Based out of Madison, Wis., Sub-Zero Group, Inc. is a rare third-generation, family-owned company that was founded as the Sub-Zero Freezer Company in 1945. Since then, the company has made innumerous leaps and bounds, not only on a corporate level, but from a design perspective as well. Having acquired the residential side of commercial kitchen company Wolf in 2000, the company is bigger than ever with a host of newly announced innovations still on the way.
“It’s a family business, and family is at the center of everything we do,” said Jim Bakke, president and CEO of Sub-Zero Group, Inc. in a statement announcing the company’s 70th anniversary. “That sets us apart in the appliance industry. Since my grandfather, Westye F. Bakke, established the company, it has operated on the belief that if you make the highest-quality product, you’ll always have customers.”
But what makes Sub-Zero- and Wolf-branded appliances any better than the mélange of other options inundating the market today? That’s exactly what I set out to discover when I attended a tour of the company’s approximately 400,000-sq.-ft. Arizona manufacturing plant – held last week during the company’s 2013-2014 Kitchen Design Contest.
1) As several industry notables and I were led into the impressive desert facility, we couldn’t help but notice how starkly clean it was, despite churning out an estimated 350 units/day – a big jump from the approximate 180 units/day the location was producing when it debuted in 2011. The factory was built to replace a 165,000-sq.-ft. plant just outside of Phoenix.
2) The plant tour began in the fabrications area, where we were introduced to the handcrafted process behind Sub-Zero’s product. With the exception of various small parts, all Sub-Zero appliances and components are made at one of the company’s several U.S. factories. This in and of itself differentiates the manufacturer in a day and age where all too many have resorted to outsourcing.
3) Run by an advanced computer program that allows it to make style changes in seconds, a massive machine in the cutting facility uses five lasers to cut steel sheets. These will form the bodies of various refrigeration units.
4) An expansive area is dedicated solely to plastic fabrications. Here, skilled tradesmen create door liners, face frames and small parts that are molded and trimmed before being sent to assembly.
5) Falling in line with the company’s sustainability ethos, plastic scraps are fed into a grinding unit that pulverizes them into pellets that will be melted down and reused.
6) New-generation units are made with coiled steel, which is shaped using an automated system.
7) A rectangular slot is cut to mark the impending placement of glass sheets that will front refrigerator doors. This steel cutout is also recycled.
8) In the assembly-line area, workers begin putting together the pieces they have made while paying close attention to detail. Any misjudgment at this stage of the process could result in an entire unit needing to be scrapped (though they assured us this rarely happens).
9) Doors are assembled and equipped with insulation.
10) Before they can move forward with the assembly process, units must be tested to ensure they are fully operational. If an error is found at this stage, the unit must be repaired and tested again. Because of the high level of detail-oriented craftsmanship that goes into their creation, approximately 95 percent of units test successfully on the first try.
11) Toward the end of the tour, we were guided through an immense storage area where parts made elsewhere are kept for use at a later date.
As my group and I waited for those remaining to complete their tour, I found respite in the reception area, where fiery red, glass-like chandeliers hang in reference to the company’s Wolf-branded ranges. These elegant fixtures were only a modest foreshadow of the location’s true boon: a streamlined plant with a real-time order system that feeds directly into the assembly line. With thoughtfully sustainable products made right here in the U.S., this family-owned company is really on to something.
This video (link or embed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nm1AMm-O49g) from the group’s recently launched “Reclaim the Kitchen” initiative perfectly sums up the company’s mission: to help families get back to the heart of the home with appliances as unique as the people who use them.