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The world keeps turning for state of Illinois manufacturers

The East Peoria manufacturing facility of Caterpillar Inc. makes the D10, a trendsetting track-type dozer. | Fred Zwicky/Peoria Journal Star via AP

Lucina Miguel has a job unlike any other performed by Illinois’ 571,800 other factory workers. She glues strips of a map of the Earth onto large plastic spheres for Replogle Globes, one of 13,000 manufacturing companies in the state.

That task once fell to founder Luther Replogle, who started making and selling handcrafted spherical creations out of his Chicago apartment in 1930. Success followed over the next several decades and Replogle eventually became one of the largest globe manufacturers in the world.

But times change — strapped school systems just don’t buy globes in bulk like they used to — and the ailing company was purchased in 2010 by Herff Jones, and relocated to Indiana. The Indianapolis maker of yearbooks, class rings and diplomas didn’t quite know what to do with a retail supplier like Replogle and was about to shut down the business before a group of its former executives bought it back.

And returned it to Illinois.

That transaction is a single snapping twig in the whirlwind of acquisitions and divestitures, growth and contraction, and openings and closings that have blown across the Illinois manufacturing landscape since long before it became a state.

In 1702, the state’s first documented manufacturer, a buffalo skin tannery started by Frenchman Charles Juchereau de St. Denys, opened. The area was hit by an epidemic almost immediately and the tannery was abandoned the next year.

One of the world’s largest manufacturers of globes, Replogle Globes, came back to Illinois in 2016. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times
One of the world’s largest manufacturers of globes, Replogle Globes, came back to Illinois in 2016. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

MADE IN ILLINOIS: The products and people that make our state tick

The fortunes of big industry ebbs and flows. That’s true on the eve of Illinois’ 200th birthday — a time when manufacturing has seen better days: “We have seen manufacturing roaring back in the United States,” said Mark Denzler, vice president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. “Unfortunately, Illinois has lagged a bit.”

But the common impression that everything is made in China just isn’t true. Despite all the blows that our factories have received, nearly one in 10 Illinois workers are employed in a company related to manufacturing, a sector of the state economy worth $101 billion.

Still Big Business

When Replogle came back in 2016, setting up operations in an old paper plant in Hillside, Illinois, it once again became a global leader in globes — just as it is with candy and cars, cement and chemicals, cups and cosmetics. And those are just the “Cs.”

The latter, cosmetics, is a reminder that all industries grow and shrink, opening here, closing there. Last autumn, VVF shut down Aurora’s soap factory, which could turn out 600 million bars a year while Germany’s Faber-Castell Cosmetics announced a new eyeliner pencil plant in Elgin.

Some companies are headquartered here, but their production happens elsewhere. Radio Flyer makes all of its red wagons and tricycles in China. Boeing has its distinctive clocktower building downtown, but actually builds its aircraft elsewhere. A few blocks away is Morton, which mines salt in Ohio, and in 2015 closed its Elston Avenue packing facility. Some are home-grown ventures, with roots stretching back to the mid-19th century. Others are recent acquisitions of distant conglomerates.

Companies merge together and break apart. Kraft, a product invented in Glenview in 1937, was absorbed by Heinz in 2015, but still makes its Macaroni and Cheese in Champaign. Vienna Beef and Eli’s Cheesecake are both made in Chicago, the former running a two-day “Hot Dog University” to train hot dog cart vendors in the art of selling franks and the latter giving tours and running an on-site restaurant.

Popular brands are high in the consumer mind, particularly food, but are not Illinois’ top product category. That would be chemicals, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all manufacturing in Illinois. What sort of chemicals? All sorts. Dutch firm LyondellBasell Industries operates a 700-acre facility in Morris — one of the largest chemical processing plants in the Midwest — employing 400 people making ethylene, essential to the production of plastic products like water bottles.

It isn’t the sexiest branch of corporate America, and usually only makes headlines when something leaks or catches fire. Stepan Co. has a plant in Elwood producing surfactants — the stuff that renders soap bubbly (Illinois was once a center for soap, an after-echo of the stockyards when soap manufacturers sprung up to make use of the fat from slaughtered animals.)

