We’re fascinated with that “Made in America” label, but where do our favorite goods really come from? Some of the best are made right at home.
Thicago was built on the back of industry. Pullman’s rail cars, McCormick’s reaper, the Union Stockyards – all homegrown Chicago industries. Manufacturing isn’t the powerhouse it was a century ago, but it’s still an essential player in our economy.
In fact, if you compared American manufacturing to the rest of the world, it would be the 10th largest economy in the world, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.
In the largest metropolitan area in America’s fourth-most productive manufacturing state, nearly 320,000 people produce tangible goods. They create and assemble things. They process foods, chemicals and raw materials. In many cases, they work good jobs doing it, earning on average almost $20 an hour, often with minimal education.
Here in the northwest suburbs, more than 46,000 people in Kane and McHenry counties produce goods at nearly 1,400 manufacturing companies.
Some of their handiwork plays a small role in bigger things, such as wind turbines or robotic equipment. In other cases, these products are part of our everyday lives.
The land that begot Tootsie Rolls and hydrogen peroxide, that processes nuts and frozen pizzas, and produces traffic safety and garden equipment, hasn’t forgotten its roots. Not by a long shot. Here are a few American-made products built right here in the northwest suburbs.
Elgin Sweeper Co.
Elgin street sweepers are easily recognized. In fact, you’ll see them in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, the Twin Cities, in towns across the country, and in nearly 100 countries around the world.
From its humble beginnings in 1914, as a producer of water tanks, this company has remained loyal to its hometown.
“We started with our plant on the river, and it grew over the years,” says Mike Higgins, vice president of sales and general manager of the Elgin-based production hub. “That facility was no longer effective when they purchased the land where we’re now located, several miles from downtown. When it was built in 1966, it was surrounded by farm fields. Elgin annexed a peninsula so we could still be produced in Elgin.”
Today, the company makes a variety of sweepers that fit numerous applications. Whether cleaning city streets or airplane runways, or sucking up fall leaves, industrial messes and NASCAR track debris, the equipment is much the same.
“If you want to look at it really simply, there are two types of street sweepers,” says Higgins. “One is the mechanical method, and one uses air. The mechanical sweepers start with a broom and a conveying system. The broom flips material into a conveying system that moves it into a hopper, which you can eventually empty.” Air-based sweepers act like a household vacuum, brushing debris that’s sucked through a nozzle.
Every Elgin unit is made locally, and almost entirely from scratch. A fabrication team molds steel into sweeper parts. Welders join components, which painters then coat. An assembly team puts everything together. Inside the office, a team of engineers, salespeople, financial wizards and managers oversee production. While engineers require four-year degrees, and shop workers may require trade certification, many other employees hold jobs that need little training. Elgin often networks with local trade schools to recruit new welders and certified staff.
In 1982, Elgin Sweeper was purchased by Federal Signal Corp., a company whose sanitary equipment division oversees related equipment manufacturers in Streator, Ill., and Houston. What’s the advantage in remaining local?
“It’s a good area to recruit from, and in general, the work ethic of people in this part of the country, and Chicagoland, is excellent,” says Higgins. “We have no problem recruiting here, because it’s a great place to live and work, with proximity to Chicago, in a desirable suburban area. It’s ideal, and it’s close to O’Hare.”
The folks at FONA International are serious about good eats. Inside the company’s 33-acre Geneva campus, scientists and flavorists are enhancing the foods we love.
Their business is food flavoring, the tastes and textures that make things taste good. Flavorings make cereal taste like cinnamon, and gum taste like mint. Oftentimes, FONA’s work protects a food’s tastiness against heat and light. In other cases, its flavorings can mask bitterness or pungency in grains, vitamins and proteins; reduce sodium without sacrificing flavor; and increase sweetness with natural, high-potency sweeteners. It’s a science-intensive industry.
FONA’s clients remain a guarded secret, but its product applications are wide-ranging: beverages, cereals, savories, confections, nutraceuticals and dairy. Everything from chewing gum and granola bars to energy drinks, yogurt and pharmaceutical products, bear its mark.
About half of FONA’s 82,000 square-foot complex is dedicated to research and development. In addition to creating new flavors and performing consumer studies, the department maintains a facility for large-scale test-runs of new products.
Inside the manufacturing center, several stations enable production of liquid and dry flavors. Production capabilities include encapsulation, a process of covering individual flavor particles with a protective coating. It’s a technique often used for time-release flavors and smells, various colorings, increased shelf life, improved taste and protection from heat and light during final production.
Everything here requires precision and formulas. Research and development employees carry bachelor’s degrees, often in food science, and they may require additional flavor training. Certified flavorists, for example, must complete a seven-year apprenticeship, a training that enables an incredible sensitivity to taste.
On the manufacturing side, most jobs require a high school diploma and math skills, plus the ability to read, write and speak English. Often, these jobs require careful ingredient measurements.
