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issue: April 2003 Whirlpool Special Section

Whirlpool Special Section
KitchenAid Portables: Standing Strong


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APPLIANCE magazine traveled to Greenville, OH, U.S. to tour Whirlpool Corporation's KitchenAid portable appliance factory.

The Portable Appliances division of KitchenAid in Greenville, OH, U.S. is standing strong in a market full of overseas competition, producing high-quality products with a balanced mix of craftsmanship and lean techniques.

If there's one segment of the U.S. appliance industry that is facing intense competition from overseas producers, it's small appliances. That doesn't seem to be hindering Whirlpool Corporation, however. The company's KitchenAid Portable Appliances plant (Greenville, OH, U.S.) continues to have a firm hold on the U.S. stand mixer market and is one of the few remaining North American producers of portable appliances.

"It's a very segmented industry that is defined product category by product category," explains Jim Owen, plant manager of the Greenville plant. "It's a very, very competitive environment. We are the last domestic producer of a full line of portable appliances, so we're competing heavily with overseas and foreign sources for these products."

And a healthy producer at that. Since 1995, the division has experienced an overall product growth rate of 146 percent, with the stand mixer category alone showing a 155-percent increase. Plant employment has also increased from approximately 400 employees in 1996 to the current count of more than 1,000 workers.

This, of course, also means that the factory itself has seen growth. In 1999, just 3 years after building a brand new facility to house the growing product line, it had to expand even further to accommodate additional stand mixer growth.

 

Stand Mixer Statistic
The first home stand mixer was sold in 1919 for U.S. $189. Based on today's currency rates, that translates to approximately $2,000.
The 251,000-sq-ft facility currently produces three KitchenAid(R) stand mixer models, the K45 (4.5 qt bowl), the K5 (5 qt), and K6 (6 qt), and what it refers to as specialty products, which include hand mixers, blenders, and stand mixer attachments. The facility also distributes the rest of the portables line, including the food processor, mini-chopper, juicer, toaster, coffee maker, and cutlery, all of which are licensed products.

A Timeless Appliance

The stand mixer dates back to 1908, when Hobart Manufacturing Company invented the first 80-qt version. In 1919, the manufacturer began producing the first home stand mixer, a smaller version that still weighed a whopping 70 lb and was sold door to door. The product was manufactured in Troy, OH, U.S. until 1942, when Hobart moved production to Greenville, OH, U.S. after a Greenville-born executive suggested Hobart take advantage of the agrarian community's work ethic.

In 1980, Dart & Kraft purchased Hobart, and just 6 years later, Whirlpool Corporation purchased the KitchenAid brand and its plants from Dart & Kraft. At that time, portable appliance production was shared among three small factories spaced throughout Greenville. In 1994, the company decided to build a new manufacturing facility. "We experienced very nice growth throughout the years, and that led to the need to consolidate facilities and expand the operation under one roof," explains Mr. Owen. The end result was a facility spanning over 63 acres, leaving more than enough room for the first expansion in 1999 and any future growth.


An assembly worker polishes a KitchenAid stand mixer to prepare it for packaging.

As Mr. Owen confirms, the KitchenAid stand mixer has been a company icon since Whirlpool first purchased the brand. For that reason, he says, KitchenAid has worked hard to maintain the same legendary performance for which the product has always been known.

"We have kept the commercial design, leading back to the days of the original Hobart stand mixers," says Mr. Owen. "That whole fit, feel, and heft are kind of a trademark, and we have gone to great lengths to make sure we haven't thinned out, cheapened, or gone to plastic on key components. We've kept that heft and durability because we know that's a trademark, and it's very important to our customers. So we haven't cost reduced our product in that respect. We really focus on performance and quality attributes."

The company has also found that its customers' preference for classic or heritage design products extends beyond its icon stand mixer. In fact, in 2003, the division will start producing a redesigned version of the original Hobart (KitchenAid) coffee grinder, a decision that was based solely on customer demand for the product. "We are bringing back the old KitchenAid(R) Model A-9ª coffee grinder, which has a cast metal base with a glass jar. It's another one of those items that's a bit of an icon in the kitchen. People are actively trading old units on eBay, and that's what got us thinking about reintroducing it," Mr. Owen explains. "We've refreshed the design a bit, but kept the overall silhouette and the heritage look of this piece."

According to Mr. Owen, the coffee grinder was produced in Greenville from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. "When we shut down production, it had a plastic design," he explains. "Again, we're going back to the cast metal base and the glass jar design because that's what people are demanding in terms of the feel and the quality."

