Valdosta Manufacturer Races to the Top with Georgia Tech Assistance

Valdosta ManufacturerYou could say that automobiles and great American manufacturing are a part of Dario Orlando’s genetic makeup. His grandfather, Al Valeria, began working for Ford Motor Company in 1910, just seven years after Henry Ford founded the company. Dario’s father, Domenico Orlando, worked in Ford’s Dearborn design studio where his talents appeared in some of Ford’s most iconic vehicles, including the Ford GT40 Mark IV, the 1964 ½ Mustang, the Mercury Polomar Concept and the original Ford Thunderbird.

Dario continued in the family tradition when, at age 19, he obtained his racing competition license and won the South Atlantic Race Championship in a bug-eyed Sprite. He continued racing until he was approached by Ford Motor Company to be a lead test driver for the European/U.S. Merkur XR4TI program, where he worked to develop and refine the vehicle’s suspension elements and engine tuning. Today, he is president of Steeda Autosports, where he combines his greatest passions in life.

Steeda, the largest manufacturer of parts and accessories for Ford in the world today, was founded in 1988 in Pompano Beach, Fla. Despite all of the company’s success, however, the geographic location and economic climate were not competitive for engineering or manufacturing, according to Orlando. Several years ago, he decided to move the company from south Florida to south Georgia.

“Georgia had a lot of good incentives and was a fantastic environment,” Orlando recalled. “I checked a few communities and Valdosta was the place we ultimately decided was the best fit for us.”

Orlando began working with the Valdosta-Lowndes County Industrial Authority, which directed him to Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2). EI2 is one of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation. Tom Sammon, a manufacturing specialist with EI2, assisted the company with a complete plant layout designed to make Steeda more competitive in the marketplace.

The challenge Steeda faced was moving from its four buildings in Florida into one, new building in Valdosta. Prior to construction of the new building, Sammon visited Steeda’s Pompano Beach facility to observe how materials flowed through the plant and determine how to best improve upon that in the company’s new facility.

“The lessons that we learned with the help of Georgia Tech was around the plant layout. Their questions and our concerns merged together to come up with the best project plan for efficiency,” Orlando said.

The plant layout needed to ensure that a high-quality, low-cost product could be delivered quickly within a safe and pleasant work environment. Lean manufacturing environments, which aim to eliminate waste, typically result in a reduction in throughput time or lead time, a decrease in the cost of space, inventory and capital equipment and an increase in capacity utilization.

“An attitude of continuous improvement was already in the DNA of everyone at Steeda, and it is that willingness to change for the common good that made it possible for me to incorporate the best lean practices. So often, an optimal layout is compromised because of legacy systems and infrastructure, but Dario’s vision for the new plant was clear,” Sammon noted. “They took full advantage of the opportunity to re-think the business and decide what products and processes are most important to the long-term strength of the company. They are now flexible enough to take on new products, even outside the automotive industry.”

When Sammon was developing the plant layout for Steeda, he kept several key principles in mind: minimize material handling, distances, strain, clutter and storage and maximize utilization, flexibility, flow, visibility and communication. Achieving a continuous flow throughout the facility ensured just-in-time manufacturing, which makes the correct parts available when they are needed in the quantity in which they are needed.

“The metal comes in, gets welded, gets machined and goes to assembly,” noted Orlando, who also estimated that Steeda manufactures approximately 2,000 different parts. “From assembly, the product goes to inventory and on out the front door. It makes one big loop through the plant, which is nice.”

By moving its manufacturing operations to Valdosta, Steeda Autosports has seen a number of improvements, even in the current economic downturn. The plant layout has allowed the company to cut its cycle times by as much as 50 percent and its changeover times by 30 percent, resulting in 28 percent cost savings. Steeda has invested a total of $8 million in its new facility – which includes a 35-acre campus with a 100,000-square-foot building. A future expansion project will soon incorporate a 1.2-mile all-weather test track, skid pad and brake test area.

In addition to all of the benefits for the company, Steeda’s workforce is reaping the rewards as well. Orlando described one 10-year employee who moved with the company to Valdosta. Because of the high cost of living in Florida, he had always rented a home, but the move to Georgia has enabled him to purchase his own home with a two-car garage.

“We have a 401K and health benefits, and we want to add more benefits,” Orlando said. “We’ve been able to create the American dream for our workers, with the help of Georgia Tech and the state of Georgia.”

Brad Lofton, executive director of the Valdosta-Lowndes Industrial Authority, agrees that Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute is critical to successful economic development in the state of Georgia.

“One of the biggest advantages that local economic development agencies have in recruiting advanced manufacturing projects to Georgia is the world-class resources that Georgia Tech provides companies that invest here. The economic development practitioners at Georgia Tech do an amazing job connecting companies in rural Georgia to the best and brightest researchers and consultants in America,” he noted. “Though Valdosta is 250 miles from Georgia Tech’s main campus, you would never know it from the service they consistently offer our industrial base. Georgia Tech is a primary ingredient in our strategic plan to locate vibrant and high-tech companies to the Valdosta area.”

About Enterprise Innovation Institute:

The Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute helps companies, entrepreneurs, economic developers and communities improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation. It is one of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation.

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Writer: Nancy Fullbright