Should you consider opening the doors of your manufacturing facility to visitors? And if the answer is “yes,” how can you best conduct a tour of the plant?
Why Let the World In?
Having visitors come to your manufacturing facility offers a unique opportunity to present the business in a favorable way. When properly planned and executed, it is among our company’s most potent sales tools.
Most sales in a technical field like ours involve plenty of education. An engineer needs to learn whether your capabilities are suited to the project; a buyer wants to make sure your business processes are up to the task. Spending time together in the factory lets them learn all they need to satisfy their requirements, and the factory setting provides a much richer environment, compared to a meeting over lunch or most email or telephone interactions.
Even when the visitors don’t have a specific part they are trying to source, we look at factory tours as effective marketing. Many times I have had a visitor exclaim something like: “I knew you were a spring company, but I now see that you also do tooling and stamping. My project has a new stamping, too.” Seeing our wide range of processes very often leads to more work from an existing customer.
We host several different types of visitors who are not customers at all, or at least not yet. These long- range prospects include engineering students and their professors from Stanford and Berkeley; Scandic is now established as part of their engineering curriculum, helping with senior design projects and giving free samples of materials. I have been invited to lecture and to participate in roundtable programs there, which I think of as leveraging the marketing impact of the plant tour.
We have even invited Boy Scout troops and high school manufacturing clubs (start them young!) to tour our facility. Some of these kids are future engineers and customers, and I feel the exposure also gets the word out about manufacturing as a career choice. One of our most unusual tours was a Family Day for employees’ families, with all the machines running. I overheard one say “it’s the first time in 25 years that my family has seen what I do for a living,” and his pride was obvious.
I am often asked about confidentiality concerns regarding customer identities and their information. Like many manufacturers today, we have nondisclosure agreements with most of our customers. My advice is simply to keep prints and specs covered; if there is a particularly sensitive part or process running, shut it down beforehand and don’t dwell in that area of the plant. Before we start, I ask visitors to respect the privacy of the information, and remind them that their data will be treated the same.
How to Structure an Effective Tour
Manufacturing plants can be complex and overwhelming to a first-time visitor. I have learned the hard way that a little preparation can make all the difference in a tour. First, what time of day is best? Consider your production shift schedule; most visitors will want to see machines in action and observe how your operation works, which is difficult outside of production hours. But be very aware of both safety and cleanliness: safety because that is paramount for everyone, and housekeeping because a dirty restroom can spoil an otherwise positive impression. Keeping the plant in a visitor-ready state contributes to safety, too. And consider whether distributing safety glasses is prudent.
Spend some time to rehearse your presentation until you get comfortable. Think about the message you want to send: Are you trying to demonstrate overall competency, or do you need to show expertise in forming a kind of part that this particular visitor needs?
Who should conduct the tour? It depends on the type of visitor, and what you are trying to convey. An account manager often handles a general introductory tour. A visitor with a specific design challenge will benefit from an engineering-focused tour given by a sales engineer or engineering manager. These kinds of visitors might concentrate their time in the area of the plant which would produce the part under consideration.
Note that a quality audit is a very different kind of visit, primarily involving your QA staff and concentrating on documentation and process controls. Quality audits are usually driven by the visitor’s checklist.
Plan the direction of flow, and try walking it to see where you can stop to talk safely. In our plant, where jobs are constantly being setup and torn down, I find it useful to review the production area right before visitors arrive to know what is interesting today and what areas to avoid.
Starting and ending in the conference room is useful but not essential. But be sure to pass through your well-organized shipping area. I can tell visitors that we ship about one million parts every month, but it is more effective for them to see the bar-coded boxes lined up to ship to locations around the world.
Because Scandic has five production departments (coiling, tooling, fourslide, punch press, secondary ops) we point out synergies between departments, such as: “These parts are blanked on this waterjet, and you can see them being formed on the brake press over there.” This kind of narrative will help you from forgetting to mention an important area. But recognize that for a new visitor, some processes are sexier than others; I have to tear people away from watching the CNC wireforming machines!
If you have a large group, break into smaller teams. Generally four to six is the maximum workable size per team, at least in our plant. Even with small groups, remember that the tour guide should enunciate toward the visitors, not to the machine! You don’t need to stare at the loud punch press while you describe it: direct your voice towards the listeners, and be conscious of noise levels. One technique is to introduce a process while standing away from a noisy work center, then allow visitors to approach closer (if safe). It’s even more interesting to visitors if you can pass around a warm part fresh off the machine. Engineers especially love to hold a progression strip and figure out for themselves how the part is being stamped. If your parts are small, send visitors home with samples; it helps to prolong their experience.
Finally, remember that people are the company’s greatest ambassadors. Identify department supervisors and/or line workers who are good spokespeople, and let visitors speak with them directly. The best salesperson is never as convincing as the technician who has mastered a process. Some operators enjoy demonstrating their skill, and having them describe their area to visitors lets them shine. It also demonstrates the depth of knowledge throughout the company, and your visitors will remember that more than the “sales talk.”
In a time when most communication is electronic, an in-plant visit delivers a powerful message about what we have to offer. Tours by prospects, current customers, and even members of the community are a great way to market the business. Plant tours can showcase capabilities that even an existing customer might not know about, but planning and preparation are essential to make the visit worthwhile.
About the Author:
Hale Foote is the President of Scandic Springs, Inc. Scandic is the largest spring and stamping company in Northern California, making custom metal parts for companies in the medical, automotive and aerospace fields worldwide. He has used Scandic to work with students and teachers at local schools and universities to promote careers in manufacturing. He is also on the board of directors of Manex and other nonprofits. Before joining Scandic, he practiced law in Washington, DC.