September is vacation time for my wife Fay and I, and it's usually spent in France, visiting friends and enjoying the countryside. This past year was an exception. A new roof, new air-conditioning unit, and a major foundation repair took care of any notions we had of traveling overseas. Welcome to Texas and the horrendous heat of 2006.
With close to 45 days of over 100 degrees and no rain, we began feeling sorry for ourselves. As a result we decided to dig into our reserves, and travel to Orgeon. We had been there once before and enjoyed the unspoiled coast, with it's cooling breezes and ocean mist. What better way to forget about the oppressive heat!
After deciding when we could beg off work, we bought our tickets and started planning. Number one on my list? A trip to the White's Electronics factory, and hopefully a tour. Despite my association with the company over the years, I had never visited the factory, nor had I met many of the people there with whom I'd emailed and talked to on the phone. I quickly emailed my wish to Alan Holcombe, White's marketing manager, and his answer was ..."come North!"
We flew out of Dallas on a Wednesday morning, arrived in Portland at noon, picked up our rental car, and were on our way to Sweet Home, the small town where the company is located. We checked into our hotel in Corvallis, had an early dinner, and turned in early, anticipating our visit to the factory the next morning.
When we arrived we were expecting a large building or two, but not the complex we saw. White's Electronics is more like a small campus, with buildings scattered here and there, overlooking the Santiam River and White's Park, owned by the company but available to all living in the small town of Sweet Home.
After parking our car, we entered the visitors museum building, and perused the many fascinating finds made by detectorists over the years. You name it...gold coins, Revolutionary War and Civil War relics, sunken treasure, jewelry, caches....all were on display, and reading the related stories took some time. Also the company had one each of all the detectors manufactured during the company's history (White's has been in business now for over 55 years), and a few of which were very familiar to this writer.
After announcing our presence we were greeted by Mary Hand, Alan's longtime assistant. As we exchanged pleasantries over a cup of coffee, Alan arrived, and we began our tour of the White's campus.
First, let me explain that prior to this trip my experience with visits to metal detector manurfacturers has been limited to one other, and in that particular case, most of what I was exposed to was the assembly of the product. What followed was much different. I was about to see pretty much the complete manufacturing process. Everything, and I mean everything, is manufactured by White's in Sweet Home, Oregon. From the control housing to the stems, to the coils, everything is made in-house. When I mentioned how amazed I was, Alan responded, "If an outside supplier was making parts for us and was making a profit, it had to be more cost effective for us to make it ourselves, and pass along the savings to the customer"....a very logical and astute marketing strategy.
We started our tour in the bulding where the company's products are literally "hammered" out...the tool and die shop. Bill Riggly, tool and die journeyman, walked us through the procedure and explained that it was here that the machines needed to manufacture all of White's metal detectors are designed and built. Heavy steel dies needed to create a control box or meter housing, or cut and bend a stem, emanate from this department.
Next we walked to another building where detector stems or "S" rods were manufactured. Each stem is bent with a die-press, and powder coated with an iron phosphate that prepares the metal. The powder coating/curing oven is set for the part to reach 350 degrees through the curing process. The silk screen oven, where labels are added to the casing, is set to 300 degrees.
Soon we were off again to yet another department where Alan introduced us to Stephanie Maynard, printed circuit board & surface mount technician. Her responsibilties? Testing and calibrating the completed circuit boards. The machine that handles this task costs well over $1.5 million. This process is done in-house, not only to save money, but to insure ultimate quality control.
After leaving this building we were greeted by Lisa Combs in the PCB (printed circuit board) wave flow department. She explained how each detector's circuit boards are wave soldered. The machine used to accomplish this fascinated me in that the solder was in constant motion, while each board passed through it (doesn't take a whole lot to amuse me).
We then went to another department and met Wanda Arms, the paint and case supervisor. She is charged with making sure that the paint and logos, etc., are applied to all of White's products in the appropriate manner, and insuring that they will never chip or come off. All finished products are subjected to a final scratch test procedure to assure "in the field" durability.
You guessed it...on we headed to yet another area...searchcoil manufacture, where we met Pam Lillich, supervisor and Cythinia Harper, who is in charge of the actual coil assembly. Here we were able to witness the various stages of making a searchcoil, from winding and gluing, to assembly and testing. Since the searchcoil is so important to the performance of any detector, it was a real learning experience for me to see how involved the entire process is.
Alan then introduced us to Tom Vinson, the man in charge of sheet metals and plastics. Tom has worked for White's Electronics for over 36 years. We watched as he cut out plastic pieces that would eventually be used for searchcoil housings.
The next building we went to was the assembly department, and there we met Debbie Greer,, a 14 year employee of White's. After greeting us, she walked us through the assembly procedure and into the packing department. Prior to packing, each and every instrument is tested yet again, and initialed by the individual who performed this final check. The attention to detail all through the manufacturing process was obvious and impressed me a great deal.
Getting near the end of our tour, we visited the printing department, where we met Doug McKinnis, who oversees this process. Almost all of White's printed materials are done in-house, including instruction manuals, books, forms, etc.. Printing presses of all types and sizes were humming as we chatted.
Alan then directed Fay and I toward the marketing department, and we were introduced to those who task it was to promote the company's products. The department leader was again Mary Hand, Alan's assistant, and the individual who had edited and designed all of my books. Over the years I had emailed and written Mary, and now I had the chance to give her a big hug. It's hard to explain, but after so many years I was now able to put a face to someone who for so long, had enouraged me and helped me in som many ways.
My trip to White's was a real learning experience, and one I will never forget. There are many more employees who I haven't mentioned herein, and I want to thank them all for their kindness and patience in answering all my many questions. What impressed me the most? The friendliness of each and every employee we met. Most have been with the company for many years, and it's obvious that it's a happy environment to work in.