It’s a complex business, but FONA’s Flavor University is helping to make the science more approachable. Tuition-free for food industry professionals, these courses highlight the art and science of flavor creation.
The Flavor 101 course includes flavor mapping methods, flavor analysis, anatomy of flavor, quality standards and ingredients. Higher-level courses touch on applications of flavor in grains, beverages and other foods.
Joseph Slawek founded this family-owned company in the Chicago area in 1987. A longtime food flavorings expert, Slawek envisioned FONA to be a different kind of flavorings business, one that could combine big-business innovation with a small-business customer connection. His company has won numerous awards for food safety, company growth and business culture.
It’s not just job talent and lifestyle that keep FONA rooted here. Chicago’s vast transportation network is a boon.
“Transportation readily available through O’Hare Airport makes it easy for customers to work side-by-side with us in our labs and to attend our Flavor University courses,” says Luke Slawek, Joseph’s son and current president/COO. “Additionally, shipping throughout the country is easily achieved for supply chain and finished product logistic needs.”
Headquarters/Production: Crystal Lake
It’s a common sight at most any construction project: a giant metal toolbox, marked with a large orange K. These durable equipment storage boxes have been made in the same Crystal Lake facility almost since the company’s beginning.
In the late 1950s, Howard Knaack was working as a milkman, when a group of friends persuaded him to join them in business, building jobsite toolboxes, which they would sell through their tool distribution company. In 1968, the company purchased the Weather Guard line of truck equipment storage and moved to its present location.
Today, the Knaack brand’s trusted tan boxes come in a variety of shapes and styles: rolling work benches, cabinets, handheld boxes, chests and the high-capacity “Monster Box.” Its shiny, tread-plate aluminum Weather Guard truck boxes come in a variety of applications for pickups and semis, from underbed, side and saddle boxes to ladder racks and cab protectors.
Inside its 400,000 square-foot production center, about 300 employees transform aluminum and steel sheet metal into durable toolboxes. The manufacturing process begins with highly automated metal-forming equipment, and then goes through welding, powder coat painting and final assembly.
Knaack’s high-tech, automated machinery switches easily among product lines. After being constructed and welded, boxes are painted using powder coating technology, a dry finishing process where a fine powder spray is applied electrostatically. It’s a durable finish, and because it uses no solvent emissions, powder paint is environmentally friendly.
Seymour of Sycamore
From the first spray painting at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to Ed Seymour’s astonishing aerosol paint can, spray paint has a long history in Chicagoland.
Seymour was selling an aluminum paint that he had created, when he devised a novelty spray gun for sales demonstrations. Based on insecticides already being sold in aerosol cans, Seymour and a local machine shop owner created a similar device and a means to fill it with paint. Their new device became so popular that Seymour soon found a better business opportunity: the clever aerosol can that still anchors the Sycamore business bearing his name.
For spray-on and brush-on applications, Seymour sells hundreds of paints, coatings and chemicals. It sells automotive sealants, rust inhibitors and finishes; industrial enamels, epoxies and sealants; primers and tree markers; lubricants and cleaners for contractors, manufacturers and automotive mechanics.
The company has even developed an “upside down” can that enables spraying for utility marking, traffic markers and athletic fields.
Seymour formulates and manufactures all of its paints and sprays on-site, combining a careful formula of solvents, resins, pigments, fillers and propellant. The cans come from a supplier, but they’re filled on-site.
An in-house graphics department produces price sheets and advertising, in addition to every label, including those for Seymour’s private-label customers.
The typical aerosol can works by combining a liquefied gas – the propellant – with the main product. That sound you hear when you shake it is a little metal ball that helps to mix the propellant and the product. Then, when the spray nozzle is depressed, air pressure causes the propellant to expand inside the can. The propellant displaces the liquid, forcing it through a plastic tube and out of the nozzle.
Inside Seymour’s production center, about 130 employees help to formulate, mix, pack and ship paints. Many of these jobs are low-skill, requiring only on-the-job training; others are highly technical. A team of chemists and lab technicians constantly tests new products and improves current formulas. The company maintains several patents on spray methods and paint formulas.
Seymour has been a leader in environmentally conscious products around the world. It was one of the first to comply with California’s strict volatile chemical regulations in the 1990s, and today, its products also comply with the European Union’s strict chemical regulations.
Company president Nancy Seymour Heatley remains firmly committed to the town where her father first started his business. It may be located 60 miles from Chicago, but it’s an ideal location for international business.
“Sycamore is the best place I can think of for a manufacturing facility,” says Heatley. “Trucking, trains and air transportation are nearby in Chicago. The labor market, although tight, offers many small-town amenities, and there’s the university in DeKalb. For out-of-state job hunters, Sycamore is a small, friendly town, with tree-lined streets and lovely Victorian houses.”
If you can dream it, you can make it, as many of our local manufacturers are still proving. We don’t have to wait for foreign labor – in many cases, we’re making some of the best products right here in the northwest suburbs.