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Miller Felpax grows (02/20/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo by Chris Rogers
     Miller Felpax, local locomotive parts manufacturer, will grow by 20 percent in Winona.

Winona locomotive parts manufacturer Miller Felpax is expanding its facility, and including an unusual item for a manufacturing company: a relaxing "innovation room" where all of the workers can kick back and brainstorm.

The company announced plans this week to expand its Winona facility by 20 percent. The decision comes after years of steady ten percent growth for the manufacturing company and projections of even greater growth in coming years, according to the company. The growth comes in part as a result of Miller Felpax's acquisition of Chicago-based Amfab (another locomotive parts company) in 2011. Following that purchase, Miller Felpax brought Amfab's production to Winona, increasing business at the Miller Felpax facility, adding new products, and outsourcing work to local fabricators.

Miller Felpax does not have immediate plans to hire more workers following the expansion, but expects it will generate new jobs at the facility in the next few years and give the company's Winona partners increased business as well.

The company will not be buying any new land to expand the operation; instead it will enclose an area that had previously been used as an outdoor storage area. The area is currently unused, explained Vice President of Operations Randy Skarlupka, because of recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency restrictions to keep industrial storage from polluting rain water runoff.

The new space is going to house additional engineering and development offices, a new break room, and allow for the novel innovation room.

It may be novel, but the company has high hopes for real value coming from the innovation room. "I bet you have heard people say, 'A lot of times the ideas come up around the water cooler,'" Skarlupka said. "That's the idea behind an innovation room. It's an area where workers can get away from the normal grind of the parts that they are making and really take and bounce ideas of off each other."

Skarlupka says a crucial part of the plan is to make it a relaxing and inviting place where people will want to spend time. The room will have south-facing windows looking out over a lawn and thicket of trees, comfortable chairs, and things like flip charts, projectors, and iPads. The idea comes from technology companies like Google and Microsoft, which have seen successful ideas flow out of spontaneous brainstorming sessions in their cushy innovation rooms.

"In a manufacturing environment, most people would say, 'What do you mean you're going to take time off to go in here and talk about stuff?' because it takes away form your normal production," Skarlupka admitted. "But if you think about advancements that are made, if somebody does not take the time to think about, to talk about it, then you are always doing it the same old way you have always done it."

In a business where productivity is measured down to the second, does Skarlupka really plan to let workers "hang-out" in the innovation room whenever they want? Skarlupka admitted that there will be oversight. Workers will be expected to use the space, but if they are spending too much time there (and not coming up with any ideas) supervisors will talk to those workers. But, he said, the self-directed management system used at Miller Felpax—where workers are peer-reviewed and are rewarded based on their teams' performance as a whole—makes such an idea possible. "I will actually have to push them to spend time in there because they will be wanting to get stuff done on the floor," Skarlupka said.

Miller Felpax began making lubricators for locomotives in Winona over 60 years ago. A felt wick lubricator for locomotives was one of the early products which helped cement Miller Felpax as a company and is still sold today. Another product which has been instrumental to Miller Felpax's success is its gear case seals. The Winona Post was politely disallowed from photographing the room where the seals are made. "This is an area where we control the market," Skarlupka explained. "Our competitors would love to see photos of this place.

If the innovation room proves to be successful, Miller Felpax may have more to conceal on the next tour. 


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