Intermountain Electronics marks 25 years of growth
Appearances can be deceptive. Take the factory floor at Intermountain Electronics for example.
There are no conveyor belts rumbling constantly, no mountains of raw materials, no stacks of manufactured goods standing by to be shipped. And it's clean.
You might think from these signs that business at this manufacturing facility is slow these days. But you'd be very wrong.
What's really going on is that the inputs and outputs at this factory arrive and depart on such a tight schedule that there's no time for inventory to build up at either end of the process.
Since every item is custom designed and built, there is no long line of workers and machines putting together parts one after another.
"We the farthest thing from an assembly line you can imagine," says chairman and chief executive officer John Houston.
IE has spent the past 25 years tweaking its system, and has racked up some prestigious awards along the way.
It won the Utah Manufacturer of the Year title twice, ranking No. 1 out of 3,600 manufacturers in 2006, and first among 4,000 manufacturers in 2009.
Inc. magazine named it one of the 5,000 fastest growcompanies in America in 2008, and it also ranked among the 100 fastest growing in Utah in 2009.
Beginning in September 1985, the company has expanded from a small mine equipment repair shop into a manufacturing and service company with facilities in seven states.
The Price facility handles exports not only in the western US, but Canada, Central and South American, Houston says.
What makes the system click, Houston explains, is two-fold. First, the company can depend on employee loyalty and competence - 78 full-time equivalent workers at its Price facility, for example. Some are part-time, the vast majority rate as highly skilled.
That includes, some 30 engineers with degrees and experience in a range of technical disciplines.
The second big factor is a computerized manufacturing and scheduling program that not only crunches numbers but enables hands-off processing on many tasks.
As Houston explains it, engineers will work with clients - mining, gas, utilities, municipalities - to design high-tech power distribution equipment.
The engineers then work up a mechanical design for each order, creating a computerized description for all parts of the whole product.
"When it's done, the engineer pushes a button," Houston explained. Then the computer takes over: materials are ordered, a schedule is calculated, labor requirements are mapped out.
The reason people can work part-time there is that everyone, from welders to finish painters, knows exactly when to show up and what to do.
Some "workers" don't even have to go home or take a lunch break. A big laser cutter for example, can slice out patterns from steel plate - almost like a laser printer handles paper - constantly, with no operator on hand.
"We could turn out the lights and go home and it would still be working," Houston quips.
When a job is done, shippers already have been notified of when to show up and the equipment is packed and ready to go when the trucks show up.
Even the payments are electronic, Houston says.
None of this happened overnight, of course.
Back in September 1985, Intermountain Electronics was literally a mom & pop operation - Houston and his wife, Jeri.
"I had been working the mining industry for about 12 years then and I saw a need for high tech type support," Houston recalls.
"The mines were all rapidly moving into automation."
That automation has created a five-fold increase in labor efficiency at the mines and has also opened up a market for high-powered and sophisticated machinery.
Houston at first worked part time at his new company, working out of a repair and technical service shop that he and his wife built. The shop still stands on the IE campus and is still in use.
From there he moved into full-time repair, rebuild and overhaul of mine electrical and electronic equipment.
And, as the saying goes, one thing led to another.
Houston has not sought publicity over the years, and tells a visitor that any success stories belong to all the people who work at IE. "There are a lot of people here who work harder than I do and they deserve credit," he declares.
He also has high hopes for the efforts of Utah State University/College of Eastern in mining and manufacturing technologies. Based on his own experiences with the university - especially with Special Assistant to the President Robert T. Behunin - Houston said industry will benefit from the expansion into eastern Utah.