In a region that lives and dies by manufacturing, you can safely bet this critical sector is playing a role in the Rockford region’s economic recovery. From parts big and small to clients near and far, our manufacturers are producing valuable jobs while keeping the world on the move. Step inside a few of our region’s manufacturers to see how they contribute to the economy, employment and the community.
Many things remain uncertain these days, but you can count on one truth about our region’s economy: manufacturing will lead the way in our recovery. After all, nearly one-fifth of the Rockford area’s jobs revolve around manufacturing, and another fifth involves the services that get products to market.
Regardless of economic conditions, these companies remain vital to keeping the world moving forward. Look around and you’ll find local manufacturers have sent their work pretty much everywhere, even into outer space. They’re problem-solvers with a global scope, fueling a global economy and powering the best within the Rockford area.
They remain firmly rooted in the competitive advantages our region has to offer. As employers, they’re supporting highly skilled, highly valuable jobs on the shop floor, inside the engineering studio and in the office. Their employees, too, are supporting the many assets we enjoy in this region.
That’s why we can say with confidence that it’s manufacturers that are fueling the early stages of our region’s economic recovery – and recovering is exactly what’s happening.
Since April, our region has recouped almost 20,000 jobs, according to Illinois Department of Employment Security data (IDES). Our unemployment rate has dropped from 22.2% in April to 13.8% in July. Most sectors are seeing a rebound.
Manufacturers are climbing upward, as well, led in part by the fact that many remained open through the spring season. The sector has shed less than 3,000 jobs since March – just 10% of all jobs lost, in a sector that commands nearly 20% of all jobs in our region.
Today, as always, Rockford’s manufacturers are leaders in their fields. They’re constant innovators, embracing new technologies and ways of doing business, developing new products to satisfy growing market demand, and enhancing their value to clients around the world.
Products manufactured in Rockford are all around you. The school bus your kids ride? Systems made in Rockford. The tractor plowing through the fields or the semi truck rumbling down the highway? Parts made in Rockford. The airplanes taking off at Chicago Rockford International Airport? Parts made here, and serviced inside the airport’s massive maintenance, repair and overhaul facility. And that’s just the start.
In thousands of other, smaller ways, you can see Rockford-made products at work. We’re still earning our nickname as the “Screw City” with all the custom fasteners we’re producing here. And we’re producing numerous tools that power the success of other manufacturers the world over.
Not to be forgotten is the wealth of engineering, assembly and aftermarket services provided to clients around the globe, all from a home base right here in Rockford.
In a twist of fate, our homegrown manufacturers aren’t solely operating in northern Illinois. They’ve established plants across the U.S., and they’ve set up shop around the globe, where they’re working in close proximity to major global manufacturers with names like Caterpillar and Deere. Even as they employ foreign workers and boost the prosperity of other nations, those overseas plants are making possible the sorts of high-skilled manufacturing, engineering and assembly jobs that remain fixed in the Rockford area. Ask anyone in the industry, and they’ll tell you it’s the skills and quality of our workers that set us apart from the rest of the world.
The reason is because today’s factories aren’t like the factories of previous generations. Today, you’re more likely to spy a clean, white environment that some say is so clean “you can eat right off the floor.” It’s a far cry from the “dark, dumb, dirty” manufacturing of yesteryear – although, to be fair, companies of this kind are a necessity, and they’re still finding success here in Rockford.
Long-gone are many of the low-skilled, low-wage jobs that fueled earlier industrial revolutions. Those functions have been largely replaced by machines that require highly skilled employees capable of balancing highly sophisticated machining with a knack for good old mechanics, mathematics and problem solving.
Behind these high-skilled shop floor workers is a team of highly trained engineers, responsible not just for designing new products but also for testing them, troubleshooting problems and establishing efficient methods of manufacture. It’s problem solving on a whole different level.
And don’t forget about the numerous support jobs that make everything possible – the accountants, the salespeople, the purchasing managers, the marketers, the executives, and even the logistics and warehousing people who get products to market.
