In the middle of a pandemic, AAON Heating and Cooling Products in Longview pushed forward with an expansion.

Now, the company is planning more improvements and growth at its South Longview manufacturing facility, even as it deals with the ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19. The company makes commercial heating and air conditioning units.

“We opened up our new 220,000-square-foot building, fully functional, in March of this year,” said Gene Stewart, president of AAON in Longview. Construction began in 2019. “What we did in a COVID year — we invested $40 million in a new building while most of our HVAC competitors scaled back. We elected to stay open and also invest $40 million in infrastructure, which is the new building. We have reasons we did that.

“There was a demand for our product. There was an immediate need in the health care industry to produce units that would meet the needs of hospital or medical facilities throughout the country. We stayed extremely busy producing units for those types of facilities.”

The new facility moves AAON into a new era in Longview, one where the company was able to intentionally plan a facility that met its needs.

“The other facility — it is very hodgepodge,’ said Doug Wichman, the company’s Tulsa-based director of manufacturing. He spends about every other week in Longview. “It’s one structure with an addition here and an addition there to keep up with our growth.”

The company has always prided itself on having zero debt, Wichman said, and the expansion was built without it, too. Local incentives from the Longview Economic Development Corp., city of Longview and Gregg County helped drive the project.

“The facility was actually kind of a big leap for us,” Wichman said. “We didn’t have to hodgepodge. We didn’t have to build an addition onto something existing. We could just start from the ground up and building something ideal to begin with.”

The end result is a modern, spacious facility that basically doubled AAON’s capacity on Gum Springs Road with a footprint that “flows and makes sense.”

“All three of the product lines you’ll see came from the old facility, but they were just crammed in that old facility,” Wichman said. “It’s a lot more open, a lot more visual as far as they flow goes.”

The building is heated and cooled.

“This isn’t one of those scenarios where the cobbler’s kids don’t have shoes,” Wichman said.

The building was built with three solid walls and one sheet metal wall on the west side to make a planned future expansion easier. It was designed so the new facility could be duplicated when the need arises, something company officials said already is being planned.

The nine production lines were designed to run north to south, with a machine that uses a laser to cut parts and machines that punch out the patterns in sheet metal.

AAON’s heating air conditioning units are “semi-custom,” and its manufacturing equipment uses “soft tooling” that allows the parts on the machines to be easily changed out to make the various pieces of different units.

“There’s very little limitation to them,” Wichman said, explaining that a “bunch of little tools combine to make these parts.” “We can change design on the fly. We can make modifications on the fly. We don’t have to invest in hard tooling,” which can take as much as six months, for instance, to be delivered.

“That definitely helps the customization side,” he said.

AAON also is working to modernize the older part of the facility, changing out technology from the ‘70s and ‘80s so that it removes some of the opportunities for human error, making the process less labor intensive and improving the “employee experience.”

“Now that we’ve got this in place, we’re going through that entire facility and trying to bring it up to the same facility (as the expansion), Wichman said. “We don’t want an east versus west thing going on there.”

In addition to opening the expansion, AAON has spent the past year focusing on what Wichman called the “employee experience.” The company employs about 500 people locally, but company officials said they need about 50 to 100 people more.

AAON has raised wages to help address the hiring difficulties most companies are reporting and likely will be raising pay again, Stewart said.

“We’re probably going to end up looking at that again because we have to stay competitive in the marketplace...” he said. “It’s a fine balance to show profitability and retain good people.”

AAON, which operates 24 hours a day, also added a four-day, 10-hour shift option for its coil operations, which had been operating with two-day shifts. Wichman said the shift proved attractive.

“There’s a lot of people out in this area who don’t have that schedule option like that,” he said. “We opened that up and had over 150 applicants in three days.”

Despite hiring challenges, Stewart said the company has been “successful” hiring people, and he’s pleased with the number of new candidates who have expressed an interest in working there.

Wichman said the company’s “foot is on the gas pedal, and everyone is engaged.”

“There’s a lot going on and a lot more that is going to be on,” he said. “We’re all excited.”

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