Another KitchenAid trademark the brand intends to maintain is its use of color. The company continues to produce approximately 20 different color products a year, updating and revising colors to stay in-line with current style trends. Recently, the division decided to further extend the KitchenAid culinary theme by naming new colors after food products. Some of the newest appliance colors include cranberry, grape, and sunflower.

Portable Processes


Producing wire whips is an important part of Greenville's sub-assembly department. The wire comes in on a spool, is put through a straighter, and then fed into a wire former. An operator then selects the appropriate computer program (based on model), and the machine cuts and forms the wire.

As is the goal of all Whirlpool Corporation plants, Greenville is focused on Customer Centered Manufacturing (CCM), the term Whirlpool uses for its transition to lean production. CCM includes lean manufacturing implementation, building product to replenish shipments versus forecasts, and cycle time reduction for new product introduction. Several CCM initiatives have been put in place at Greenville, such as cellular manufacturing and Kanban systems, all of which have led to impressive results - a 90-percent improvement in product availability, a 20-percent reduction in floor space, a 30-percent decrease in lead time, and a 30-percent reduction in finished goods inventory.

"That's the best of both worlds when you reduce finished goods inventory and improve product availability to the customer," Mr. Owen says.

The facility is divided into four main segments - a machine shop, paint shop, sub-assembly, and assembly.

Cellular Manufacturing

One of the plant's biggest CCM initiatives was its transition to cellular assembly. All of the facility's sub-assembly and assembly operations have been changed from a traditional assembly line to small cells of workers.

"Basically, we work in small teams, where that team is accountable for assembling the entire unit from start to finish," explains Mr. Owen. "In assembly, they take all the components - all the purchased parts and manufactured parts - and they assemble them and do a final test to make sure that they're satisfied."

Finished products then flow to a 60,000-sq-ft warehouse or distribution area, which can ship directly to trade partners and even consumers who order online via the KitchenAid web site at www.kitchenAid.com.

Maintaining the Position

According to Mr. Owen, there are several reasons KitchenAid has been able to survive in such a competitive market. "We're able to compete because of our cost structure and flexibility of our workforce," Mr. Owen explains.

"The strength of our team is the passion for keeping the customer at the center of everything we do, and it's the craftsmanship - by that I mean the quality of the product - the professional performance that it delivers. And our ability to have a flexible operation in which we can get that product to any customer, any time they want it. Being somewhat a seasonal business, that ability to respond to ever-changing customer demands and marketplace needs is a competitive advantage."

When it comes down to it, Mr. Owen says, the workforce is what makes KitchenAid portable appliances successful. "When you walk into the facility, you get a sense that it is a unique environment," he says. "There is a high level of pride and craftsmanship involved in this product. The real strength of this business is the team that's here in Greenville."

The overall goal of the facility, Mr. Owen adds, is to fulfill the Greenville mission - "Any Product, Any Time, Anywhere, with Legendary Performance."

"At KitchenAid brand, our target customer is the home enthusiast. The KitchenAid brand promise is to bring legendary performance to help our customers achieve their culinary dreams," Mr. Owen explains. "In essence, building that intensely loyal customer, and we do that through the whole process, from the purchase experience, to the ownership experience, to the service experience."

The goal trickles down to the plant floor, Mr. Owen adds. The facility's customer call center, for example, is staffed by associates right off the production line. "They rotate through the call center, so they stay in touch with the customer," he says. "They have the ability to make sure that we're exceeding our customer's expectation, all the way through the ownership experience."

In addition, once a quarter, the plant holds a customer panel in which management invites customers who have contacted the call center to visit the plant. "We invite people that have had issues with our product," Mr. Owen says. "We tour the shop, and then we sit down around a table with our associates and talk about their issues, what their needs are, and what our future plans are so we can stay in touch with our customer."

One of the most recent projects was the opening of the division's KitchenAid Experience retail store. The store, located in downtown Greenville, is a place where consumers can see, use, and buy every KitchenAid portable appliance available. "It's a retail outlet, but it's also kind of a destination, modeled after places like Kohler, Longaberger(R) Baskets, and John Deere, where folks that are true loyal customers can come in and also visit the factory," Mr. Owen explains.

Store associates demonstrate how to use the products, and local chefs also visit and even hold cooking classes there throughout the year. Downstairs, there is an area where consumers assemble their own stand mixer by hand.

According to Mr. Owen, the store is just another extension of the overall Whirlpool Corporation focus on the customer: "It really provides us again, with another opportunity to interact with the consumer and understand what their needs are and to help develop future creative solutions."


APPLIANCE Magazine Whirlpool Special Section - April 2003

 

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