Wemco Inc., of Airway Heights, is expanding its use of computer technology to remotely diagnose problems with and service electronic components in the heavy equipment it sells across the western U.S.
Wemco makes equipment for industrial, construction, and agricultural use, including industrial cranes, portable concrete plants, dump trucks, and self-propelled potato harvesters, says John Rouse, president and co-owner of the company.
Rouse, who started the company with his wife, Karma, in the late 1980s, says one of the most significant changes Wemco has made in the last few years involves using high-speed Internet to service some of its equipment. It has been using that technology mostly for its concrete plants, but also now is testing over-the-Internet diagnostic systems to be installed in its potato harvesters. He says those improvements are necessary to stay competitive in an increasingly global manufacturing industry.
Were always trying to stay up with changes, Rouse says. Were piggybacking off computer technology to do troubleshooting for our customers.
Wemco builds and installs concrete plants on the West Coast and in Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Alaska, he says. Those plants are used at remote locations, such as at mines, or as portable units on highway construction projects. Wemco produces 12 different models of the plants, and each model can vary widely depending on where and how it is to be used.
Rouse says the plants are being equipped with remote operating capabilities, so the company can access them from its office in Airway Heights and run diagnostic tests to fix most problems. That capability also allows Wemcos customers to control several plants at a time from one location, saving them both time and money, he says.
Rouse says Wemcos largest market for those concrete plants, as well as other construction equipment, is along the Interstate 5 corridor between Canada and Southern California. Most concrete companies here, including Central Pre-Mix Concrete Co., have Wemco products, he says. The Spokane market now accounts for only about 20 percent of Wemcos revenues, down from about half previously, he says.
Part of the lost ground in Spokane is attributed to our growth elsewhere, he says. But it also has to do with the fact that government leaders havent been doing a good job of keeping manufacturers in this area.
Rouse has worked with Spokane County officials for the past several years to get the proper permits to build a manufacturing facility on the West Plains.
So far it has been a disappointing experience working with the county, Rouse says. We would like to see Spokane do more to keep its few remaining heavy-equipment manufacturers here, but I dont know that it will.
Wemco had tried for several years to get approval from the county to rezone one of its parcels of land on the West Plains for light-industrial use. The property was zoned for rural-residential use, but under the countys new comprehensive plan adopted two years ago, it was designated for light-industrial use. The county initially denied the zone-change application.
Then, Rouse says, the company reapplied for the zone change under the new comprehensive plan, and it was approved.
He says he hopes to start building a new facility there in the next couple of years.
Rouse says he plans for Wemco to build a 24,000-square-foot manufacturing plant, as well as a 3,000-square-foot office building, on the 36-acre site there. The concern currently leases an 18,000-square-foot structure on a 10-acre site at 2823 S. Craig Road that it shares with Spokane Culvert Co., Rouse says. It needs to fulfill its lease there before it can move to the West Plains.
Although the company might use the bigger facility to expand into new product lines, Rouse says he plans to continue focusing on its current products. The concrete plants, which can include 50-foot-high storage silos, are the largest pieces of equipment Wemco produces. The overhead cranes it makes vary in size up to 100 feet wide. Haskins Steel Co. Inc., of Spokane, uses Wemco cranes that are 70 feet wide and weigh 10 tons, Rouse says.
The company also sells conveyers and other material-handling systems, including rock screening and crushing equipment for the concrete and asphalt industries, he says. Other products include specialty trailers and equipment for the mining and lumber industries.
The self-propelled potato harvester, which Wemco designed in the early 1990s, is four-wheel drive and can harvest four rows of potatoes at once. That product continues to be in high demand, he says.
Rouse declines to disclose the companys revenues, but says its business is fairly evenly balanced between construction, agricultural, and other industrial equipment. He says the company strives to stay diversified to soften the impact from highs and lows in specific sectors. He says business growth flattened after Sept. 11, 2001, but since then has remained steady, despite rising steel prices.
The major challenge that U.S. manufacturers currently face comes from foreign equipment makers, he says.
My biggest concern in the manufacturing sector is that it seems like almost anything can be built outside this country, he says. If you intend to build things here, you have to find (product) areas that arent attractive to offshore builders.
Rouse predicts equipment that easily can be mass produced, which he calls cookie-cutter products, will no longer be built in the U.S. in the near future. Wemco, in contrast, makes engineering-intensive products that require more customer interaction and support, and are difficult to ship here from another country, he says.
Manufacturing companies in the Spokane area face an additional challenge of a declining manufacturing industry here, he says.
The trend started in the mid-1990s, he says. We were in a hurry to switch over to a service economy, and I didnt feel that the area understood the magnitude of the loss of manufacturing to the community.
Rouse says he plans to stay in the Spokane area now that plans are moving forward for the new facility.
The companys employee growth has remained steady, and it has about 25 employees. He says it probably will add five to seven more when it moves to its new location.
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