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CALEDONIA — Local manufacturer Unico may not be a household name — but its customer list is packed with well-known corporate names.

Unico, 3725 Nicholson Road, counts among its customers numerous major auto manufacturers from BMW to Yamaha and metal processors from Bobcat to Whirlpool. Unico’s oil and gas customers, for control systems and drilling rigs, include BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell.

Those are just some of the markets for Unico, which designs and makes products and systems for the efficient production and use of energy. Since 2012, Unico, a subsidiary of Regal Beloit Corp. with over $100 million in annual revenue, has made a huge investment in satisfying customers’ needs.

In mid-2012, Unico, then an employer of about 210 people at its world headquarters and manufacturing plant in Caledonia, announced an expected $6 million plant addition. But including equipment, that figure has actually ballooned to about $10 million, with the additional equipment costs, Unico Director of Operations Maurice “Mo” Morrone said.

The 65,000-square-foot addition nearly doubled the previous manufacturing space of 67,000 square feet, noted John Perino, Regal Beloit’s vice president for investor relations.

The investment is creating new jobs. When Unico announced the coming expansion in mid-2012, it promised to create up to 175 new jobs within three years in exchange for various government incentives.

As of last week, the company was still in the process of fully moving into the new addition but has hired 74 new people, and now has 283 full-time-equivalent employees here.

“If Unico continues to hire at the same rate we have hired the past several years and Unico markets continue to grow,” company Finance Director Jim Cotton said, “Unico should achieve or come close to 150 to 175 (new) hires within the next four to six years.”

Custom-designed controls

On the Unico manufacturing floor last week, some employees were building circuit boards — all of them designed by the company’s own engineers. Unico specializes in high-performance, engineered drive systems, and the boards will be used in various kinds of motor drives and control systems.

The investment in sophisticated equipment was evident in the plant. Morrone pointed out an automated soldering machine that cost between $70,000 and $100,000, and a testing machine that cost about $250,000. He estimated equipment in the new addition totaled $2 million to $3 million.

High overhead, misters turned, sending out fine sprays of water droplets.

“They keep the air at 42 percent relative humidity throughout the building to keep static discharge down,” Morrone explained, “so we won’t have damage to the (circuit) boards.”

Some of the circuit boards were headed for dusty, humid or hazardous destinations, Morrone said. Those would get a protective coating.

On a different part of the factory floor, employees were building custom control systems inside large metal cabinets. Pointing out a giant, three-sided shower, Morrone said, “We give the cabinets a water bath to test for leaks” if they are headed to outdoor sites.

Expansion benefits

Driving the expansion, Morrone said, was a desire to expand Unico’s manufacturing footprint and capabilities, and to show its customers that Unico can meet their needs.

The expansion has brought other benefits, he said. Entwined with the build-out has been a complicated, multi-phased remodeling of every part of the headquarters building.

The upgrade, which should be complete in September, includes new heating and cooling units everywhere and new, more efficient lighting. One of Regal Beloit’s five key initiatives is sustainability, Perino said, and a goal to improve “people, processes and planet.”

The new space and reshuffling, Morrone said, will create a research-and-development lab of about 6,000 to 8,000 square feet. Previously they had less than 1,000 square feet for that.

And a mezzanine in the new addition will eventually be used as a training area, Morrone said.

Unico may not be a household name, but it is definitely growing.


Like Facebook and Google, Unico aims to become an employer of choice

CALEDONIA — In October, Unico Director of Operations Maurice “Mo” Morrone toured Facebook’s corporate headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

He’s also looked into how Google treats its employees. Morrone wants Unico, 3725 Nicholson Road, to emulate the magnetism that those corporate giants exude as employers.

“We want to become an employer of choice,” Morrone said about Unico, which has its headquarters and U.S. manufacturing plant here.

That philosophy was built into the 65,000 square feet of additional manufacturing space Unico built during the past 1½ years. The plant is clean, bright and surprisingly quiet — but Morrone says it’s still a bit too noisy for his taste, and he intends to try to do something about that.

Certain areas of the manufacturing floor have live plants, adding a touch of hominess. Engineers work flexible hours, Morrone said, although that’s more difficult to integrate into production work.

The new addition includes a 5,000-square-foot, colorful cafeteria with casual seating and an adjoining kitchen. Two television screens mounted in corners air ESPN and CNN, respectively.

Flags of all countries where Unico has operations hang from the cafeteria’s high ceiling. That’s both to show employees where Unico has locations and also to soften the room’s acoustics, Morrone explained.

Soon, coffee and soda will be free to employees at all times.

“It’s pennies when you think about the reward that you get back,” Morrone said.

Nearby, a room temporarily being used as a conference room is destined to become an exercise room.

Employees are encouraged to make comments and suggestions about production during team meetings, Morrone said.

The attitude at Unico, he said, is that everyone in the company plays an equally important role in the company’s success.

Morrone said, “We try to keep everyone at an equal level in how they’re treated.”


Features of the new Unico addition:

• High-efficiency heating, ventilation, air-conditioning units.

• Insulated precast panels.

• Use of vestibules for ingress doors to minimize outside dust entry.

• Positive air pressure to maintain clean manufacturing environment.

• Light sensors to meet federal energy code mandates.

• Electrostatic discharge flooring for product protection.

• Upgraded lighting in both the addition and renovation of existing facility, including light-emitting diode luminaires in certain areas.

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Reporter

Michael "Mick" Burke covers business and the Village of Sturtevant. He is the proud father of two daughters and owner of a fantastic, although rug-chewing, German shepherd dog.

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