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Winnebago County Manufacturing

Winnebago County has a strong history of manufacturing beginning in the late 1800’s. The manufacturing base has remained strong in spite of downturns in the economy and competition from overseas. For the first Quarter of 2007, the county had 27,690 employed in manufacturing at 741 establishments. Manufacturing made up 20.4 percent of the county’s non-farm employment and accounted for 28.6 percent of the wages paid to non-farm workers in that same time period, making Winnebago one of the larger manufacturing-sector counties in the U.S.

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The Early
Years In its beginning, Rockford was briefly known as Midway because it was halfway between Galena and Chicago, but the name changed because of the excellent ford across the Rock River. In 1851, the Rockford Water Power Company was organized, and a year later, the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad reached the city. These two events, which brought inexpensive power and inexpensive transportation to the county, forever changed the area.

By 1860, Rockford had become a significant industrial center noted for the production of John H. Manny’s reaper and other agricultural implements. During the 1880’s, a furniture industry emerged using the talents of Swedish craftsmen and capitalists. By the first half of the 20th century, Rockford had become the second largest furniture-manufacturing center in the United States.

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By the First World War, the agricultural implement industry was in decline. The furniture industry was damaged by the Great Depression and the Second World War. By the end of the 1960’s, both were extinct, but the sixties brought an expansion of manufacturing to the area.

20th Century Manufacturing
Winnebago County’s 20th-century industry revolved around machine tools, heavy machinery, automotive, aerospace, fastener and cabinet hardware products, and packaging devices and concepts. As a result of the area's industrial background, a number of many important and interesting inventions resulted, including the Nelson knitting machine, dollar bill changer, airbrush, electric brake, electric garage door opener, and electronic dartboard.

One of the leading industrial manufacturers in Rockford was formed by a merger of Rockford Tool Company and the Rockford Milling Machine Company in the early 20th century. Sundstrand, which is now known as Hamilton Sundstrand since being acquired by United Technologies in 1999, manufactures industrial, aviation, and aerospace products. Woodward Governor Company, an innovator in control systems for large machinery and aircraft propulsion, also originated in Rockford and now has plants around the world. The region’s two major aerospace manufacturers generated 91 of the 266 patents issued in the County from 1999-2003.

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The Future
The future of manufacturing in Winnebago County remains bright. Area economic development agencies are working together to attract manufacturers to the area. Their efforts are enhanced by the county’s superb location (smack dab in the middle of America) and excellent transportation, including the Chicago Rockford International Airport, one of the country’s largest UPS cargo facilities, and the intermodal hub in Rochelle.

While the development of increasingly sophisticated production in developing countries has toughened manufacturing competitiveness, cities in the Midwest are continuing to be successful in growing manufacturing through retention and attraction. Local companies are working to:

Define the company’s competitive niche in terms of production and marketing strategy
Develop new markets
Advance technologically
Reduce waste through LEAN manufacturing techniques
Demonstrate quality management through ISO certification

Two programs, the EIGERlab and MAARV (Manufacturing Alliance of the Rock River Valley) have emerged to assist in developing and attracting new manufacturers and creating new business for manufacturers. MAARV provides the connection for small, local manufacturers interested in using flexible networks to combine their core competencies to produce new products.

The EIGERlab hosts the creative commercial uses of advanced manufacturing technologies, such as micro-machining. It brings together the mechanical and industrial engineering expertise of Rock Valley College, Northern Illinois University, Northwestern University, University of Illinois (Urbana), and Alion Science and Technology. Researchers from these organizations, in conjunction with engineers and technicians from area companies, develop prototypes of precision manufacturing systems and devices; conduct field tests and process evaluations; and demonstrate the efficacy of these to the Department of Defense and potential commercial users in the region.

Area manufacturers bring value to their customers that low-cost overseas competition cannot match, such as propriety, high-technology products, a willingness to customize, extraordinary service and parts support, short production runs, and fast turnaround time. Ultimately, it is the type of entrepreneurs that Winnebago County has produced with their inventiveness, dedication and daring, that has made the local economy what it is today.

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Town Square Publications
Joseph Behr
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