Johnson Health Tech R&D center nearing reality

A global design center that will house teams from Matrix, Vision, Horizon and their parent Johnson Health Tech should be up and running by December in a first-of-its-kind attempt to bring together the best of both overseas manufacturing and U.S. design in a way that improves communication and speed-to-market.
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A global design center that will house teams from Matrix, Vision, Horizon and their parent Johnson Health Tech should be up and running by December in a first-of-its-kind attempt to bring together the best of both overseas manufacturing and U.S. design in a way that improves communication and speed-to-market.

"It's sort of the think-tank mentality," said Tom Moran, director of the center and vice president of engineering for Johnson Health Tech North America, as the new business branch is called. "We're building a new culture."

Moran has been working out of the Madison, Wis., area since July to find a building, design a concept, and hire about two dozen engineers and technicians, many of whom will be assigned to work with one of Johnson's three companies in the center, while others such as a model shop manager and a new technology manager will work company-wide. Already, two major hires are on board: Ron Carringi, who will be the engineering manager for the Matrix group and comes from Life Fitness; and John Roessler, who will be the engineering manager for the Vision group and comes from Burdick, a division of Quinton.

Moran was a vice president of engineering at Precor and had worked since November 2001 as vice president of product development for Watermark, the company that owns Yakima and leading watersports brands such as Perception and Dagger. His job is to facilitate the groups -- both left- and right-brain types -- to work together, to think outside-the-box and to be creative and independent.

"Our reason for being is to bring up the level of engineering across the whole Johnson group," Moran said from a temporary cubicle at the Vision Fitness office in Lake Mills, east of Madison. The R&D center, which has been on the drawing board since January, will be closer to Madison than Vision in Lake Mills (about 30 minutes to the east) or Horizon's headquarters in DeForest (about 35 minutes to the north). A 12,000-square-foot building in a new industrial area just minutes from town has been selected and the same designer who worked on the Vision Fitness headquarters is also working to come up with an innovative look from an architectural perspective.

Engineers from the Johnson headquarters in China will work in the R&D center on one-year rotations to help both U.S. and Chinese engineers better understand each other and communicate, Moran said.

About half the 12,000-square-foot space will be for manufacturing of prototypes and models; that way, the company can build something on-site based on a concept to see if it's feasible or will work.

"We can do a lot more research," Moran said. "And there should be some spirited interaction between the groups."

Although each of the three company's pods will be separate, there will be no Great Wall between any of them. Moran and Nathan Pyles, Johnson's North American director of brands, will oversee the R&D concept. Product managers from each company's off-site offices will still come up with their own proprietary ideas, and will then bring them to the center for brainstorming and manufacturing -- with "a lot of ebb and flow" expected, Moran said. Although ideas will still be unique to each company, technology eventually developed could then be shared in different ways as appropriate to each brand's niche and demographic.

Now, most companies based in North America that have Asian manufacturing spend a lot of time shipping designs back and forth and having managers travel back and forth, too. But the end results aren't always as intended or imagined because of the cultural and communication gap. That wastes money and time, and forces a longer lag before products can get to market. Getting everybody into the same room, Pyles and Moran have said, can help all three companies move to the front of the fitness industry more quickly, with more products.

This center could push Johnson closer toward its ambitious goal of being one of the top three companies in the fitness industry in the world by 2008, relying mostly on organic growth. Currently, Johnson, which is headquartered in Tai Chung, China, but also has a factory in Shanghai, has about 1,900 employees in Asia. Founded in 1975, Johnson's revenues have grown about 30 percent or more in each of the last five years, with most of that growth in the United States. The great opportunity in the industry, Pyles has said, is for a truly global company that offers the best of both worlds -- Asian manufacturing with the R&D and development in the United States. And that is what this center could bring.

"We can do a lot more research, and come up with the next new thing," Moran said. "We're really going to be the great innovator … and get what we set out to get."

SNEWS View: We will lay money there is some trepidation at each of the three companies -- especially the two in the Madison area -- about too much closeness. But we believe this will be good all the way around and is an idea that other companies will watch quite closely. In fact, it's a model for the industry as its players take one teeny step toward communication in a way that can allow everybody to grow and to improve. It's even a model for other industries that have Asian manufacturing and deal with the same communication and efficiency issues. Moran is seemingly an utterly perfect match for the job. Not only did he go to high school and college in Madison and still has family there (although after being gone for nearly two decades, he admitted he's not looking forward to the Wisconsin winter), but he is also a bit of a left-brain engineer type who can actually work with right-brainers and allow them to progress on their own in their very different ways. This R&D center has been called a place where engineers and designers get to do the cool stuff -- all the tinkering, dreaming and conceiving that makes the business fun.

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