Innovation drives manufacturers’ success on a local, global scale

Amanda Freund oversees the CowPots manufacturing operation at her family’s farm in East Canaan. Stacked behind her is a pallet of the company’s newest product: seed starter trays.

Debra A. Aleksinas

Innovation drives manufacturers’ success on a local, global scale

NORTH CANAAN — By producing 2 billion disposable plastic syringes a year, BD’s (Becton Dickinson and Company) North Canaan plant has the potential to touch a quarter of the world’s population.

“And that’s just out of this one factory alone,” said Dustin Andersen, plant director of the 400,000-square-foot manufacturing plant on Grace Way off rural Route 63.

“I tell all the new hires when they come in, we make 6 million syringes a day, which means every person in the state of Connecticut could come into this factory, we could give them a syringe every day, and still have millions left over to distribute,” noted Andersen, who oversees operations at the 60-year-old facility, which spans 10 acres under one roof.

“When you’re working for a company that has that kind of impact, it really stands for something.”

BD is one of a handful of manufacturers in the state’s bucolic Northwest Corner making a significant impact locally and globally by stimulating the economy, providing jobs for the community, launching innovative technology and embracing renewable resources.

In addition to BD, a handful of other major manufacturers in the Northwest Corner with a global scope include:

— The Lakeville-based ITW (Illinois Tool Works) Seats & Motion Division within the ITW Automotive Segment, which molds and assembles 45 million headrest guides per year for Ford and Toyota vehicles throughout North America and Venezuela.

— CowPots, one of three businesses owned and operated by the multigenerational Freund family farm in East Canaan, where tens of millions of eco-friendly flowerpots made from composted manure have been manufactured over the past 27 years using the longest continuously operating methane digester in the country.

— Hutzler Manufacturing, a four-generation family-owned and -operated business in North Canaan that has been designing and producing housewares since 1938, including innovative utensils for several popular fast-food giants.

“Rural manufacturers are a critical piece of Connecticut’s overall economy and their products impact lives around the world,” said Chris DiPentima, resident and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA).

They are also “critical to local economic development, supporting and revitalizing local communities not only through the hundreds of millions in state and local taxes that they pay, but also because they create five additional jobs in other parts of the state’s economy for every one manufacturing job, and generate $2.60 in additional economic activity for every $1 spent in manufacturing.”

Those are huge multipliers, said DiPentima, “equivalent to what Silicon Valley experienced with the tech-sector boom — and high wage careers with the average Connecticut manufacturing salary at $92,633, 36% higher than the national average and 14% more than the state’s average salary.”

Courtesy of BD

Dustin Andersen is the plant director at BD Canaan, which is the largest employer in the Northwest Corner, with more than 400 employees.

Innovation transformed BD

The first wave of disposable plastic syringes were manufactured out of BD’s North Canaan facility in 1961 in its original 25,000-square-foot-building, manned by eight associates. The innovation soon transformed BD by replacing traditional glass syringes to ensure more sterile conditions.

“The PlastiPak syringe was really what put us on the map,” said Andersen.

One year later, BD purchased a 77-acre tract of land and broke ground for the construction of a 55,000-square-foot state-of-the-art plant, and since then, has expanded the North Canaan facility eight times, for a total of 360,000 square feet.

Until you’ve toured the plant, it’s difficult to comprehend the scale of the operation.

The operation is a vital facility for the BD Medical -Medical Surgical Systems unit of its parent, Becton Dickinson and Company, which was founded in 1897 and is headquartered in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.

About 400 employees work at the North Canaan facility, making it the largest employer and taxpayer in the Northwest Corner.

“Everybody around here knows somebody who is working at BD,” Andersen explained.

Jeanine Hodgekiss, BD’s customer complaint and validation quality manager and a second-generation associate, noted that the “quality” within the facility extends far beyond the products produced.

“I’ve been at BD for 34 years, and my dad worked there over 30 years,” said Hodgekiss “When people think of quality, they think of the product. But BD also provides the quality of life.”

Steve Furth is the plant manager at ITW Seats & Motion Division in Lakeville, which manufactures automobile headrest guides for Ford and Toyota. Debra A. Aleksinas

Building a ‘model factory’ in Lakeville

The odds are that anyone who owns a Toyota Tacoma pickup truck is driving around with a plastic component tucked into the vehicle’s headrest that was molded by ITW’s Seats & Motion Division in Lakeville. Ditto for Ford vehicles on the road today.

