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Scale firm keeps growing
Photo: Truck and livestock scales are among the largest products manufactured at the Rice Lake facility, which operates three shifts a day. BusinessNorth photo
While many firms were scrambling to rebound from the recession, an area manufacturer was growing and busily acquiring companies engaged in complementary business.
Rice Lake Weighing Systems opened a European division in 2011 to better serve its existing overseas customer base. Also in 2011, the company purchased a 29,700-square-foot facility in Fernley, Nev., expanding its truck scale manufacturing capacity. In April 2012, it acquired Measurement Systems International, a scale equipment manufacturer based in Seattle. Last year, the family-owned Wisconsin firm purchased belt scale manufacturer Master Engineering in the Netherlands.
The growth is continuing this year. In August, construction began on a 62,000-square-foot warehouse addition to the company’s 320,000-square-foot Rice Lake headquarters, where 80 percent of its products are made. The new structure will be erected during the coming month with completion anticipated in January.
“The bottom line is that we’re out of space,” said Mark Johnson Jr., president of the 68-year-old firm, which was co-founded by his grandfather, Donald B. Johnson, then led by his father, Mark Sr. The new addition will be used for shipping, receiving and finished goods storage. Existing space that is being used for those functions will be converted to allow for additional manufacturing and assembly.
Northwest Builders Inc. of Rice Lake is the general contractor for the new addition. It will be attached to the main building, where Rice Lake Weighing Systems produces everything from small test weights to massive truck scales.
“Rice Lake Weighing Systems is not only one of the largest employers in northwestern Wisconsin, but is an integral part of our community, and their expansion will benefit the entire region,” said Dave Armstrong, Barron County Economic Development Corp. executive director. “We are grateful to the state for supporting this project, which will bring new family-supporting jobs to the city of Rice Lake and the county.”
Having the high-growth manufacturer in the town of 8,300 people is important to the economy, said Chris Mlejnek, owner of Northwest Builders.
“Rice Lake Weighing Systems and the Johnson family have, and continue to be, huge drivers of our success at Northwest Builders Inc. The impact that growth-oriented manufacturing employers like Rice Lake Weighing Systems Inc. has on the prosperity of our local residents and our community is beyond description,” he said.
The company has evolved in tandem with the importance of scale systems in modern life, Johnson said.
“Weighing is an important part of just about everything. Most everything you buy, from what you wear to what you eat, is weighed at some point in its life – either as raw material or as the finished product,” he explained, “and that’s where some of the growth is coming.”
While the evidence isn’t always visible, the company’s scales are used in such industries as healthcare, agriculture, processed food, chemistry, transportation, forest products, bulk products, mining and construction. Rice Lake Weighing Systems’ customer base spans 80 countries.
The concept of scales typically conjures up images of spring-controlled devices having a clock-like analog readout, but the industry has advanced far beyond what one might see in the produce department at their grocery store.
“The process is changing all the time,” said Johnson, who has worked at the company since his high school days and full time since 1999. For instance, some electronic scales work hand-in-hand with computers to control factory production in a variety of industries. This is accomplished by feeding weight data into a programmable logic controller (PLC) to communicate with other devices on the factory floor. Systems that perform such complicated functions typically are not available directly off the shelf.
“We focus heavily on custom solutions. Buyers count on us to write custom programs. We have software engineers who write programs daily – maybe for a batching or mixing process. Our equipment integrates with a PLC, and the PLC controls all the belts, motors and drives that run their plants. Having accurate weight information allows them to keep their batches accurate when they are mixing products, when they’re measuring for foods. They need to have consistent quality. More and more, scales are being used as part of the manufacturing processes,” Johnson said.
Traditional scale markets continue to generate demand. Today’s newer products have been refined to better serve customers by offering more convenience than was available in the past. The truck transportation sector is one example.
“We do onboard weighing for timber, mining and other industries. A scale is actually built into a truck so drivers can monitor their load at all times and have real-time access to that information before they get to a truck scale somewhere,” he said. Onboard scales also allow drivers to know exactly how much product they’ve delivered (such as fertilizer or livestock feed) so they can generate an invoice on the spot.
Like many companies in and around Barron County, Rice Lake Weighing Systems has benefited from the frac sand mining boom. Scales are used throughout the process. Sand is weighed when it comes out of the ground to ensure trucks aren’t overweight. When sand is processed, belt and tank scales measure weight. Overburden is weighed before it is returned to mine sites, and processed sand is weighed again as it’s loaded onto trucks or rail cars for transportation to oil fields. The company even has developed scales that are integrated into railroad tracks.
With beef prices rising, the livestock market also is generating scale demand. To accommodate growth in that market segment, Rice Lake Weighing Systems acquired a Canadian firm that produced livestock scales. The company also is partner in a joint-venture in India that sells products strictly in that region.
As the firm continues to grow, its biggest challenge mirrors that of other area companies that engage in manufacturing: hiring enough skilled workers to produce its products. There currently are 50 job openings, and they span a wide variety of job categories – assemblers, shipping and receiving workers, machinists, welders, electrical engineers and mechanical engineers.
Rice Lake Weighing Systems has been proactive in a growing effort to encourage young persons to enter skilled professions such as operating automated machine tools and welding.
“We’ve worked with the high school and the local tech school to put together programs that attract students. We also offer internships to help students grow and be successful. We also exhibit at job fairs and are active in the community,” Johnson said.
“The internship programs that Rice Lake Weighing Systems Inc. has championed for the local youth is unmatched and shows their character and devotion to our community,” Mlejnek said.
The tourism industry is also proving to be a recruiting tool. Some people who visit the Rice Lake area are learning they can find good jobs and move there permanently, escaping from metropolitan congestion and crime.
“We’ve had a number of people move here from the Milwaukee and Minneapolis areas. A lot of the people who we come into contact with would just jump at the chance to live here but don’t always know there are good jobs available in this part of Wisconsin,” Johnson said.
When the addition is completed, the company’s goal is to hire 60 additional employees during the next three years, then move on to the next phase of growth.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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