Known as Furniture City since the early 20th century, Grand Rapids is no stranger to manufacturing. But with 2,452 manufacturers, the region has diversified its manufacturing base well beyond the furniture industry. This is the first in a two-A Grand Investment logopart series on manufacturing in West Michigan. Check back next month for an inside look at a few of our global manufacturers.

Furniture City has evolved into a diverse manufacturing mecca

As early as the 1830s, Grand Rapids was recognized as the leading producer of fine residential furniture in the world. By the mid-1900s, office furniture had begun to eclipse residential production and now accounts for the vast majority of furniture production in the region. Industry giants Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth, mainstays of the West Michigan manufacturing landscape for decades, collectively generated over $7 billion in annual sales in 2016.

Despite this, they are not the only titans of manufacturing in the region. With over 141,315 manufacturing jobs and 2,452 manufacturers in West Michigan, this is hardly a region dependent upon a handful of companies or a single industry.

What distinguishes West Michigan as an ideal region for manufacturing? Experts point to diversity and collaboration.

Manufacturing thrives in West Michigan because it is highly diversified. Unlike the branded giants of the office furniture industry, the majority of today’s West Michigan manufacturers are vital components in the supply chain for a wide range of industries, including office furniture, automotive, medical devices, food processing, and aerospace and defense. That diversity demands agility and know how.

Veneer companies, foundries, metal stampers, plastics, and wood product manufacturers, and tool & die are all part of the mix.

West Michigan’s global manufacturers supply customers with everything from circuit boards and medical devices, to personal care products, to bullet-proof composites for military and industrial vehicles, to smart rearview mirrors that automatically control a vehicle’s high beam headlights. Grand Rapids’ thriving craft beer industry has even driven manufacturing innovation, with one small startup designing and manufacturing a tool that allows breweries and cideries to can their own beverages for carry out directly from their taproom bars.

Inside Medbio in West Michigan
Medbio: Photo Courtesy of The Right Place, Inc.

Collaboration advances manufacturing efficiency, innovation and investment

But beyond diverse capabilities, the West Michigan manufacturing sector thrives on something less expected – collaboration.

The Right Place/MMTC-West Manufacturers Council – a group of nearly 50 manufacturing leaders plus presidents of area colleges and universities – collaborates to promote, facilitate and advocate for “best-in-class” manufacturing throughout the region. Competitors and colleagues, alike, meet monthly at one another’s facilities to tour, problem solve, discuss best practices and share lessons learned.

Taking their lead from the Manufacturers Council, various manufacturing industries have formed their own councils and collaboratives to innovate, take advantage of complementary skill sets, create efficiencies, and attract investment and talent. 

MiDevice, for example, is comprised of 28 leading medical device manufacturers and suppliers in Michigan. According to The Right Place, the regional economic development organization that convened the group, “MiDevice is the only Michigan-based organization dedicated to medical device design, development, manufacturing, and distribution. The consortium works to speed the growth and development of medical devices by emphasizing and encouraging collaboration among members to meet overall product lifecycle and supply chain needs. The goal is to build collaboration around core competencies, create opportunities to leverage these competencies, and ultimately grow the medical device industry in the region into a nationally recognized medical device cluster.”

One recent collaboration brought Grand Rapids-based medical device company INRAD and contract medical device manufacturer MediSurge together to expand product offerings and increase manufacturing efficiencies. As part of a collaborative agreement, MediSurge will hire INRAD manufacturing, operators and quality-assurance staff to get the job done.

Similarly, West Michigan’s Aerospace and Defense industry has pooled its strengths through participation in the Michigan Defense Center. The MDC formed in 2006 to target statewide defense and homeland security opportunities for Michigan businesses. The aerospace and defense industry in Grand Rapids has thrived in this collaborative environment, earning a spot as one of the most diverse aerospace and defense material supply chains in the country.

Machine inside Amerikam in West Michigan
Amerikam: Photo Courtesy of The Right Place, Inc.

Growing strong and hiring

Growth in manufacturing throughout the region does not appear to be letting up anytime soon.  

The medical device industry, for instance, employs over 2,500 people in West Michigan with the number of jobs growing at a rate of 5.3 percent compared to a national growth rate of 0.5 percent. Whether pioneering production of component parts or shepherding products from concept to market, West Michigan medical device manufacturers like Medbio, Aspen Surgical and Autocam Medical, demonstrate the full range of design innovation and manufacturing capabilities.

Automotive manufacturing enjoyed 34 percent job growth in West Michigan between 2009 and 2014, compared to 18.7 percent nationwide. The number of aerospace and defense manufacturing jobs grew by 13.5 percent in that same period – nearly double the national rate –  with West Michigan food processors seeing a 16.2 percent job growth rate, 12 times the national rate.

Between 2009 and 2014, the region enjoyed 23 percent overall growth in manufacturing jobs. Companies like SpartanNash,  Dicastal North America, Plasan North America, INglass S.p.A., AvaSure and Irwin Seating have invested over $194 million in the region and created more than 1,000 jobs just within the last five years.

Manufacturing exports – valued at $8 billion in 2015 – are on the rise, too, growing at a rate of 13.4 percent, twice the national average.

With the power of diversity and collaboration fueling its growth, the Grand Rapids manufacturing sector has turned Furniture City into one of the best places to make just about anything in the world.

Workers on the factory line inside ADAC Automotive in West Michigan
ADAC Automotive: Photo Courtesy of The Right Place, Inc.

A Grand Investment is an ongoing series exploring the business landscape of Grand Rapids. Michigan’s fastest growing metro area and one of the nation’s strongest economies, Grand Rapids is fueled by a creative, collaborative spirit that generates global, national and entrepreneurial investment. This series highlights leading sectors of the local economy and underscores the city’s suitability for innovation-focused meetings.