Mercury Marine christened a new $24 million facility to expand its production capacity Monday, marking the company's fifth expansion project in Fond du Lac since 2009.
This 49,000-square-foot electro-deposition paint (EDP) expansion project doubles Mercury's capacity to coat engine components in corrosion-resistant chemicals. The company has been upgrading operations in recent years to capitalize on growth in demand for four-stroke engines and growth in saltwater markets.
"Almost everything we make in this plant goes through this system," said Mercury Marine President John Pfeifer. "Think of this as the spinal cord for this manufacturing operation. Every assembly line, every machining line, feeds into this EDP system. So it affects everything."
Since 2009, Mercury has spent about $730 million on research and development and capital investments, including its main foundry, die-casting, machining and assembly operations. Meanwhile, the company is working on a new aluminum machining operation across Pioneer Road, and a new assembly line operation at its Fond du Lac campus.
While upgrades to its manufacturing capabilities will hold the company over for 10 years or so, the EDP facility should last 20 years or more. About 90 percent of the work on this project was completed by Wisconsin-based contractors, including Excel Engineering and CD Smith, the company said.
This EDP project, however, will not bring many more jobs to Fond du Lac. Most of the EDP process is automated, as machines dip head-high racks of engine components into a series of "chemical baths" to wash and seal parts from the elements, Pfeifer said.
The new plant may help Mercury add jobs elsewhere, though. A three-decade-old EDP plant has been the company's biggest production hurdle in recent years, Pfeifer said. More production here means more work elsewhere in the company.
"There's not a one-for-one increase in jobs with this new facility," Pfeifer said. "It allows us to grow to meet the needs of the market. That will add jobs."
Steve Jenkins, president of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corporation, said Mercury's investment in a highly-automated EDP facility reflects manufacturing's shift to fewer, though higher-skilled, workers.
"People need to understand that manufacturing, in order to be competitive, has to automate," Jenkins said. "Look at what's happened here since 2009: Mercury has doubled the employment, there's $730 million invested in the Fond du Lac facility. But you're going to see over time, higher-skilled workers and and a fewer number of workers and more automation. It's the nature of manufacturing."
Mercury Marine's growth has been critical to the Fond du Lac community and companies that supply the engine-maker, said Fond du Lac County Executive Allen Buechel. Though the Fond du Lac campus employs about half of Mercury's workforce — 3,000 of the company's 6,000 workers — about 10,000 jobs are created across the region from the engine-maker's presence here, Buechel said.
Mercury's continued investment in its Fond du Lac headquarters signals its intent to stay, and marks a "heck of a return" for Fond du Lac County's investment in them eight years ago, Buechel said.
"We couldn't have expected this much," Buechel said. "We knew Mercury would do well, and it was a great group of people. But we never expected this."