say "We used a lot of solid-surface Corian." Corian is the brand name for a type of acrylic filled with aluminum tri-hydrates and pigments; it is the original solid-surface product, so its name has become somewhat like "Kleenex" - you might say it is the "Formica" of the solid-surface products. "It's a very high-quality product and it's a lot of fun to work with," Michael said.

You'd hear Michael say "PVA glue cold press line," where a panel is cleaned, a layer of glue is put down, the laminate is applied, the panels are stacked and then pressed for an hour while the glue cures.

The portion of the plant closest to the meager offices at the north end of the building is devoted to "contract work." The rest of the building is given to manufacturing the parts that IEI makes.

IEI has a press to bend laminate and adhere it to the front edge, back scribe, and inside cove of a countertop. The laminate is heated to make it soft for bending. "We're the only people in the US who can make this countertop with such tight radiuses," Michael said. "Most people would have to use a contact glue and thinner laminate."

Here some fellows are working on pieces with unusual shapes. "We're retro-fitting an older room with wood-edged countertops," Michael said by way of explanation.

Specifications are communicated through a workorder. Geometric code is generated for custom shapes and the pieces are cut on the CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled).

In the distance we saw a maple door IEI is starting to manufacture for Winnebago. It'll be the door for the bathroom. "The high end units are getting more upscale all the time," Michael said.

To be continued....



your eyes at daybreak:
sometimes the rain.


MAY 29, 1998

Once the clouds cleared away, yesterday turned hot and steamy. Another thunderstorm rolled through last night and cooled things off. The sky is grey still. Our peonies are still bent with the weight of that storm's moisture.

To the north and northwest, the sky looks cold and wintry, the clouds like ice cubes.

Just south of Ripon, equipment sits on the empty lot next to the house that sold recently. A man looks over some papers, looks over the lot. Will he be digging a basement today? Is there another house going up on good farm land? Will we ever reclaim what we are losing? Does anybody care?

The radio wants to talk about pain in places all across the planet. I have to turn it off. There is enough pain right here, right now.

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