SUWANEE, Ga.—With the completion of an expansion of its Suwanee facility, Nitta Corp. of America improved its abilities to provide in-house conveyor belt fabrication.
Nitta America added about 50,000 square feet, bringing the facility to about 135,000 square feet, with a large undisclosed investment by the parent company to develop true U.S. manufacturing of its products, Kent Simpson, vice president and operations director for Nitta America, said at the recent NIBA convention in Phoenix.
The expansion, started with a groundbreaking in March 2016, was finished and occupied by January 2017 with new equipment installed, Simpson said. The new space includes about 17,000 square feet of office space and 118,000 square feet of warehouse and production space.
"We still have equipment that is being manufactured and brought in," Simpson said. "We have a lot of internal movement of equipment to align it with the best production, best flow, best efficiency going forward. We are utilizing the facility very well right now."
With the expansion, the new facility was re-certified ISO 9001:2015, said Barry McKinnis, general manager of sales and marketing for Nitta America.
Expanding the Suwannee facility about doubles Nitta America's capacity to produce PolyBelt, with a nylon core material, which the company has made in the U.S. since 1990, Simpson said. It also brought in equipment that allows the facility to produce Nitta America's PolySprint product, which is used in printing, packaging, live roller and textile applications.
The series, which includes about 60 different style of belts, is one of the company's fastest growing segment products.
"It's a belt that is easier to splice and install on machines, and has applications across industries for it," Simpson said. "It doesn't work everywhere, but there's a huge demand for it that's growing."
Part of the reason that segment is growing is it includes logistics, McKinnis said. Compared to other product segments, it's grown its share by double digits in the last five years.
"We made some belts that are unique, and that's driving a huge amount of our growth," McKinnis said.
With the new expansion, many of those products can be made here in the U.S., Simpson said.
The expanded facility also can produce Nitta America's CarryFlex aramid cord products, a line of finger-spliceable belting with applications in the textile industry.
"Previous to this year, it was all produced in Japan," Simpson said. "Now a good portion of that can be produced internally at Nitta America."
As the largest subsidiary of Japan-based Nitta Corp., the U.S. branch is developing to support the Americas by doing manufacturing, production and fabrication for the region, Simpson said. That includes the U.S., but also South and Central America, Mexico and Canada.
"As far as geography goes, Mexico, for us, is a growing segment," McKinnis said. "But the fastest growing area is definitely the U.S., with the logistics market."
Simpson said Nitta Japan and Nitta America have similar equipment and capabilities for production, and in the worst-case scenario, could serve as the ultimate back-up for each other.
"We've shipped products to Europe to support when Japan's lead times might be multiple months. If we can get something out to help out we'll help out," he said.
Part of the focus on logistics is a matter of a majority of customer requests, Simpson said.
"We're not going to have a choice, it's demand-driven," he said. "The buzz, the technology, the evolution from year-to-year in that industry is striking. The pace of change, being driven by Amazon or Walmart. Everyone's pretty confident for the next five years that they're going to maintain close to double-digit growth year-over-year."
Simpson said Nitta America maintains strong relationships with both companies and supports them.
The growth of both of those companies spans globally, including Asian and African markets, McKinnis said.
"If you have internet service, they have an interest in being able to provide a service to you," he said. "We're already acquiring additional equipment to meet the demands they're projecting."
Among the new equipment are about a half-dozen wide presses, and Simpson expects another four to be necessary to keep up with demand. As sales continue to climb, Nitta America is pushing to keep up with projected market needs. That total necessary capacity is an unknown, he said.
"It's really a moving target," he said. "We're just trying to get to the point, as a goal for some of the wide belt-on roller type of applications, to be able to produce or fabricate between 2,000-3,000 belts a month. Two years ago, we were averaging about 100-150 belts a month in terms of that was our need.
"This past year, that's jumped to over 1,000 belts per month, especially in the last half of the year. We just expect that slope to continue upward. We need to position ourselves so we can fill those needs and attain that business," he said.
Scaling up from 1,000 to the 2,000-3,000 belts per month range could take place as early as mid-2019, Simpson said.
"That's the curve we're trying to keep up with," he said.
In the current facility, there's still some room to work with in placing new equipment and expanding capability for conveyor products, especially in terms of options like sidewalls and cleats, which Nitta America has not done much of before, Simpson said.
"We have more room for expansion," he said. "Is that in our immediate future? I don't think so. I don't know. But we can always hope."
Along with the equipment and capacity expansion, Nitta America is bringing on more employees to help with the effort, Simpson said. At the end of 2017, the company had about 80 employees in manufacturing, and at this point in 2018, that number has grown to about 100.
"We're budgeting for next year, and I'm probably going to put between 5-10 more people in the budget for next year in these manufactured fabrication areas," Simpson said. "It's a difficult area, with the economy where it is and unemployment where it is. So yeah, we're putting a lot of money and effort into hiring and keeping the right people."
Combined with sales, Nitta America has about 110 employees, he said.
Nitta America also grew through the acquisition of Connect Conveyor Belting, which provided specialty rubber covers for Nitta's belts, in 2016. The integration of CCB, based in Milton, Ontario, into the larger company went "reasonably well," Simpson said. The company has a dedicated sales person traveling with Nitta sales representatives, which brings a knowledge-heavy resource directly in contact with customers, and provides office resources.
"It's been a phenomenal couple of years, honestly," Simpson said. "Not just the thought and pursuing the building expansion, but then filling it and realizing that all of that was necessary to meet the needs of customers that were asking to fill them out."