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After taking a hit in the recession, the lab equipment builder Sheldon Manufacturing is hiring and hoping to expand in Cornelius
by: Chase Allgood Each team of workers at Sheldon Manufacturing in Cornelius uses different styles of work stations while building lab equipment. The goal? Find out which layout is the most efficient.

Dan Sheldon has good news: he's hiring.

Sheldon, president of Sheldon Manufacturing, said his company, which builds temperature-controlled lab equipment like baths and ovens in Cornelius, is benefitting from a shift toward lean manufacturing undertaken about five years ago.

'Material costs keep going up,' Sheldon said, 'and we have to compete globally.'

Sheldon's company wasn't immune to the downturn in the economy. In 2009, the company cut a work day, using Oregon's Workshare program to backfill employee paychecks during the temporary work reduction.

But now, Sheldon says, with the factory humming on overtime, he hopes to hire engineers and welders while working with the city of Cornelius to expand the plant by 20 percent.

Lean and mean

At the heart of the good news is the company's embrace of the lean manufacturing process made famous by Toyota.

By pushing workers to rethink how they're doing tasks and look at problems with fresh eyes, Sheldon is reaping the benefits of quickened workflow and faster output. That's helping the company keep up in a market with giant competitors whose output dwarfs the small Cornelius shop.

'We're competing with large companies like Sanyo,' Sheldon said.

Over the last half-decade, Sheldon has implemented changes that have reduced the lead time on some products from 90 days to 24. That gives the company the flexibility to respond to market demands, say an unexpected push for product, or a new use for an existing product that can expand its marketability.

"I can quickly react," Sheldon said. "We're a lot more nimble."

That flexibility can be seen on the factory floor, which looks more like a busy laboratory percolating with ideas than a 20th Century production line.

Innovation at every step

At each point of the manufacturing process, in welding, assembly or paint, workers are implementing "A3" workflow designs. These plans, worked up by committees of workers at the Sheldon factory are aimed at increasing the productivity of each team and increase the overall metrics of the production process. Those metrics range in scope from speed of manufacture, quality control, even work floor injuries.

The focus on innovation is leading the company to abandon paper assembly manuals in favor of a computer database available to assembly workers from monitors at their stations.

That change alone eliminates the cost of producing the paper manuals, Sheldon said, but also removes the chance that an assembly worker is building from an old set of designs.

Elsewhere, implementation of robotic welding has saved hours of work. Before utilizing a robot welder, workers had to don respirators and lean into the metal boxes they were welding together. That took 30 tense minutes. Now, a box can be welded together in 5 minutes.

Cornelius: plenty of workers, but little land

Sheldon's 120 employees build and market over 600 products, from controlled-temperature laboratory baths to giant vacuum ovens.

Most of the products are sold through distributors, but a few products, like baths which easily fit into shipping boxes, Sheldon sells online, with prices from $700 to $1,750.

Sheldon said by keeping inventory cycling through, he avoids a backlog of stock, which can take up valuable space.

"When we moved from Aloha we were looking for cheap land," Sheldon said.

What the company found when it settled in Cornelius in 1979, was a dedicated workforce. Amy Schulties, director of sales and marketing for Sheldon Manufacturing, said it's not uncommon for multiple generations of the same family to be working at Sheldon.

But in 2008, Sheldon's prospects for staying in Cornelius were hurting. The company had aims to expand then, shortly before the global credit crunch shook the manufacturing sector.

Sheldon made a pitch to Metro to grant an expansion of the Urban Growth Boundary near the city limits, allowing more developable land into the city limits.

That bid failed, and so did an effort last fall to include that land north of town as an urban reserve in a regional agreement on future development.

Without an urban reserve for industrial land, Sheldon said he looked at Forest Grove and Hillsboro as potential relocation sites. The small parcel of land that Sheldon's manufacturing site is located on at 300 N 26th Ave. is surrounded by an eagles lodge to the north, an electrical shop to the south and houses to the east.

Sheldon said city planners have been helpful in working with him to build a plan to expand the building 100 feet to the east, which would give him space to expand the shop's paint line.

But even with the innovation inside his shop humming along, Sheldon still eyes the land near him, hoping one day to expand his facilities even more.

"It would be nice to not be landlocked," Sheldon said.