At all levels, these skilled jobs support local families – like yours – with good wages and a skill set that can go many places.
Building the high-skilled workers needed in today’s manufacturing environment has been a major priority for both our employers and our local institutions of higher education. As the economy changes and the pace of technological advancement speeds up, these firms need qualified workers like never before. Couple those market forces with the impending “brain drain” of baby boomers who are preparing to retire and take with them decades of knowledge, and demand has never been greater for people who have the skills to succeed.
That’s why schools like Rock Valley College (RVC) and Highland Community College are ratcheting up the programs needed to equip the workers of today – and tomorrow. RVC continues to invest in its advanced manufacturing facilities while also introducing youngsters to skills like coding that will have a greater impact in the future.
At the same time, RVC has teamed up with Northern Illinois University to provide talented individuals with four-year degrees in mechanical engineering, all without having to leave the Rockford campus – and without spending an arm and a leg on their education. Through their schooling, these ambitious young engineers are interning at local manufacturers and earning much-deserved attention from local firms eager to hire.
Local public school systems are doing their part, as well, as they realign their curriculum so high schoolers are introduced to the principles of engineering and manufacturing as early as possible. Through these new programs, highly skilled teachers are introducing youngsters to the skills of the shop while connecting the other pieces of their education – science and math, especially – that will equip them for success wherever they go after graduation.
Equipped with the right education, manufacturing workers have before them a world of possibilities. As you can see in the box on p. 215, a degree and a job on the shop floor are only the beginning. Experience in manufacturing has led many ambitious people along the path to a rewarding career in the shop, on the sales team, or even in the C-suite.
True to its heritage, Rockford’s manufacturing scene is still filled with locally owned companies, some of which have been led by the same families for generations. Grateful for the prosperity they’ve enjoyed, these families have found numerous ways to support their community through charitable work and advisory roles.
Even some of our region’s biggest players, firms like Woodward and Collins Aerospace, can claim a long and storied existence here in our region, and their many employees continue to have a deep impact on their community.
Our region’s manufacturers aren’t just good employers but faithful community servants, as well. All across the Rockford region, you’ll see our manufacturers engaged in their community in a myriad of ways. Some firms give back to the United Way or another charity, while some manufacturing leaders serve on local nonprofit boards such as that of Transform Rockford – the organization leading a strategic self-improvement of our region. Still others are involved in the national scene, working with industry interest groups or wider charitable causes.
Inside the following pages, you’ll meet many other firms contributing to their community by providing high-quality, well-paying jobs and supporting a myriad of notable causes.
There’s no denying the power of manufacturing on the Rockford region and its critical role in rebuilding our economy. In the following pages, discover just a few manufacturers that are leading the way.
Forest City Gear
11715 Main St., Roscoe, Ill., forestcitygear.com
In an industry as old as mechanics, Forest City Gear, in Roscoe, Ill., remains at the forefront of gear technology and precision manufacturing.
For more than six decades, this family-owned firm has made a specialty of producing high-quality gears using the most powerful, cutting-edge tools available. Each month, nearly 70,000 gears ship out from the production center.
Boasting technical certifications including AS9100, ISO 9100:2008, and ISO 13485:2003, Forest City Gear remains committed to a wide variety of industries, including aerospace, transportation, medical/dental, defense, recreation and food production.
Perhaps its most famous components no longer reside on planet Earth; Forest City Gear components exist on the International Space Station as well as the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity Rovers on Mars. Forest City Gear produced more than 70 gears for Curiosity’s mobility and drilling operations. The firm was also chosen to produce parts for the new Perseverance rover, which launched in July.
The experienced team at Forest City Gear is skilled in a number of production methods, including gear hobbing and carbide re-hobbing, gear shaping, grinding, CNC machining and engineering. Not surprisingly, these jobs require specialized knowledge of metal fabrication in extremely tight tolerances. Aerospace is a common starting point for many.
