Last year, before the initial tariffs were announced, executives at California-based commercial lighting company Optec LED decided to relocate production from China to the U.S. for the benefit of their customers. Next month, production in Wisconsin begins.
Italked to Jeff Gatzow, Vice President of Optec LED Lighting last summer as we rode around the Milwaukee area, calling on architects, facilities managers, and electricians as part of enLIGHTenment Magazine’s Rep Ride-Along series. In listening in on Gatzow’s chats with clients, it was apparent that in addition to product quality, delivery speed was a key concern in the decision process.
At this year’s Lightfair, I was pleased to hear that Optec LED was taking the unprecedented step of moving its factory State-side.
“It was a fundamental business decision to move ground-up production from off-shore to a renovated, centralized facility in Brookfield, Wisconsin,” Gatzow explains. “To be more efficient, production needs to be closer to the marketplace to better service customers on both coasts. Additionally, there is ever-increasing pressure to reduce our lead times from eight weeks to four, which becomes more challenging when components are sourced and manufactured overseas.”
In order to bring more products to market, the Research & Development part of the business is also expanding. With all of these new job openings – from factory floor and assembly to R&D – I wondered whether the low unemployment rate would be a challenge — especially given the comparatively lower wages earned by factory workers overseas.
“While the labor market is tight, we are fortunately able to draw from trade and technical colleges,” Gatzow points out. “There are 24 tech schools, colleges, and universities that call the Milwaukee region home, creating a deep talent pool. Additionally, this area has a long history of manufacturing with workers continually upgrading their skill sets, which will help us fill the production positions.”
Initially, Optec is leasing a 14,000-sq.-ft. facility in Wisconsin while also maintaining its existing 10,000-sq.-ft. facility in California for warehousing and light manufacturing. “When production begins in August, we will be reconfiguring or modifying already built/existing Optec LED products, as well as completely manufacturing the popular OLPG1 parking garage fixture,” Gatzow states. “The California facility will ship products to customers on the West Coast to reduce shipping costs and lead times and will maintain its current level of pre- and post-sales support. Products manufactured solely from Wisconsin will ship exclusively from this location regardless of customers’ addresses,” he notes.
Aside from moving all R&D, the Wisconsin facility will also add sales and sales support, and all new product production. Once the operation is fully up and running, the company plans to make Wisconsin its new headquarters.