The global operation takes place in a commercial building adjacent to the Lakeville Hose Company, where plastic headrest guides, a key safety component in automobiles, are produced by 38 molding and 15 assembly machines in the 20,000-square-foot plant.

“We make them for 98% of the Fords that are built in North America,” said Steve Furth, the operation’s plant manager, during a recent tour of the totally automated facility.

“Toyota is getting close to Ford” in terms of production, said Furth as he pointed out the five molding machines and three assembly machines pumping out and assembling headrest guides for Tacoma vehicles. “We ship 100,000 parts a week.”

As he spoke, the machines whirred as they completed various steps of the process, work that up until about three years ago, was done primarily through manual labor.

To keep up with the volume, for several years, ITW rented warehouse space in Millerton, New York, for storage, packing and shipping. Now, the entire process takes place in Lakeville.

“Three years ago, the company decided it was time to do what we call ‘model factory,’” said Furth, which improved efficiency through automation but resulted in the closing of the Millerton site and downsizing the workforce from 50 to about 35.

“It did take some jobs away, but it improved our efficiency tenfold. We now produce about 45 million parts per year.”

Furth, who has been employed by ITW for 15 years, marveled that even though ITW global has 35 locations worldwide with an estimated 28,000 employees, that a modest plant in rural Lakeville is part of that world-wide success.

“How this little factory got started in this area up here, nobody knows, but here we are.

”‘Dirty Jobs,’ the pandemic, fueled CowPots

Tucked away on a winding dirt road behind the Freund family farm’s dairy operation and farm market and bakery, is a manufacturing plant that molds eco-friendly flowerpots made from composted manure.

On a recent visit to the operation, Amanda Freund, third generation of the family farm, manages the CowPots operation with her father, Matt Freund. The second-generation Freund, with help from a friend with an engineering background, designed the technology used to mold dried manure into flower pots as an alternative to peat pots, which take longer to biodegrade.

Diversification, said Amanda Freund, was a saving grace when the pandemic hit in 2020. The family’s 300-cow dairy operation was in ”crisis mode,” she recalled, as demand for milk dried up when schools, restaurants and other customers closed shop.

But at the same time, “everyone was home, and gardening blew up,” and demand for CowPots skyrocketed.

In 2007, CowPots gained “incredible national exposure” when it was featured not only on “Larry King Live,” but also in a segment of “Dirty Jobs” with Mike Rowe.

“It was incredible national exposure, with reruns in 125 countries to this day, which I can always track by the spike in visits to my website,” Freund noted.

The CowPots operation maintains a health permit with the USDA to be able to export product to the European Union, and Freund said she is two to three years into a discussion with a company in Australia “that has begun the process of licensing our technology and some form of royalties.”

“With 500 million tons of plastic per year produced from the horticultural industry,” she said, “we’re pushing to be part of the solution.”

An engineering breakthrough

Also on Grace Way in North Canaan, across from BD, is the Hutzler Manufacturing Company Inc., a four-generation, family-owned and -operated manufacturer and worldwide distributor of high-quality housewares since 1938.

According to the company’s website, in the 1970s, Hutzler made the engineering breakthrough that fiberglass can give additional strength that was lacking from traditional nylon. They used this knowledge to produce fiberglas-reinforced nylon utensils, “which are still used today by McDonalds, Burger King and Pizza Hut.”

Company officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Transportation challenges and solutions

While the sight and sounds of big rigs rumbling around the Northwest Corner may annoy some, transportation costs can be expensive and compounded in rural areas where trucks need to make special trips, said Cow-Pots’ Freund.

“There is great value to us, being a small manufacturer in the community, and having the larger companies like BD make a lot of shipping trips, with the trucks coming and going,” she explained. As transportation frequency increases in the area, said Freund, it helps to lower her transportation costs.

CBIA’s DiPentima noted that rural manufacturers struggle with employees’ transportation needs.

“One thing we have heard from the rural manufacturers is that there is not much of it for their employees, especially for what is referred to as the ‘last mile,’ meaning employees can get to a train or bus hub but have challenges getting to their workplace from there.”

Transportation along with housing, child care and cost of health insurance are top issues that CBIA hears from businesses and are at the center of its 2024 legislative policy solutions, said DiPentima.

This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of the PlastiPak syringe and the location of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.

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