Ecolab’s Nalco Water, headquartered in Naperville — with 1,100 employees — has plants in Clearing and Joliet concocting solutions that inhibit corrosion or prevent the buildup of lime deposits inside pipes and tanks. Nalco also assembles commercial dishwashers in Elk Grove Village and makes water treatment generators and equipment in Glenwood. Valspar Corp. in Kankakee creates industrial metal coatings for Sherwin-Williams. The 3M Company’s 500 employees in Cordova are behind a range of chemical products that includes Sapphire — a fire suppressant used by museums like the Smithsonian.

The 154-acre Caterpillar Tractor Factory viewed from the air during a worker’s strike on April 8, 1937. | Associated Press file photo| Another important realm of the state’s chemical industry that tends to fly under the radar: pharmaceuticals. Abbott Laboratory’s 2013 spin-off, AbbVie, generated $16 billion in 2018 making a range of drugs. CSL Behring is spending $1 billion to expand its Bradley operation fractionalizing blood plasma to make medications for conditions like hemophilia and immune disorders.

Rise of the Machines

Deere & Co., which produces machinery under the John Deere brand, is the largest farm equipment manufacturer in the world. Its East Moline facility has been humming since 1912. | AP file photo
Deere & Co., which produces machinery under the John Deere brand, is the largest farm equipment manufacturer in the world. Its East Moline facility has been humming since 1912. | AP file photo

The second major manufacturing sector in Illinois is machinery. Ever since Cyrus McCormick moved his famous reaper works to Chicago in the fall of 1847, Illinois has been a center of farm machine production. John Deere, a Vermont blacksmith who moved to Illinois in 1838, invented a new kind of steel plow and now Deere & Co. is the largest farm equipment manufacturer in the world. Its John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline has been humming since 1912. The massive combines can easily cost $500,000 each, and one operation in Minnesota has bought 500 of them.

Caterpillar has 18,000 employees across Illinois. East Peoria is home to the company’s famed yellow bulldozers. They don’t ballyhoo the distinction, but military tanks were inspired by Illinois treaded farm tractors. Cat also builds locomotive engines in LaGrange and assembles — though not completely — its enormous, aptly named 797F Large Mining Truck in Decatur (there would be no point in completely putting one together since they’re too big to transport over the roads. Built in pieces, each truck goes to its buyer in a dozen semi-trailers and are assembled on-site). The company also has a foundry in Mapleton making engine blocks, which can weigh 11 tons apiece. They also use 3-D printers to create custom engine parts.

Many types of manufacturers are adopting 3-D printing. PBC Linear was founded in Rockford in 1983 as the Pacific Bearing Company — “Pacific” intended to give a little California cool to a Midwest manufacturer during the Reagan era. At first, it only made “simplicity bearings” — self-lubricating Teflon-lined bearings used for devices that slide back and forth, like key-making machines or fitness equipment or the guts of copying machines. This led PBC to start selling entire mechanical subsystems containing these bearings to save customers the time of designing and manufacturing the components themselves.

For the most successful manufacturers, production follows the needs of customers. Samuel Maze ran a lumber yard in Peru — and gave away zinc nails to promote the use of his cedar shingles — the nails caught on, and now Maze Nails is the largest manufacturer of specialty nails in the United States, focusing on hot-dipped galvanized roofing nails.

Chicago Mailing Tube, begun in 1902, holds a horse delivery license, and made cartridges for machine gun ammo during World War II. Now the factory produces, along with a dizzying variety of mailing tubes, Parmesan cheese containers and tiny tubes to funnel electronic wiring through automobiles.

Many manufacturers defy easy categorization. ITW, formerly Illinois Tool Works, is a $14 billion behemoth with 40 divisions that make almost everything except tools: plastic bag zippers in Ottawa, six-pack ringlets in Itasca, lab equipment in Lake Bluff and plastic clips in Frankfort.

A worker at Nu-Way Industries assembles interactive digital displays. The company makes display systems found everywhere from bus shelters to fast food restaurants.
A worker at Nu-Way Industries assembles interactive digital displays. The company makes display systems found everywhere from bus shelters to fast food restaurants.

