Western Kansas Manufacturers Expand for Energy, Farming Sectors

The diverse value-added agriculture sector and the booming energy industry in western Kansas help support a variety of specialized manufacturing.

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It might seem incongruous when Don Sweeney links slowness to productivity in describing the manufacturing environment and lifestyle of western Kansas. But his explanation is simple. “It’s a slower pace of life than the large urban areas,” he says. “With a slower pace they get more done here, because they’re more dedicated to what they’re doing.” As partnership manager with the Mid America Manufacturing Technology Center in Great Bend, Sweeney works with new and existing companies and helps manufacturers to improve performance and enhance profitability through such processes as LEAN Enterprise, product development and testing, quality management/ISO/AS and Six Sigma principles. Ag, Energy Drive Manufacturing Two main drivers for manufacturing in western Kansas – agriculture and, more recently, a boom in oil exploration and natural gas drilling – have fueled growth in existing industries, Sweeney says. The MAMTC helps in that effort by offering training assistance and other services that ensure a pool of highly skilled labor. As Donald Hornung describes it, a smaller native labor pool was the natural result of the displacement of small farms by major agricultural operations. Hornung is president and CEO of CrustBuster/Speed King Inc., started more than 50 years ago by his father to manufacture unique tillage tools and grain drills to work larger fields. Today, the company manufactures a range of products, from planting machinery to handling equipment for grain, seed and dry fertilizer. “As the farms got bigger, the younger farm-raised kids sought jobs elsewhere,” he says. But a more recent influx of labor from out of state – “good, hard workers” – gives companies a supply of workers who can be trained to meet employer needs, and often with state subsidies to help pay for the training, he says. The semi-arid climate also benefits manufacturers. “We can store a lot more materials outside without having rust problems as in the Corn Belt or on the coast,” Hornung says. Hornung’s company has a combined 150,000 square feet of manufacturing space in two plants, the largest  in iconic Dodge City. Besides renowned pheasant and deer hunting, and other outdoor activities, the Western heritage is a calling card, he says. “Dodge City is known for Boot Hill and the Santa Fe Trail, and being a cow town. We celebrate every year with Dodge City Days. If you enjoy the outdoors, and especially if you enjoy horses and roping and things like that, you’ll enjoy Dodge City,” he says. Manufacturing Expansion Wide open spaces offer room for expansion and other advantages, says Brad Skolout, who in 2000 founded Roadrunner Manufacturing in Levant in Thomas County to build tree-planting rigs and has since expanded to custom-order trailers and a range of agricultural equipment now used in 20 states. “Our facility is out in the country so we don’t have a city to deal with, and the county and state like our products and encourage us to be here,” he says. Pacing growth in the oil fields has allowed for expansion at a number of western Kansas manufacturers. In Rush County, KBK Industries, a manufacturer of fiberglass tanks for the oil fields and farming, recently expanded from 40,000 to 56,000 square feet of production and office space on 18 acres. Palmer Manufacturing & Tank in Garden City makes both fiberglass and steel tanks for the energy segment in more than 50,000 square feet of production space. And Hess Services Inc. in Hays, which began manufacturing oil-field products in 1989, has since diversified with repair and maintenance services in 75,000 square feet of space on a 17-acre site. Not all western Kansas manufacturing is focused on ag and energy, and it’s not all homegrown. An example: The multinational Columbian Chemicals Co. – a leading producer of carbon black additives – operates a facility in Ulysses in Grant County. Hornung points out another factor that makes western Kansas attractive to homegrown and outside manufacturers. “We’re a right-to-work state,” he says. “We enjoy freedom.”


Kevin Litwin is the author of Crazy Lucky Dead and a freelance feature writer with a career spanning more than 20 years. He was previously an editor for a small-town newspaper for ... more

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Fri, 10/27/2017 - 19:55