By Pete Bigelow
From their first day on the job, employees at Dorel Juvenile Group learn to never treat the products they make like just another piece of plastic.
The 950 people who work at the company’s Columbus, Indiana factory work three shifts round the clock to build 4 million child car seats a year. The seats must withstand violent impacts and save the lives of the children sitting in them.
“Overseas, they sell you something, and the employees aren’t tied to what you’re about,” says Mark Evanko, senior vice president of quality control at Dorel. “Here there’s this intrinsic feeling that what I’m assembling is potentially going to save someone’s life. You can’t just go anywhere to get that.”
Ten years ago, Dorel executives considered closing their U.S. operations. The company, by then a subsidiary of Montreal-based Dorel Industries Inc., was under pressure to cut costs by moving to countries with cheaper labor.
But unlike many others companies in the industrial Midwest, company executives chose to stay in America.
Today, Dorel is the largest manufacturer of children’s car seats, and one of the last few to do so in the United States. Instead of leaving, the company reinvented itself. It committed $28 million to install state-of-the-art tooling equipment in 2004. In 2010, it followed with another $10 million investment for a research center.
Some factors no doubt played roles in keeping the company in Columbus: a renegotiated contract with unionized employees, state and local tax incentives, and continuing to import some fabrics from Asia. But the decision to stay ultimately went beyond the bottom line.
It was people who made the difference.
Kelley Clayburn’s ties with this factory go back 60 years. His dad started working here in 1954. Two days after Kelley graduated from high school in 1985, he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Dorel assembly line.
During his almost 30 years with the company, Clayburn has had a first-hand look at the car seat’s evolution from a simplistic contraption to a high-tech product. He remembers when car seats were essentially high chairs with the metal legs chopped off. Now he operates Dorel’s 3-D printers, which have revolutionized the way the company creates new products.
“The changes I’ve seen here, the technology has grown exponentially,” says Clayburn of the factory, which has moved from processing metal to injection molding and now is moving into the future with 3-D printers. "It's going from Fred Flintstone to ‘The Jetsons’ in 20 years.”
In addition to investing in technology, the company has consolidated its operations so engineers can design new products, prototype them, test them, and then turn them over to an assembly line to make the seats all under one roof.
Tony Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and former IndyCar series winner, was born and still lives in Columbus, less than an hour’s drive from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home to the Indy 500.
Until three years ago—despite having a hometown racing champ—Dorel didn’t think much about how drivers racing at 200 miles per hour could help the company build better child car seats.
But through friends in the tight-knit racing community, the company’s engineers had heard about advances in plastics and foams they thought they could adapt to car seats. Through mutual friends, David Amirault, Dorel’s director of product marketing and design, was introduced to the founders of Bald Spot Sports, an Indianapolis company that builds customized cockpits for some of the best race-car drivers in the world.
“There’s a great mountain of information coming out and shared here, just because of where you live or maybe who your neighbor is,” Amirault says of living and working in a state known for its racing roots. “Being here, we had the benefit of that access.”
It looks simple to an untrained eye. But an untrained eye may also see what Dorel makes as just a car seat. Cameron Cobb sees it as a complex energy-management system, in which materials and design play a huge role in determining whether a child lives or dies.
“The material has to do things just right,” he says. “… Anybody can put a block of foam into a car seat, sure you can, but until you understand what you’re trying to do with it, it doesn’t matter."
Sarah Arthur never saw the van coming. It plowed into the driver’s side of her Porsche Cayenne going 50 miles an hour, knocking her unconscious.
When Arthur came to a few seconds after the accident, she briefly forgot her three-month-old daughter was in the back seat. When a bystander asked her if anyone else was in the car, she screamed, “My baby!” With some assistance, she ran to the rear passenger door. Her daughter, Ella Rose, was happily playing with her own hands, safely strapped into her Dorel car seat.
“She had a big smile on her face,” her father, Chris, wrote in a letter to the company. That letter, along with dozens of others recounting similar experiences, is prominently displayed on a bulletin board near the end of the factory's assembly line.
Ella Rose was lucky. Car crashes remain the leading cause of death for children under 12, killing more than 9,000 children between 2002 and 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Side-impact crashes, like the one Ella Rose survived, account for a third of those deaths.
Unlike frontal collisions, which can unfold over 300 milliseconds, side impact crashes are over and done in 89 milliseconds on average. They’re often violent and deadly because the drivers don’t see each other and brake.
“And if you think about it, there’s not much there to protect you,” says Terry Emerson, the company's director of quality assurance, child restraint systems and regulatory affairs.
In front-end collisions, occupants are protected by crumple zones and air bags. In a side-impact crash, there's little more than glass and metal to protect you, although many car companies now include side air bags in vehicles.
In 2002, Congress mandated that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration develop side-impact standards for car seats. Twelve years later, those standards still haven’t been finalized.
Hoping to spur the government to action, Dorel petitioned NHTSA to develop a standard in 2009. The agency denied that petition earlier this year, but in recent months, it has sought public comment on proposed rules that include many standards from Dorel’s petition.
But Emerson isn’t waiting for the government to set standards. He tests 4,500 seats every year in a crash-test lab that rivals those of car companies. His laboratory boasts three full crash-test sleds and 14 crash-test dummies that cost about $120,000 each.
More than car seats, he is testing conventional wisdom about what happens during a car crash.
Many in the industry run tests where a crash-test dummy child and car seat slam into the car door. But what happens in a real crash is precisely the opposite—the door slams into the car seat and child. Knowing how a crash actually unfolds, Dorel has put two small cushions filled with air in the car seat to protect the sides of a child’s head during an impact.
The crash-test lab, just down the hall from Clayburn’s printers and not far from the assembly line, is a powerful reminder for employees that this job isn't just putting pieces of plastic together.
“Not everyone gets to go home at the end of the day and say, ‘I saved lives today,’” says DeBord, the plant’s operations manager. “I want people we have on the floor to understand that. That’s the truth.”
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.
Photography and videography by Joseph Sailer