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A Century Old Factory Builds The Future

If you think we don’t make anything in this country anymore, take a look at Norwood, OH, home of Siemens’ Norwood Motor plant, where a different story emerges.

Industry has always been the centerpiece of life in Norwood. The city of 19,000 was one of the original suburbs of Cincinnati, and its Norwood Brickworks provided the bricks for many of Cincinnati’s historic buildings. Bullock Electric established its plant there in 1898, making large electric induction motors for industrial uses. In the 20th century, the city’s fortunes were closely tied to the automotive industry, which eventually constituted 35 percent of the city’s tax base. But that tax base evaporated by 1987, when the auto industry left Norwood. More than 3,500 people were unemployed. The city faced possible bankruptcy if it couldn’t find replacement income. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many other industries decamped for cheaper locations or closed permanently.

Yet, amidst the drumbeat of abandonment, in 1985, an interesting thing happened. The global technology company Siemens purchased the Bullock Electric plant, choosing it for the same reasons industry had always chosen Norwood—a skilled labor force and a prime location at the intersection of several major railroads and highways, according to Stephen Kroeger, manufacturing excellence manager, Siemens. At the time, around 350 jobs were saved.

In 2005, Siemens invested more than $30 million in the former Bullock Electric (now Siemens Norwood Motor) plant. With the renovation and addition project completed in 2007, the plant now produces a range of heavy-duty electric motors, powering everything from oil and gas refineries to mining operations, paper mills, and generating plants. The renovation included an extensive efficiency campaign that reduced the assembly line from six miles in length to two.

"By starting with a clean sheet of paper for the new building addition, we were able to place equipment in the proper flow so material does not have to move back and forth through the facility," Kroeger says.

Usually, an increase in manufacturing efficiency connotes reductions to the human labor force, but that’s not the case in Norwood. The Siemens plant now employs 485 people, many of whom work at a level of sophistication and due care that robots and less-skilled labor pools can’t replicate. Many of the employees are the second and third generations of their families to work there.

"We just hired several shop employees, and a lot of them were out of work and thankful to get a job at a company like Siemens," Kroeger says.

Despite lower labor costs and fewer regulations in other regions and countries, Siemens chose to not only keep, but invest heavily in its Norwood plant, because of the concentration of skill and the ideal location of the factory for shipping throughout North America.

"It's becoming 'cool' again to produce in the USA," Kroeger says. "Companies are bringing work back from overseas, and revitalizing U.S. manufacturing, like we have done here in Norwood."