To keep its team at the forefront of technology, Forest City Gear supports continuous training with industry leaders. And, it’s developing the next generation of gearmakers by providing summer internships to high school and college students. It’s also planning a vocational internship for qualified students in Hononegah High School’s special education program.
The firm has set aggressive growth targets for the coming years as it invests in numerous positions, including manufacturing process engineers, cost estimators and CNC machinists specializing in gear cutting.
It’s not just people but equipment that sets Forest City Gear apart from its competitors. For years, the company has made a practice of reinvesting between 25 and 40 percent of its revenues into new technologies, obtaining tools like hobbers, shapers and thread grinders from top-notch producers in the U.S., Italy, Japan and Germany.
Forest City Gear was founded in 1955 by Stetler and Evelyn Young. Stetler put to work his experience at a gear producer in Sterling, Ill., and built the company with personal loans, the support of a former customer and refurbished equipment. Their son, Fred, got an early start in the business as he ran machines to make basketball hoop winch winders and home ice cream makers. He joined the company full-time after attending college and serving in the Navy.
Fifty years later, Fred is chairman of his family’s company, serving alongside his wife, Wendy, company president and CEO, and daughter Kika, Director of Corporate Management.
Forest City Gear remains active in the community, donating time and resources to many nonprofit groups, both national and local in scope, including the Blackhawk Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the American Gear Manufacturers Association, Rockford Rescue Mission and Rockford University.
“Our tagline is ‘Excellence without Exception,’” says CEO Fred Young. “However, we are glad to be part of the tremendous group of manufacturers in the state line area who keep Midwestern America at the forefront of manufacturing high-quality products that end up all over the world.”
Pedigree Ovens/The Pound Bakery/Pet Dine
2 Dogs Way, Harvard, Ill., pedigreeovens.com, thepoundbakery.com, petdinellc.com
In the rapidly growing pet food industry, one Harvard, Ill., player continues to stake its claim in new and inventive ways.
Pedigree Ovens, The Pound Bakery and Petdine were ahead of the times in 1996 when they began producing high-quality pet treats using human-grade standards. As the market has changed, so have these sister companies, which now maintain certifications in organic, SQF (food safety) and gluten-free food production, with processes in place for tracking ingredients.
Since moving to their new, 222,000-square-foot facility in 2017, Pedigree Ovens, The Pound Bakery and Petdine have rapidly expanded their offerings, which now include private-label and branded pet treats, in addition to related fulfillment and marketing services.
The companies’ nearly 325 employees produce a diverse array of pet treats, including baked dog biscuits, meat chews, kibble, semi-moist treats, dehydrated blends and dental chews for about 150 clients and several in-house brands. New capabilities include hot and cold extrusion techniques essential to producing dental chews, probiotic treats and nutritional supplements.
Together, Pedigree Ovens, The Pound Bakery and Petdine maintain about 60 wholesale product lines and a library filled with thousands of recipes.
Further adapting with the pet food marketplace, Pedigree Ovens, The Pound Bakery and Petdine also offer graphic design and marketing services, including social media management, website design and product photography. A nearby facility, its former production center, now serves as a 50,000-square-foot fulfillment center for clients’ orders as well as business-to-business and direct-to-consumer orders.
“We are very flexible in what we can offer our customers,” says owner Kurt Stricker.
Pedigree Ovens, The Pound Bakery and Petdine began in Harvard in 1996 when Stricker left his family’s bakery and began experimenting with dog treats. The original biscuit recipes were inspired by cookie and bread recipes Stricker had learned as a kid.
“I started looking around at what other people were doing with human-quality pet treats, and there wasn’t much out there,” says Stricker. “Most of what was out there was very expensive.”
As these sister firms continue growing, they remain rooted in their hometown, where tactical advantages are many.