Nu-Way Industries in Des Plaines makes the electronic bus shelters for JCDecaux, turbo toasters for Subway restaurants, and outdoor ordering kiosks for major fast-food chains (and increasingly indoor ordering kiosks). Every industry has other industries servicing it. E.H. Wachs, in Lincolnshire, doesn’t refine oil but makes heavy machinery to maintain oil fields, such as saws for large oil pipes.

Its devices might require a four-foot gear, and that gear is custom cut at Omni Gear, in Joliet, which makes precision gears in diameters from 1/2 inch to 8 feet, used not only in oil production equipment but in robots, printing and the manufacture of corrugated cardboard. Omni is one of a dozen Illinois gear manufacturers, most clustered in and around Chicago. One of them, Forest City Gear, in Roscoe, made 70 gears on the mechanical arm of NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover.

A Ford Motor Co. employee works on an engine assembly at the Chicago Assembly Plant in Chicago. | AP file photo
A Ford Motor Co. employee works on an engine assembly at the Chicago Assembly Plant in Chicago. | AP file photo

Tractors might seem similar to cars, but automobiles are in a different category altogether. Ford Motor Co. has been making cars on Torrence Avenue since 1924 and its assembly plant is a high-tech wonder, with Kawasaki robots darting into weld car components like mechanical dinosaurs. Once auto factories had to spend weeks or months retooling to shift from one model of car to another. Today, Ford can assemble different models on the same assembly line simultaneously, its supply chain so finely tuned that parts that arrive in the morning are bolted into place that same afternoon.

US Steel’s sole Illinois outpost is the Granite City Works. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times
US Steel’s sole Illinois outpost is the Granite City Works. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Fiat Chrysler’s enormous FCA Belvidere Assembly Plant is the largest employer in the Rockford area, with 5,430 people working at a 5-million-square-foot plant (not to mention 15 businesses within 25 miles of the plant that supply parts for the Jeep Cherokee, which the website named the most “American” car, since 72 percent of its parts are made in the United States). The plant churns out 1,200 vehicles a day.

Illinois not only makes automobiles, but it also makes the gasoline that goes into them. More people know where the Dakota Access Pipeline begins, up in northwest North Dakota, than realize where it ends: 1,172 miles away, in southern Illinois. The region is a hub of oil storage and petrochemical production. There are four petroleum refineries in the state — Marathon, Exxon/Mobil, Citgo and Phillips 66 — capable of producing almost a million barrels a day, more than a third of that at Phillips’ Wood River Refinery in Roxana, about 15 miles north of St. Louis, thanks to a $2 billion expansion to the century-old facility completed in 2010.

A cornucopia of food and drink

Mars has a plant in Robinson, while Ferrara Candy pumps out Lemonheads and Atomic Fireballs in Forest Park — where jelly beans slowly tumble in cement-mixer-like drums, growing like pearls as finer grades of sugar are added.

A lot of candy production is under the public’s radar: World’s Finest Chocolates produces bars for school sales at its 11-acre Chicago headquarters and plant, and Blommer Chocolate makes wholesale chocolate coatings and bulk cocoa products in River West while announcing its presence by casting a delectable cocoa aroma across downtown Chicago when the wind is right.

One of the oldest Illinois food companies is Plochman’s Mustard, founded in 1852 as Premium Mustard Mills. Its Manteno factory uses three types of mustard seeds: yellow, brown and a smaller amount of Asian mustard seeds which come from — where else? — Canada. The interesting thing about mustard is that it isn’t cooked, it’s mixed. The seeds are ground up, water, vinegar, and spices are added, then the result bottled, without either heat or refrigeration entering the process (well, the seals on the bottle are heated, but that’s it.)

Plochman’s was bought by Swiss food manufacturer Haco in 2010, and a number of Illinois manufacturers are parts of international conglomerates. Both Nestle and Ferrara are divisions of Italian candy giant Ferrero. Sunstar, a Swiss-based global oral healthcare corporation, has 400 people in Schaumburg producing dental products ranging from toothbrushes to advanced bone grafting systems.

