As e-commerce volumes soared across the country during the pandemic, Hytrol Conveyor Co. Inc. faced a sudden jump in demand for its material handling equipment products, pushing company leaders to add a new factory and ramp up production so fast that they plan to ship finished products just 60 days after signing the lease on the site.
That quick launch was not a result of practice; in fact, Jonesboro, Arkansas-based Hytrol had not expanded its facilities since 1962. But confronted by customer demand to add new conveyors in fulfillment centers shipping online orders, Hytrol found creative ways to accelerate the process.
“Peak is not a two-month period of time anymore; it seems like it’s 12 months long, all the time now,” Hytrol President David Peacock said. “So we did many things in parallel: we ordered three 10-kilowatt lasers, bought a $10 million paint system, and placed orders even before we chose the site. We bought the stuff before knowing what the building was going to look like or what the address was going to be.”
Hytrol announced on January 7 that the new facility would be in Fort Smith, Arkansas, about four hours due west from its headquarters, in a 300,000-square-foot building still being used as a distribution center for Whirlpool appliances. Despite temporarily sharing floor space with the outgoing business, Hytrol had installed lasers and other fabrication equipment within 30 days, Peacock said. In the first week of February, they received their first shipment of materials and began cutting steel parts the same week. And on February 15 they started orientation for their first 49 new hires in a workforce slated to reach over 250 people by the end of 2021.
But just as all those parts were coming together, natural disaster threw a hurdle into the track, as a rare arctic vortex forced frigid air into the southwest, freezing water pipes and shutting down electrical grids as far south as Texas. Arkansas emergency officials redirected natural gas from industrial users to hospitals and nursing homes, and Hytrol’s newest workers had to drive through several inches of snow to get to work on time, Peacock said.
Despite those challenges, work soon continued, and the facility stuck to its schedule to begin production in the week of March 1. The strict timeline was critical because hot demand for parcel-grade conveyors was sapping resources the company usually devoted to making conveyors used for other tasks, like transport, accumulation, and sortation. “We knew we needed to be operational in the first quarter of 2021 because of rising demand; there’s just not enough supply in the industry,” Peacock said.
In normal times, Hytrol devotes just two of the eight lasers at its Joneboro facility to making parcel-carrying conveyors, but throughout 2020 the company had routinely used four or five of its precious lasers to meet the need. Hytrol now plans to relieve that pressure by devoting the new Fort Smith site solely to parcel conveyor production. The three lasers currently running there can create $75 million worth of products per year, and the company has already laid out space in the building to install a fourth laser, which would expand production to $100 million per year, he said.
Now online, the Fort Smith facility will allow the original factory in Jonesboro to focus on non-parcel products, returning the 74-year-old company to more balanced productivity as businesses across the U.S. continue to adjust to the “new normal” of life in a pandemic.