Manufacturing tours are always fun and informative for me. Last year I experienced my first, spending a couple days in Virginia visiting four companies that make products ranging from engine components to satellites.

Recently, I took another two-day manufacturing tour. This time I visited six companies based in Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana. The tour was hosted by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and Indiana Michigan Power, and organized by Development Counsellors International.

“Manufacturing has always been important to our region,” says John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. Sampson started the partnership in 2006. “We had always been first in and last out of a recession, but this time we were first in and first out.”

What a Ride!

All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) have been around for decades, although the number of U.S. ATV manufacturers has significantly dwindled in recent years. Since 2008, Shipshewana, IN-based Mudd-Ox Inc. has made six- and eight-wheel ATVs for use on land and water.

The company’s diverse customer base includes fire departments, utility companies, surveyors and duck hunters. In 2012, Mudd-Ox won a manufacturing innovation award from the state of Indiana.

Editors were given a ride in an 8-wheel vehicle through a small forest area, up a steep hill and across a 15-foot-deep pond. Without a doubt, it was the most fun we had during the tour.

“We make everything for our vehicles except radiators and vacuum-formed bodies,” says Matt Oxender, owner of Mudd-Ox Inc. “We use locally made steel and tires, and nearly all of our vendors are within 30 miles of us.”

All fasteners on the vehicles are installed with hand tools, and torque is verified with torque sticks. Vehicle frames are hand welded. The company makes harnesses for its custom ATVs, but hires a supplier to make harnesses for standard ATVs.

Currently the company has nine employees and three interns. However, in early July it will break ground to add 14,000 square feet of capacity for offices and a showroom.

Another vehicle manufacturer we visited was Forest River, based in Goshen, IN. The company has been making pop-up tent campers, traveler trailers, fifth wheel and park models since the 1990s. In 2005, Forest River was purchased by Berkshire Hathaway. Annual sales will exceed $3 billion this year.

Forest River also manufactures Class A, B and C motorhomes (gas and diesel); a full range of cargo and landscape trailers; and pontoon boats. In addition, the company produces commercial and school buses, and commercial vehicles.

“We have 45 plants in Indiana and two more under construction,” says Doug Gaeddert, general manager of Forest River. “We like it here because it helps us serve our customers on both coasts. And we’re not alone. More than 80 percent of RVs and 95 percent of fifth wheels are produced in Indiana.”

The company also operates several other plants outside of the state. Facilities are located in Texas, Michigan, California, Georgia and Oregon.

Three series of RVs are made at the Goshen Toy Hauler plant we toured: Viper, Thunderbolt and Hyper Lite. Workers assemble all harnesses at the 100,000-square-foot plant, and fasteners are installed manually. An RV is moved along a rail to a workstation every 12 to 45 minutes. There are 28 workstations in the plant.

“The next 8 to 10 years look amazing for our industry here in the North America,” notes Gaeddert. “This is because we’re great at marketing a lifestyle, not just specific products.”

The final vehicle-related plant we visited was Tenneco Inc. in Ligonier, IN. Workers there make exhaust systems, catalytic converters and mufflers for various automakers, primarily Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler. At other plants, the company makes after-market replacement auto parts, and air-cleaning systems for trains, mining and agriculture equipment.

“All P473 exhaust systems are made here, and they’re used on the Ford Super Duty diesel truck,” says Doug Bonecutter, plant manager at Tenneco Inc.—Ligonier. “We also make catalytic converters for the F150. Plus, this past February we started making mufflers for Ligonier’s Chrysler Program. Normally, mufflers are made at our Marshall, MI, facility.”

The Ligonier plant has 480 employees, 80 of which are welders. The plant also features several automated welding machines. Each weld cell has an arc counter to ensure that no part is released from the cell until the part has the proper number of welds.

In 2010 and 2011, the Ligonier facility received Tenneco’s health and safety award in the large plant category, which are those having more than 200 employees. It also received a World Excellence Award from Ford in 2012 for warranty improvement.

Medical Manufacturing

Several companies in Northeast Indiana make medical devices. Columbia City, IN-based Micropulse Inc. is a contract manufacturer that, since 2003, has focused solely on making prototypes, instruments and implants for orthopedic applications.

“About 60 percent of our manufacturing is for instruments, 30 percent is for implants and 10 percent is for delivery cases,” says Brian Emerick, CEO and founder of Micropulse Inc. “We sell to some of the biggest medical companies.”

A small percentage of instruments and a large percentage of delivery cases require some fastening. Screws are manually tightened, inspected and torque tested. Rivets are inserted into hand-held parts with a small press. The company has a five-person assembly and measuring cell.

“For the last several years, we’ve experienced annual growth of 10 percent annually,” says Emerick. “More importantly, about 15 to 20 percent of what we make every month we’ve never made before.”

Fort Wayne Metals was founded in 1974 and is located in Fort Wayne, IN. It is a leading manufacturer of wire for medical devices such as implantable pacing leads, cardiovascular catheters and orthopedic implants.

Hollow and solid wire is often welded with automated laser equipment to ensure precision, says Mark Michael, president of Fort Wayne Metals. When wire needs to be crimped, it is done manually with either a hand tool or small press.

Editors got to see a worker perform an assembly process on a solid wire that is 0.012-inch thick and 45 inches long. After sliding a tiny barrel onto the wire, the worker places one end in a gripper that keeps the wire in place as it is stretched. Next, the worker positions the barrel in a tiny press and places a small, soft-metal piece over the barrel to keep it aligned. Once activated, the press quickly crimps the barrel to the wire.

Another regional company that makes implants and instrumentation is C&A Tool Engineering Inc. The company also manufacturers tools for the aeronautical, defense, transportation and other industries.

Assembly at the Churubusco, IN, plant is minimal and manual. Small fasteners are installed with hand tools and torque tested. Tiny rivets are installed with small presses.

However, C&A Tool impressed me greatly with its four direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) machines located within the plant’s “medical device” pod. Rob Marr, general manager of C&A Tool Engineering Inc., says the EOSINT 270 machines are used extensively to create medical-device prototypes.

Parts are built up with 20-micron layers. More importantly, notes Marr, the machines create parts that, metallurgically, are high quality and not porous.

“Our favorite customer is one that needs a project done now because we always try to maintain excess capacity,” says Marr. “We focus not only on our customer, but also on our customer’s customer.”