“There are a lot of hard-working, smart people who have been raised in this area,” says Stricker. “Harvard’s location is the center of the Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Rockford quadrant, so we have great access for moving ingredients in and products out. Plus, staff can enjoy the slow pace of small-town life but they’re within an hour of big-city events.”
Today, Pedigree Ovens, The Pound Bakery and Petdine continue pushing boundaries and adapting with market demand. This summer, it commissioned a 1,703-kilowatt solar system that’s expected to fully supply the companies’ annual energy needs while matching sustainable products with sustainable energy. The solar array is shaped, appropriately enough, like a bone and paw print.
2390 Blackhawk Road, Rockford, bergstrominc.com
As automotive technology continues to improve, Bergstrom Inc., in Rockford, continues to thrive at the forefront of its industry.
Since its start in the 1940s, this firm has specialized in climate control systems for commercial vehicles, especially heavy-duty commercial trucks, off-highway machines and specialty vehicles. Its products may also be found within military vehicles, mining equipment, niche automobiles, logging machines, and stationary refrigeration units, like water coolers or grocery store units. Bergstrom counts firms like Caterpillar, John Deere and Peterbilt among its biggest clients.
Where Bergstrom has set itself apart from the competition is through its No-Idle Thermal Environment technology, a battery-powered system that allows truck drivers to sleep comfortably in their cabins without running the truck’s engine, thus reducing fuel use and emissions.
From its Rockford headquarters and production centers across the globe, Bergstrom provides design, manufacturing and aftermarket services with a special focus on original equipment manufacturers. A team of skilled engineers in Rockford designs new products and provides critical drawings to the manufacturing team working nearby.
Work skills matter to every part of the Bergstrom team – from the corporate suite on down. Workers are held accountable to the company’s internal values and code of conduct, and they’re encouraged to continually improve themselves and their employer. Through Bergstrom’s “Mastery” program, employees can learn about the company and become experts in their department. Each time a worker earns a Mastery, they receive a pay raise.
Worker input is valued, too, with daily team meetings that focus on safety, quality and delivery. Everyone is expected to contribute to the company’s continual self-improvement and its effort to maintain a lean manufacturing philosophy.
The strong sense of culture at Bergstrom comes, in part, from the beliefs of its founders. Adolph Bergstrom and Elvin Rydell, who established the company in 1949 and passed the company on to Elvin’s son, David Rydell, who continues to live out the values of his father. Respect for employees, a pleasant workplace, adequate training, competitive wages and good corporate citizenship remain entrenched in the Bergstrom way.
Accordingly, Bergstrom leaders do their part to give back to their community, volunteering with groups like Transform Rockford, local charities and various nonprofit boards. It’s also supporting efforts to help grow talent right within our region.
Nearly 450 people support Bergstrom’s Rockford headquarters and aftermarket support center, but the firm maintains a global network of nearly 1,500 employees. In addition to facilities in the United Kingdom and China, Bergstrom maintains production centers in Brazil, Spain, Turkey, Russia and India – all strategically located near the production centers of major international clients.
Eastrock Industrial Park, Rockford
Born in Rockford’s boom in the 1960s, the Eastrock Industrial Park is still buzzing along, its nearly 100 manufacturers producing parts that make a difference around the world.
From job shops to die makers, machine shops to tooling specialists, plastics manufacturers, engineers, automation specialists and everything in between, this business park off Harrison Avenue represents a true cross-section of the manufacturing work that’s happening in the Rockford area.
It was just a farm field when the first tenants broke ground in 1967. Today, Eastrock’s industrial residents enjoy easy proximity and access to numerous assets, including the Chicago Rockford International Airport, Interstates 39 and 90, and a major post office right at its doorstep.
“We have vendors where, if I need to have things done, they’re just a block away,” says John Ekberg, vice president of Circle Boring and Circle Cutting Tools, both of which are located in Eastrock. His family’s business has resided in the park since 1967. “If I need a little fabrication made or specialty manufacturing to help us do business, they’re right next door – literally. A supplier for our packaging materials is right next door. So, I go over there and get parts, then come back. We have the capacity to do a lot of things here really close.”
