NEW HAMPTON — The ATEK Metal Technologies building occupies 80,000 square feet on the edge of town. Even though the building’s size hasn’t grown in the 11 years the company has been located there, within the four walls the business has been an ever-expanding enterprise.
“We’re using it. We’re using every bit of it,” said Mark Bradley, ATEK Metal Technologies vice president of operations, on a tour of the facility Thursday.
“Mark has had to be very creative to get it all in here,” added Tom Christie, the company’s president.
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That’s because in the past three years, particularly as it has ramped up a production line with Harley Davidson, the facility has added new equipment, new production lines and grown its capacity.
“We’ve done quite a bit of work. We haven’t had to expand the building, but we have added a lot of capacity, so we’ve added about 60 percent to our molding capacity,” Christie said.
It also has utilized newer technologies to more precisely and more quickly get a product’s specifications correct and get a production line going.
Within the past three years, it’s added precision machining capabilities — with two machines operational and one coming on board this fall — and grown its heat treatment, melting, quality testing and scanning capacity, along with the molding capacity, so it can better serve its customers’ needs.
“What that does is gives us the capacity to continue to grow, and we’re working hard to continue to grow the company,” Christie said, adding there are no plans at this point to grow the building’s size.
Around 2014, the company discovered Harley Davidson, its biggest customer, planned to do an overhaul of its engine systems and wanted to continue to work with ATEK to manufacture the cylinder heads, which had to be designed anew to fit the new engines.
While work had been going on behind the scenes during that time, it wasn’t until June 2016 that Harley unveiled its Milwaukee-Eight engine when ATEK could tout its role in the development. Work continued to expand as it announced in August that engine would be going in another Harley line.
“I’m very proud of that. Out of northeastern Iowa, we’re kind of the heart and soul of the Harley engine,” Christie said.
ATEK develops cylinder heads that contribute to Harley making about 5,000 Milwaukee-Eight engines each week. Bradley said that’s likely to be about the peak of production for the engines.
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But he said the company’s model is to maintain a level load for its employees, so there are not major hiring swings. It currently employs about 140 people, which is similar to its number before adding capacity, but manages the work load so it’s steady throughout the year even as production lines change.
While Harley is a major customer and one that’s not likely to slow too much, Christie said it’s important for the company to diversify its work. Some of the new capacity has allowed them to manufacture more varieties of metal casts for companies that include parts for boats, other motorcycles and cars, among others.
While Christie is happy to tout the new technologies, he also stresses it’s only one component. The other key is employees.
“We really feel like the people is what makes the difference and makes us competitive,” Christie said.
The company has struggled at times to keep employees because the low unemployment rate means there’s a demand for workforce. But it has offered incentives like a profit-sharing program, opportunities to get more training and a healthier, happier work environment to keep turnover at a minimum.
“It’s great for Iowa that the unemployment rate is so low; that’s a good thing. We just have to work very hard to find and retain the best talent,” Christie said. “But we’re comfortable that we can do that.”