Autolite: (5) Production Starts

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The manufacturing phase of the spark plug business started in the early part of 1936, after the laboratory samples proved to be satisfactory for Chrysler corporation’s use in their engines. The procedure was to set up a manufaturing plant capable of producing a goal of 10,000 spark plugs per day. The knowledge gained in the laboratory was to be converted to production techniques. A tunnel kiln was designed, bricks were made in the laboratory, and a site was selected.

At thistime, Electric Autolite Corporation had three available vacant plants: Niagara Falls, New York, Columbus, Ohio; and Fostoria, Ohio. The latter was selected, which made Mr. C. O. Miniger happy. This plant had been purchased from the Allen Motor Car Company and was used to manufacture ignition sysstems for the Willys Overland Corporation. In 1928, the purchaser consolidated this whole operation with the Toledo works, leaving the Fostoria plant vacant.

A nunber of reasons for choosing the latter were that it had a new steam generating plant and a single-story manufacturing building shaped like a “cross”, which had been used for machining parts for ignition components. The site was near a adequate gas supply, had ample room for expansion, good parking facilities, fine railrasd connections adjacent to the land, and sufficent labor available. The thinking then was that men were to “clumsy” to do intricate manufacturing and assembling operations for the spark plug and that ladies with “nimble” fingers could do these jobs better. Consequently, over 60 percent of original employees were females.

In order to meet the deadline for starting business quickly, many production operations were performed manually, with the understanding that as the plant progressed, these tasks would be inproved and automated.

The one building shaped as a cross was selected for manufacturing, so that the production phases could be carried out without contaminating the ceramic manufacturing area. The west section adjacent to the railroad was used for the spark plug body manufacturing, the south wing for the shaping of the insulator, the east “arm” for firing and kiln work, and the north part for steel shell processing and assembling. Today, if one looks closely at the roofs of sections, this “cross” can be detected.

In the early days, the spark plug shells were purchased from The Serrick Manufacturing Company of Defiance Ohio, which at this time was a part of the Defiance Spark Plug Company. The electrodes for the spark plugs were purchased from Agnew Electrical Company of Milfork,Michigan, and these and other component parts were so secured until the plant had the capabilities of manufacturing its own. The Fostoria Machine and Tool Company on East Crocker Street, Fostoria, owned by Robert Francis, served as a tool room facility.

The expansion of plant activities required hiring additional men: Sam Churchman as Procuction Manager; Douglas (Doug) Gregory and Robert (Bob) Christie for the Development Laboratory; Clarence (Cap) Rowe, formerly an Army Captain, as Production Planner; and Alexander (Alex) Alexander, as Head of Materials’ Control Laboratory. Shortly after, Fred Reardon was secured as a quality Control man, with a Scotchman, named John MacKillop.

Upon selecting Fostoria as the “home” for the Electric Autolite Spark Plug, the building chosen for manufacturing procedures was completely renovcated, and a lay-out was made positioning all necessary esquiptment, which was rapidly being designed and built. At this stage, it was still necessary to have close security.

Inasmuch as the time was near the end of the “great depression” of the 1930’s countless people learned that a plant was being started in Fostoria and applied for work, willing to do anything for a job, really not knowing the exact nature of the new plant’s business.

Well does the author recall that the original laboratory group worked day and night, including Sundays and holidays, not only in Toledo’s workshop, but in Fostoria, to set up the machinery in the plant and solve the countless problems.

The targed date to begin production was to be the early summer of 1936. At that time a team of engineers and purchasing officers from Chrysler came to Fostoria, with the Toledo Electric Autolite Officals, to review the capabilities of the plant’s satisfying the former’s needs for supplying spark plugs for their company. They were completely satisfied with their findings, and issued orders for their requirements.

Concurrently, pressures were being applied by the Toledo Electric Autolite sales group, as they wished to sell spark plugs through their central distributing organization to the after-market, and wanted them without delay. Hence, the new plant was planning an expansion program doubling the production, even before the original goal of 10,000 spark plugs per day was reached. Therefore, it was already necessary to add to the manufacturing building in order to utilize more equipment for this increase in prouction, Whenever any expansinon anywhere in the factory took place, it required rearrangement practically in every department. “Time” and “Pressure” were key factors in these expansions, as the country was feeling the effects of the on-coming World War II rearmament.

Originally, Fostoria’s manufactory was organized as a department of the Toledo plant, in order to control cost of executive supervision. This involved phases in purchasing, accounting, product development, planning, sales, personnel, plant engineering, production controls, etc.

It soon became evident that the plant could not be operated by “remote control”, so, at this time, Robert Twells moved to Fostoria as Plant Manager, along with the original laboratory personnel, who then took managerial positions in the firm. All main functions came to Fostoria, except the product design and development and sales. Mr. Twells brought with him the ceramic development function.

It would be necessary to manufacture all component parts of the spark plug in Fostoria to control costs, and the equipment was secured to do so. Floor space was gained by absorbing the old Peabody Buggy Works, with machinery on the ground floor, and the offices and laboratories from the original manufaacturing building were moved to the second floor. The service departments, such as electrical and mechanical maintenance, the machine shop, the screw machines welders, and other equipment for processing shells and electrodes also occupied part of the ground floor. The third floor of the building was used primarily for carton storage.

It had been planned to demolish the Peabody Buggy Works building, and replace it with a new structure, However, because of the scarcity of materials, this could not be accomplished.

To keep up production schedules, many rearrangements had to be accomplished over weekends or on holidays. Outside riggers were hired to supplement the plant’s maintenance crew, working continuously without a break, from Friday night to Monday morning, or full time over a holiday.