The future has arrived at Doosan Bobcat’s manufacturing plant in Litchfield.
And the future is, well, big. Big, as in:
- Investment: Doosan Bobcat North America made a $26 million investment to expand the Litchfield facility.
- Physical size: That big investment nearly tripled the size of the facility on Polydome Drive, from about 70,000 square feet of office and manufacturing space to nearly 200,000 square feet.
- Expectations: The investment and expansion make Litchfield the center for Doosan Bobcat’s attachment manufacturing universe, with its product being shipped throughout the world.
The size of it all came to the forefront for employees at the facility last week when Scott Park, Doosan Bobcat chief executive officer, and Mike Ballweber, Doosan Bobcat North America president, visited the plant for a celebratory ribbon cutting and salute to employees, marking the completion of a 15-month construction project.
“(T)here’s a lot of eyes on you, and the eyes are on you because there's been great performance out of this plant,” Park told the 100-plus employees gathered in the now completed, climate-controlled expansion area. “And now we've got a plant three times the size of the original plant, and even more in growth as far as revenue and products coming out the door.
“So, big plans, all coming to fruition,” Park added. “You guys know the plan on what's going to happen to this plant in the coming months. You know, when we built this plant, we were looking way out to 2025, 2026. It looks like 2025 and 2026 is going to come in 2024 and maybe even 2023. So, you know, buckle up. I think we’re in for a great ride.”
The expansion of the plant and manufacturing efforts means growth in jobs, as well. Doosan Bobcat expects to hire an additional 110 full-time, permanent employees by the end of the year to join its current workforce of more than 140 people. That growth includes more than 150 production, manufacturing engineering and operations positions added since the expansion project was announced in November 2019.
Though in the midst of a massive construction project during that time, the local facility has added fabricator, assembler, welder and material handler positions during the past year-and-a-half, according to a company news release.
Oh, and don’t forget — not that you could — all that happened during a global pandemic.
Less than four months after company officials visited Litchfield for a groundbreaking ceremony, the world was gripped by a pandemic. In early April last year, Doosan Bobcat announced a two-week closure of its Minnesota and North Dakota manufacturing facilities, an effort it said at the time was to protect employees’ health, as well as a reaction to the pandemic’s effect on the global economy.
Yet, those precautionary steps didn’t stop the work on the expansion — or, in the end, slow demand for products manufactured at the Litchfield facility, according to Ballweber.
“I mean, second quarter last year, I think a lot of us were wondering,” Ballweber admitted. “But look, at the end of the day, we knew what was different from 2008 (the Great Recession) was, this was artificially created, for lack of a better word, right? The underlying fundamentals of what we follow on the economy — housing starts, construction — all those things are really solid. So we felt, at worst, it was just going to be a timing issue on how quick it would come back.
“And you know,” Ballweber added, “I have a theory that people weren’t going on vacations, they weren’t driving, they weren’t going out to eat. And so they decided to do landscape projects. And I think that’s a lot of really what’s driving the industry right now.”
The expansion, which was completed in January, improves workflow, according to site operations manager Mike Kiefer, and allows Doosan Bobcat to bring work previously done at a facility in Bismarck, North Dakota, to the Litchfield plant.
It is part of a larger expansion and improvement effort Doosan Bobcat is making in U.S. facilities. Among the others are a $17 million investment in its Gwinner, North Dakota, plant, the company’s main North Amercan facility; an $11 million investment in Statesville, North Carolina; and $6 million in facility and manufacturing enhancements in a plant at Johnson Creek, Wisconsin.
At the Litchfield plant, new assembly lines were added and others upgraded, and conveyor systems and a new paint line were added. In addition, the manufacturing area will be climate-controlled, a fact called out by Kiefer a couple of times during Thursday’s event, because of the improved work condition it provides for the workforce.
That’s all important as the facility will produce more than 250 unique Bobcat attachments — from skid steer buckets to grapple buckets, and augers to brush cutters.
For Kiefer, who has been with Doosan Bobcat for 24 years, the last 11 at the Litchfield plant, the expansion is remarkable in many ways, from how it changed the physical facility to the change it will bring in the workforce and in the products produced.
“The product mix has changed substantially over time,” Kiefer said. “A lot of the product that was built here prior to 2012 is actually what’s transferring back here now.”
The investment in Litchfield is an acknowledgment, Kiefer said, of the Litchfield facility’s workforce.
“I think, ultimately, what it came down to is, they saw the workforce that we’ve historically had here,” Kiefer explained. “We have very little turnover. We’ve got, for the most part, long-tenured employees. The performance of this site year-over-year has been very good. So I think they believe that we had the right mindset.”
That existing workforce — and the region’s prospect of providing more employees — were a driving force in the company’s commitment to Litchfield, Ballweber agreed.
“Our HR team did expansive studies of, you know, how far of a radius can we attract people,” Ballweber said. “And it was just a perfect match that we had here. We had a good footprint here. Even prior to the expansion, we look at efficiencies and volumes and safety record of a facility, they were all top notch here. So it made a lot of sense for us to continue to invest in those facilities that are performing that well.”
Growing that workforce is a key, of course, to success of the expansion. And along with the huge capital investment, Doosan Bobcat invested about $400,000 in a mobile training facility for welders, which was parked outside the Litchfield plant last week. The training area, built in a semi-trailer, is equipped to train six people at a time for a two-week course aimed at preparing them to step onto the manufacturing floor when they graduate.
While kicking off Thursday’s event, Kiefer hinted at the weight of expectations for the Litchfield facility and workforce, with a return on investment extremely important.
“Certainly, there’s pressure,” Kiefer said. “That’s what I mentioned … you know, now’s the opportunity to shine here in Litchfield. Because once everything transfers here, we are the primary attachment facility, globally, for Doosan Bobcat. The vast majority of attachments that get shipped worldwide will come out of this facility.
“We all want to be successful,” he added. “We’ve got a great team here, and I have every confidence that we will succeed.”