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In many ways, the Bradford Soap Works plant in Columbus resembles other manufacturing facilities: Conveyors move raw product from one machine to another as employees flit in and out of the lines to hit this button, pull that lever or stack products so they can be placed in a warehouse.
The one thing that separates the Bradford plant, at 7667 S. International Drive, from the others: the scent.
Notes of lavender, peach and vanilla infused the production floor on a recent visit, as anything from the soap base to finished product were moving down conveyors.
The plant, part of West Warwick, R.I.-based Bradford Soap Works, produces bar soap, primarily Dove and Caress, for the North American market. It employs nearly 100 and produces about 12 million bars of soap per month.
Plant manager Tim Johns, who has worked at the plant for six years, said he does not notice the smell anymore; although, when he leaves work, other people do.
Johns said that when he leaves work to go to a sporting event for his children, his mother refuses to sit next to him on the bleachers because his clothes exude such a strong dose of perfume.
The scent in the plant is expected to gain intensity the next few weeks, as employees are preparing the addition of a fourth production line, in response to consumers asking for more — and a greater variety of — bar soap.
A new conveyor was snaking through the production plant to divert soap bars from Line 1 to the side to make room for the soon-to-be added fourth line. The Columbus City Council last month approved a tax abatement for Bradford for a $1.2 million expansion, which includes the fourth production line and 22 new employees.
Johns also emphasized that Bradford and clients, which buy the tooling, have invested an additional $1 million in the local operations this year.
Demand has increased but also changed, Johns said.
As the factory produces a greater variety of soaps, capacity declines. And as demand increases, Bradford has to invest to increase capacity.
Five years ago, the local plant made about 25 different soaps. Last year, the figure jumped to 78.
A few years ago, liquid soaps were expected to take market share from the bar soaps, but Johns said that Dove continues to grow 3 percent every year.
The 40,000-square-foot facility is divided into essentially equal parts warehouse and production floor. For production, sacks of noodle-shaped soap base are lifted to the mezzanine, where they are mixed with color and fragrances and dropped into a mixing machine. The machine also presses the mixture and expels it much like an oversized sausage maker. From there, the soap mixture is crumbled between two giant rollers for further mixing and to remove grittiness.
A conveyer takes the crumbles to a plodder, a two-stage refiner. In the first stage, the plodder presses the mixture through a metal screen, again to improve the mixture, but also to heat the product to make it more malleable.
The second stage, the extrusion, produces a billet, or slug, which is essentially a long piece of soap. The billet is cut into about 3-foot sections, scanned to make sure they contain no metal and fed into a pneumatic press that creates about 10 bars of soap from each billet. Excess soap is fed back into the plodder.
A conveyor takes the finished bars to the packaging machine, which places the bars into a carton. Next, a glue gun, with rhythmic hammering, seals both ends. Depending on the end market, the bars are combined into packs of two, four or eight, wrapped in cellophane and placed in boxes.
Columbus native Greg Hensley, who joined the company in 1995 when it was formed as Hewitt Soap Co., said the plant has changed quite a bit in the past 20 years. When he began, as a soap and soap-base maker, the plant covered only 20,000 square feet and had no warehouse. The plant employed just 17 people. And its technology was much less efficient: At the time, employees had to make a billet for every single piece of soap. Today, a pneumatic press turns a three-foot-long billet into about 10 bars of soap.
When Hensley buys soap, his choice is clear, he said.
“It’s always a Dove or Caress product.”
On vacation with his family — wife, Stephanie, and children Makayla, 11, Connor, 7, and Caidan, 5 — he always looks for soap made in Columbus. He said it is nice to be able to see the products and tell the kids, “Hey, this one was made at Daddy’s factory.”
The employees from the local plant can tell their products by a code on the packaging.
And, Johns added with a grin, “We can also tell by the quality.”
Hensley, who has served as first-shift production supervisor since 2003, said he has stayed with the company because of the clean and simple work, the potential for expansion and advancement and the virtually recession-proof business.
“Bar soap production doesn’t seem to slow down … even when the economy was down,” Hensley said.
Johns said people might switch to a less expensive brand during a downturn, but they always come back.
The local plant is making preparations for the new line and is looking for manufacturing and warehouse employees, including some who are unskilled.
“We understand nobody’s going to come in with experience making soap,” Johns said with a laugh.
The company does pay attention to a stable employment history, he said.
Johns said the company wants to hire people now to get them trained, so that the fourth line can deliver product in early January.
WHAT: Bradford Soap Works plant in Columbus
WHERE: 7667 S. International Drive
MAKES: Bar soap, primarily Dove and Caress brands
EMPLOYS: About 100
MONTHLY PRODUCTION: 12 million bars of soap
EXPANSION: Adding fourth production line at a cost of about $1.2 million, which will add 22 employees; production to commence in January
PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYEES: Can call 342-6854 or come to the plant to fill out an application; hourly rates for manufacturing employees start at $11.50 and include health benefits
PARENT COMPANY: West Warwick, R.I.-based Bradford Soap Works
EMPLOYS: More than 700
CUSTOMERS INCLUDE: Amway, Mary Kay, L’Oreal, Clinique, Aveda
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