The word “manufacturing” can generate images of greasy, dirty work, line jobs and low salary.

Yet, Midwest Industrial Tool Grinding Inc. has been working hard to show students, and their parents, that manufacturing offers high-tech careers in a clean environment with a competitive salary and benefits.

MITGI, a Hutchinson manufacturer, stands as an example. The company has seen substantial growth in its 21 years, and has been committed to reaching out to students of all ages to show them the types of careers that are available in manufacturing.

The success MITGI has achieved, and its dedication to the community and industry has helped it become a first-time finalist in two categories for Minnesota Business magazine’s 2014 Manufacturing Awards.

The awards, given annually, recognize achievements in 10 categories. MITGI is a finalist in two categories: Best in Class (small company, one to 50 employees), recognizing companies for overall excellence in the manufacturing industry in Minnesota; and Image Award, honoring an organization for improving the industry’s image and showing the appeal of careers in manufacturing.

“As a Best in Class finalist, we’re honored to be considered in a category that recognizes excellence in small and growing manufacturers,” said Eric Lipke, MITGI general manager.

MITGI manufactures standard and custom-cutting tools that are built to tighter tolerances than most tools on the market, Lipke said.

MITGI’s tools are used in many research and development departments and manufacturing facilities that serve the medical, automotive, computer and aerospace industries.

Company growth

Jim Schaufler and Bruce Kasal started the company as a regrind business in 1993, with both men serving different roles.

“Jim is into the tools and creating the tools, and Bruce is more the business side. It was very complementary and worked out well. And now, we’ve got lots and lots of people creating tools whom Jim has taught his philosophy of quality,” Lipke said.

In 1997, Schaufler and Kasal purchased a computer numeric control machine for regrinding. Because a CNC machine is more precise than doing the work manually, the company’s use of it opened the door to serving the medical industry, Lipke said.

Ten years ago, operations included a small shop in Stewart, three employees, and four pieces of equipment (two manual grinders and two CNC machines). Now in the 21st year of business, MITGI has 49 employees who operate a variety of equipment such as 20 CNC grinders, four manual cutter grinders, two wheel dressers, equipment for in-house fixturing (surface grinder, lathe, and mill), metrology equipment, and in-house coating.

The company has seen substantial growth, moving from its 2,000 square-foot facility to its current 20,000 square-foot facility, doubling the number of employees, tripling the amount of manufacturing equipment, and increasing sales an average of 35 percent year-over-year.

MITGI added its robotic line of machines in 2005, and by 2007, demand for tools required these machines to operate 24 hours, five days a week. In that shop, employees fill orders that range from 25 pieces to thousands of pieces.

In the nearby prototype tool shop, employees make custom tools for clients, from a couple of pieces to about 25 pieces to fill a special order. In this shop, a day shift works five days a week, with some evening shifts.

“We have a set of standard tools that we offer through a catalog, but a lot of the business we do is custom. So, when people can’t find tools to do the work that they need to do, then we work with them to develop a tool,” said Jennie Nelson, director of marketing and media at MITGI.

“A big area for that is medical. With all the medical products they’re making, there aren’t standard tools to do what they do. So, the specialty market has been a huge area for us,” Lipke added.

MITGI is poised for steady growth and has targeted three areas that are key to both short- and long-term growth: equipment, process development and recruiting.

High standards

Tools MITGI makes range in size and width, with MITGI able to create tools smaller in diameter than a human hair.

“A human hair is 0.003 or 0.004 inches in diameter. We make tools that are smaller than that and our tolerances are another zero out, so you can cut a hair into 100 pieces, and we’re holding that tight of a tolerance and more just because it’s very precise work,” Lipke said. “You can’t do that without really caring, good people doing their job because ... they have to see what they’re building, understand what they’re building, and be careful to keep that quality there.”

To take control of the quality of the coating put on its tools, and to save time and money, MITGI began doing its own coating in house. As a result, MITGI has shortened production times for coated tools by eliminating the time it takes to ship to and from an outside facility.

Additionally, in-house coating provides the flexibility to coat tools of like sizes in small batches. The advantage to this is that tools of similar sizes can be coated together, ensuring that the right amount of coating is applied at the ideal temperature and that the quality of tools are not damaged in the final coating process.

Updating the image

In a competitive and thriving manufacturing market, it’s difficult to find qualified machinists to meet the demands of MITGI customers, Lipke said. MITGI is committed to helping encourage students to enter manufacturing related fields.

Minnesota Business magazine’s Image Award honors an organization for improving the industry’s image and showing the appeal of careers in manufacturing.

Lipke said he is proud MITGI is finalist for this award, as well, because the company is dedicated to encouraging and supporting people to enter manufacturing-related programs.

Through on-site tours, classroom visits, participation in advisory boards, presentations at manufacturing expos, internships, and scholarships, MITGI exposes students from elementary through post-secondary to the types of careers that are available in the expanding manufacturing industry, he said.

MITGI believes that early exposure to manufacturing helps students — and their parents — to see it as a viable career path.

“Over the years, the face of manufacturing has changed. Many facilities, like ours, offer clean work environments, good pay, solid benefits, and long-term employment. Employees can make a career here, and enjoy the benefits of living in a mid-sized, Central Minnesota community,” Lipke said.

Starting as early as elementary school, MITGI invites students to tour their Hutchinson facility. For students who are in middle and high school, tours take on more importance as students begin to see ways in which their talents and interests could be used in a job.

Getting more students to enroll in manufacturing programs is the first step to creating a thriving workforce pool of candidates, Nelson said.

At the post-secondary level, MITGI’s focus is on developing relationships with local community and technical colleges. MITGI participates in an advisory capacity with two regional technical and community colleges: South Central College in Mankato, and the Ridgewater Foundation Board in Hutchinson.

“Making the decisions to start working with area schools in an advisory capacity, offering scholarships and internships, and promoting careers in manufacturing was easy. The owners at MITGI believe that they need to be good corporate citizens and recognize schools as community assets,” Lipke said.

Minnesota Business magazine will announce the winners of each category Sept. 23 at an event in Minneapolis. Finalists in each category will be featured in the October edition of Minnesota Business.