Of course, Eastrock is also a major center of employment, with hundreds of specialty manufacturing jobs – many of them highly specialized, well-paying careers like machine operator, die maker and engineer.
Here’s an inside look at just a sample of the businesses you’ll find at work in Eastrock Industrial Park.
Circle Boring and Machine Co. was founded in Rockford in 1961. As a contract machine shop, it specializes in producing custom parts, some of which you’ll find in automotive products, rock quarries and cranes. As its name suggests, the firm maintains a niche in high-accuracy borings, and it has the capacity to work with parts up to 40,000 pounds or pieces that can fit in your palm. Its sister company, Circle Cutting Tools, designs and builds custom tooling, with an emphasis on boring applications.
Heritage Mold is a specialist in custom steel injection molds for die cast and plastic injection, and the product of its work can be seen all around the world, even in your own home. Founded in 1978 by a third-generation plastics manufacturer, Ben Franzen, the company builds complex machinery that helps to create parts like window cranks, utility locating markers and pinball machine buttons. Franzen is joined by his family’s fourth and fifth generations of plastics manufacturers. With the technology to reverse-engineer parts for tooling and molding, Heritage Mold’s expertise spans many industries, including automotive, hobby, packaging and military/defense, among others.
Heritage Mold also works with local firms like Borg Warner, in Dixon, Ill., and J.L. Clark, a Rockford firm that specializes in packaging.
Heritage Mold’s sister company, Legacy Plastics, deploys Heritage-made molds with a focus on plastic injection molding as well as prototyping/product development. Its work, too, is found in a variety of applications, including paint can lock-rings, military equipment, telecommunications, medical masks and parts for Gibson’s Les Paul guitar.
Obsidian Manufacturing Industries is a woman-led small business and manufacturer with four brands that specialize in building and repairing a variety of machine tool products including lifting magnets, workholding and rotary surface grinders. The Magna-Lock USA brand manufactures workholding machine tools and provides repair services for its own and other workholding brands. Under the MagnaLift and Power-Grip brands, the firm manufactures, repairs and offers certification services for lifting magnets. In 2018, the company acquired Arter Precision Grinding Machines, a specialist in rotary surface grinders with over a century of experience. That brand provides OEM spare parts and repair services for all Arter grinding machines, as well as the manufacture of new CNC models.
Obsidian began in 2007 with the purchase of the Magna-Lock USA brand and has continued growing. Always a resident of Eastrock, the firm moved in 2019 to the former location of Stieg Grinding Corp., which closed last year and was absorbed into the Obsidian family.
“We look forward to more growth as we settle into the new building, and we’re proud to be a part of the manufacturing community in Rockford,” says president Sue Norman.
Cincinnati Tool Steel Co. was established by the late Ronald Frank Cincinnati, who set up shop in the Eastrock Industrial Park in 1976. He began his business as a small distributor of specialty metals and started off with six employees, two small band saws and a small inventory. His firm still focuses on tool steel, high speed and alloy material, but it now boasts more than 170 employees at three locations. Rockford remains the company’s headquarters and main production facility, but the company maintains satellite branches in Tennessee and South Carolina.
“When my father passed away 12 years ago, my three siblings and I took over the business as second-generation owners,” says Ronald J. Cincinnati, executive vice president. “We have all worked at Cincinnati Tool Steel Co. for the majority of our lives, and we’re proud to continue to cultivate and grow the business in our father’s footsteps.”
PMI Aerospace, formerly known as Precision Masters, has more than a century of expertise in manufacturing close-tolerance, precision-machined aerospace parts that fit in the palm of your hand. The on-site capabilities of this employee-driven, technology-oriented company include CNC machining, automated five-axis production cells, robotic loading/unloading and high-precision grinding, honing and lapping.
