BY Solomon Gustavo
COKATO, MN Machine manufacturers Forward Technology, located at 220 Millard Avenue, have extended their Jenks Avenue factory to the corner of 2nd Street and Jackson Avenue. The addition is one of the larger upgrades in a number of recent improvements to the company’s manufacturing capabilities and optics.
At 6,600 square feet, the new space, constructed by Systems-West Inc. of Litchfield, will harbor Forward Technology’s yet-to-arrive computer numerically controlled machines (CNC). These machines “will do a complex thing that may run for hours,” tasks that a machinist programs the machine to complete, Forward Technology President Brian Kivisto said. Once the precise directives are entered the “machine will automatically grab a tool and cut,” he added.
Forward Technology manufactures machines that weld plastic parts for cars, appliances, consumer goods, and medical supplies, among other things.
For example, if a hypothetical company that made lawn mowers needed a way to have a plastic part, like a gas can, reliably assembled, Forward Technology can offer them a staff of engineers to design a machine to make the part, office managers to acquire material, machinists to piece it together, and assembly workers to test the part.
Plastic parts in machines, preferred over metal because plastic is lighter, are typically welded together. Forward Technology’s task is in manufacturing machines that successfully weld together the top of a plastic lawn mower gas cap to the plastic canister.
Depending on the part or machine, varying types of welds are appropriate. Forward Technology will advise potential clients on what type of weld, for example, spin welding, which burns and fuses the end of parts at 800 degrees, is best for what part, Kivisto said. The plastic parts are owned entirely by the customer.
With a near all-encompassing staff, Forward Technology’s expansion is about having and keeping more control over what it offers customers in house. The company previously had to hire out for large part orders for their machines, something Kivitso called a “real limitation.” He said the company would expect quality from those orders, but that it was ultimately “out of their control.”
Time was also a large factor in the decision to expand. “Them [vendors] being late,” Kivitso said, “makes us late.”
The addition means Forward Technology can do just about everything in house (save for the finishing paint job), including bigger jobs. “We’ll utilize this for additional revenue,” Kivitso said. Kivisto, a former engineer and the current executive vice president of Crest Group Inc., Forward Technology’s Trenton, New Jersey headquartered parent company, said the Cokato plant spends upwards of “$100,000 on outside vending” that is now staying in house.
This large endeavor follows improvements to the facade, foyer, and front office, as well. The remodel is part of a concerted effort by Forward Technology to tidy up it’s image, foregoing the perception of the messy machine shop, something Kivisto said other machine factory workers sometimes can’t help but remarking on upon entering. The goal is to provide employees with a nice working environment and a building Cokato can be proud of, Kivisto said. The factory has called Cokato home for 15 years.
Forward Technology intends to hire two machinists to work in the new space, adding to it’s current staff of 42, Kivisto said. He also noted how difficult it has been finding reliable trades people.
The company has spoken to students, emphasizing the practicality of entering a trade school, and the stability of the trade fields. Kivisto noted that the employees they do find work great, and their workforce “attrition rate is zero,” but it can still be a struggle to find workers.
The work Forward Technology does for clients varies from week to week.
“About 50 percent of our business is automotive, 25 appliance, and the rest a mix of consumer goods and medical parts,” said Kivitso.
Randy Baldwin, an engineer with Forward Technology since 1989, said this makes for a “very good” work environment with “a lot of diversity, a lot of different types of things” to do.
“Things are always changing,” Baldwin said. “It keeps it exciting.”