Mustard containers at Plochman’s Mustard. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times
Mustard containers at Plochman’s Mustard. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The times are a’changin’

Sometimes old and cutting edge are combined in the same plant. Glen-Gery Brick in Marseilles makes a product whose manufacture is outlined in the Bible. Here the process is entirely automated, from the moment when dirt is scooped from the ground to the time that the finished baked bricks are stacked on pallets. The first human hands to touch a brick belong to the stone mason laying them, and they’re working on automating that too.

Automation is an important reason why manufacturing, which took a big hit in Illinois as well as the rest of the country in the 1980s and 1990s, is making a comeback. “Smartest thing I ever bought,” Brent Wortell, owner of Triton Industries, a Chicago metal fabrication shop, said of his 6,000-watt industrial CO2 laser, noting that his cuts metal “just as fast as ones in China do.”

The downside? Even though manufacturing is coming back, automation means jobs aren’t necessarily keeping pace. Twenty years ago, Glen-Gery Brick employed 240 workers; now it employs 24. Certain manufacturers expand their workforce—as evidenced by President Trump’s July visit to US Steel’s sole Illinois outpost, its Granite City Works, to celebrate the re-opening of two mothballs furnaces and the activation of 300 laid-off workers — but overall manufacturing employment does not surge along with productivity.

Many plants in Illinois don’t make metal but transform it — such as Penn Aluminum in Murphysboro creating the drawn aluminum tubes used in refrigeration systems, or Crown Beverage Packing, turning out 5 million aluminum soft drink cans a day. ABC Coating in Manteno makes the rebar used in concrete construction.

Replogle is, in essence, a printer combined with a container manufacturer — a globe is a map glued on a cardboard or plastic sphere, and both printing and containers are well-represented in Illinois with R.R. Donnelley and Packaging Corporation of America. The latter, now PCA, has a plant down in Trenton making its Hexacomb brand of honeycombed packing material. R.R. Donnelley started out printing books and catalogs — the Yellow Pages, the Sears catalog — and shifted into business solutions, the kind of transformation essential in almost any industry to keep afloat over the long haul.

As important as manufacturing is to the economic health of Illinois, as the state observes its 200th birthday, we have to recognize that thinking of manufacturing as the only way to create something of value can be limiting. Some companies that used to produce tangible goods have shifted to virtual products. R.R. Donnelley was a major printer for a century. Now, as RRD, though it does have a custom printing facility in St. Charles and others across the country, its printing work is vastly reduced and it makes both physical and intangible things.

“We’re really a $7 billion marketing and business communications company,” said Dan Knotts, president and CEO of RRD. “For me, manufacturing is a synonym with producing. In the case of digital, you’re making something, and in that sense, you are manufacturing. As a company, we’re extremely proud of our manufacturing heritage. It’s the core of what we do. But we’ve expanded and evolved beyond that into the digital world.”

Virtual products are quickly becoming a bigger piece of Illinois’ economic pie, but Replogle’s return proves there’s still room for manufacturing physical goods the old-fashioned way.

Lucina Miguel pastes cotton strips of a map onto a globe at Replogle Gloves. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times
Lucina Miguel pastes cotton strips of a map onto a globe at Replogle Gloves. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

On the factory floor, Lucina Miguel, who has worked at the globemaker for nearly 40 years, trims convex strips of 100 percent cotton paper and glues them onto the globes. There are just 12 strips each, but pasting them down can take an entire week, beginning with the strip containing the eastern coast of Iceland.

When she’s finished assembling a top-of-the-line floor-standing globe, it will retail for $14,000 — the priciest of the 250 models Replogle makes and sells.

But elsewhere, the plant is more high-tech. Cheaper globes are vacu-formed, and a laser-guided forklift allows the company extra-narrow warehouse aisles, cutting their costs.

“I saw it, and said, ‘This will save us quite a bit’,” said Joe Wright, Replogle’s CEO.

Like it or not, the world keeps turning for Illinois’ manufacturers and Replogle has the globes to prove it.