Rockford Quality Grinding is a high-quality precision job shop and production grinding company. It’s been servicing the Rockford and surrounding area for 18 years, always seeking ways to be better than the competition, not just in quality but in its willingness to work together with the community and other local businesses, says owner Todd S. Henning.
“We were so proud to move into our location in Rockford’s Eastrock Industrial Park 14 years ago,” he says. “It was where I started 36 years ago at my first grind job. There’s a good feel of a ‘bring it here and get it done’ attitude within the fellow manufacturers of our park. We have been able to hang on in this environment and continue our focus on making the best product America can make.”
This year, the firm expects to finish its ISO 9001:2015 QMS certification with the help of IMEC, Genesis 1 technology and Rockford’s Workforce Connection.
“Eastrock is home to some of the best in Rockford,” says Henning. “You can get about anything made from here or through here. Rockford still has strength in manufacturing and the drive to bring it right here.”
Phelps Pet Products was founded in 1966 and has been in its current location in Rockford since the early 1990s. Phelps is the “behind the scenes” manufacturing partner to some of the biggest, best-loved and most innovative brands and retailers of dog treats in North America.
The firm specializes in smokehouse-style meat jerky treats and produces a wide range of products, including USDA Certified Organic chicken and turkey treats and customized treats featuring grass-fed beef, marine stewardship council certified salmon, wild boar, duck, venison and even alligator. The firm recently launched a new Phelps Wellness Collection that includes natural ingredients to help dogs thrive throughout their lives. Products help to address hip and joint, skin and coat, and digestive concerns.
“Phelps Pet Products relies on the talent pool in the greater Rockford/Winnebago County area as we strive to provide a consistent focus on customer service, an unwavering commitment to producing superior-quality products, and the flexibility and creativity to offer innovative new products and programs to our customers across the country,” says Rick Ruffolo, CEO and President of Phelps Pet Products. “We would not be seeing the growth in our business without the skill and dedication of our employee team members.
EWT Inc. was founded in 1974 as the first wire EDM contract machine shop in the area. It merged in 2003 with 3DCNC Technologies, a high-end 3-D machining and modeling company and was renamed EWT/3DCNC Inc.
The company expanded again in 2016 when it purchased another shop dedicated to machining and grinding of aerospace components. EWT/3DCNC provides state-of-the-art wire and conventional EDM services, as well as jig grinding, high-speed machining, aerospace manufacturing, design and build of molds and dies, and 3-D modeling. They also are a stocking distributor of EDM consumables and repair parts for sale to other EDM contract manufacturers. EWT/3DCNC stocks a full array of EDM wires and electrodes, replacement parts filters and resin. EWT/3DCNC is a shop that other shops turn to for difficult jobs no one else wants to tackle, says Jim Monge, company president.
The firm’s original name, EWT, is a reflection of its quality policy: Excellence through continuous improvement; World-class quality; and Total customer satisfaction. To that end, the firm is ISO 90001:2015 and AS9100 Rev. D certified. Owners Jim Monge and Doug Mason continue pushing EWT/3DCNC to the cutting edge.
“EWT/3DCNC has managed consistent year-over-year growth by hiring and retaining excellent employees, purchasing and maintaining state-of-the-art equipment, and serving a wide spectrum of industries,” says Monge. “We continue to explore new areas of growth and look forward to what challenges the future holds.”
Accelerated Machine Design & Engineering focuses on providing simple solutions to complex engineering and manufacturing. Its 35 employees have more than 500 years of combined experience providing breakthrough technologies and innovations for clients in aerospace, energy, pharmaceutical, life sciences, biotech, agriscience, off-highway and defense.
Services include engineering, design/build, test/verification and contract manufacturing using state-of-the-art technologies with the goal of accelerating the design and production of clients’ work.
The team has worked with numerous innovations, including synthetic reactors to automate early stage drug discovery for pharmaceutical companies, Electromagnetic Proton Therapy systems for cancer treatment, low-cost solar systems for low-orbit satellite systems and revolutionary boom designs to clean up oil spills.