When most people think of manufacturing plants, they might think of dank, old, windowless buildings where people are forced to work with poor lighting in dirty conditions. The architecture of newly designed plastics processing facilities provides a different view as plants take on a look that more closely resembles art museums.
QMR Plastics' new facility in River Falls, Wis., was featured in the November 1995 issue of Progressive Architecture as an example of ``factories for the future.'' And in March, QMR and Tobin Real Estate Co. received an award from the Minnesota Chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties.
QMR, a division of Quadion Corp. headquartered in Minneapolis, recently was spun off from Minnesota Rubber after the plastics business grew to a size that dictated its own facility, said plant manager Mike Ehret.
The 40,000-square-foot building features a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass, offering production workers a view of the wooded area surrounding the plant and the wildlife living nearby. It houses 17 injection molding presses with clamping forces of 28-200 tons, and focuses on molding high-engineering-grade resins such as polyetheretherketone and thermoplastic elastomers, primarily for the automotive industry.
Julie Snow of Julie Snow Architects Inc. in Minneapolis, who designed the plant, said, ``You can work at a press and look right up at the wildflowers.''
Ehret said the glass wall achieves the feeling of spaciousness the company wanted.
``We wanted a different work environment, one where we could have total employee satisfaction with their surroundings,'' he said.
``We were trying to get away from the traditional manufacturing environment, with the usual separation between hourly and salaried workers,'' Ehret said, ``to tear down those traditional barriers and create a culture where we're all members of the same team with different job functions.''
To accomplish that, the wall separating the production and office areas is also solid glass. The wall contains noise from the production floor while allowing employees in both sections to see each other.
The desire to create a feeling of total employee participation in all areas of the plant is what drove the design of Kelch Corp.'s new Kelch Assemblies division facility in Mequon, Wis. The design resulted from a group effort in which Kelch employees provided input on what they would like to see in the workplace.
The layout includes an atrium in the center of the 60,000-square-foot facility, complete with picnic tables. The area is adjacent to staff offices and visible to all plant visitors.
``That's a marked departure from traditional factories that place employee break rooms in dark, dingy areas in the back of their plants,'' said Bill Foster, the plant's general manager. ``We want to showcase our production workers, whom we refer to as the `assemblies experts.'*''
``Manufacturers have traditionally looked only at the bottom line, not at the lines of their building, opting for purely functional buildings with minimal natural light, and management tucked away in separate offices,'' Snow said.
Snow also designed and won awards for two plants for Phillips Plastics Corp., a custom injection molder in Phillips, Wis.
Phillips' short-run facility, which specializes in small orders of custom-designed plastic parts, has a glass wall that contains noise yet supports the connection between manufacturing and engineering.
Phillips' Origen Center incorporates research, training manufacturing and business incubation. The center provides new-product development assistance until the product lines are successful enough to support their own plant.
Snow said companies have a message or a mission statement they want to articulate, and everything within the corporate structure, including the building and the environment in which people work, should be consistent with that message.
Buildings reflect the corporate culture and can be used to convey a company's management philosophy to its employees, Foster said.
``If you talk teamwork, then you have to give people a structure that promotes teamwork,'' he said.
Kelch's plant was designed by Bob Neumann, a project architect with Computerized Structural Design Co. in Bayside, Wis. The firm designs industrial facilities from the inside out, Neumann said.
``We completely do a facility layout based on production needs, allowing the building to take shape as defined by production,'' he said.
Foster said one question the planning teams tried to answer when establishing the proper layout for the plant was, ``Who do you need to interact with to help you get your job done?''
``We used to be just concerned with material flow,'' Foster said. ``Now we're aware of information flow.''
Instead of organizing the plant by functional areas, Kelch planned work areas to include those employees who have the most contact during the course of a day.
For example, Kelch has its order-to-remittance loop in one room to facilitate communication between people involved in every step of that process. People can spend more time on their job and less time walking to other parts of the building, tracking down the individual or information they need to complete a task.
``This is a very high-activity loop with any company,'' said Foster, who said he already has seen the productivity benefits of the layout.
Neumann says his clients have realized substantial gains in productivity from properly designed facilities.
``We try to give clients a 10 percent to 25 percent gain in productivity through the use of design and layout,'' Neumann said.
An attractive, well-designed work environment also often means that employees enjoy coming to work. Neumann said clients report that sick days and use of personal days have been reduced, plus employee turnover is lower.
However, Neumann cautions, ``You can't just build a space. If you're going to take the old bad habits and put them in a new building, you've gained nothing.''
Foster agreed. ``After 80 years of industrial revolution, your father's factory mentality is inconsistent with new management ideas.''