• Image Credit: Joseph Sailer
  • Image Credit: Joseph Sailer
  • Image Credit: Joseph Sailer
  • Image Credit: Joseph Sailer
  • Image Credit: Joseph Sailer
  • Image Credit: Joseph Sailer
  • Image Credit: Joseph Sailer
  • Image Credit: Joseph Sailer
  • Image Credit: Joseph Sailer
  • Image Credit: Joseph Sailer
  • Image Credit: Joseph Sailer

"What I'm assembling is potentially going to save someone's life. You can't just go anywhere to get that." – Mark Evanko

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 four million child car seats a year. The seats must withstand violent impacts and save the lives of the children sitting in them.

That responsibility remains at the forefront of every decision the company makes – from the type of plastic and foam it uses to investing in technology inspired by the auto racing industry. These seats could be made outside the US for less money, but Dorel makes it a point to look beyond the bottom line.

"Overseas, they sell you something, and the employees aren't tied to what you're about," said 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." {C}

One Company, Nine Family Members, an Incredible Product

Dorel is one of the last children's car seat manufacturers left in the United States.

Ten years ago, Dorel executives considered closing their US 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.

"It was pretty close," says Gary Pruitt, executive vice president of operations, who sat through tense meetings about a potential relocation in 2003 and 2004. "At the time, everybody was chasing low-cost manufacturing. The exodus was happening. All our competitors went overseas."

A closure would have been devastating for Columbus, a town of just over 44,000 residents. Generations of Columbus families have worked in the plant since it opened in 1935 as Columbus Specialty Company to manufacture stovetop equipment. In the early 1940s, it shortened its name to Cosco and transitioned to making children's products in 1949. The first car seats came off the line in 1972, and Dorel bought Cosco in 1987, renaming it Dorel Juvenile Group.

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.

30 years ago, car seats were essentially high chairs with the metal legs chopped off.

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.

Chapter One: People Not Plastic

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 firsthand 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 3D printers, which have revolutionized the way the company creates new products.

Guiding the two printers, Clayburn can build and test prototypes of new car seat designs in about three days, down from the six weeks it used to take. And he can use a variety of materials in the printers to test different plastics.

"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 3D printers. "It's going from Fred Flintstone to The Jetsons in 20 years."

Dorel Juvenile Group

Drivers racing at 200 miles per hour help the company build better child car seats.

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.

Manufacturing starts with colorless plastic pellets unloaded from train cars. The pellets are pumped through overhead pipes into machines that melt, mold and turn them into newly formed plastic parts, which are snapped together by employees along the assembly line.

"And we keep our quality hub right in the middle of the floor to make sure it's all done right," says Kenny DeBord, the plant's operations manager. "If there's something wrong, we don't send an email about it. We're right there."

Chapter Two: Racing to a Better Seat

Tony Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and former IndyCar 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 racecar drivers in the world.

Dorel Juvenile Group

Material and design choices play a huge role in determining whether a child lives or dies.

"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."

The company's founders, Travis and Cameron Cobb, knew if they could create racecar interiors that save drivers from death, they could help create a safer car seat. They came up with a honeycomb-shaped pattern that is imprinted throughout foam that now lines the plastic housing of many of Dorel's seats. The pattern helps spread the G-forces that occur in a car crash.

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."

Chapter Three: Setting a Safety Standard

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.

Dorel Juvenile GroupDorel Juvenile GroupDorel Juvenile GroupDorel Juvenile Group

Car crashes remain the leading cause of death for children under age 12.

Ella Rose was lucky. Car crashes remain the leading cause of death for children under age 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 thus do not react.

"And if you think about it, there's not much there to protect you," says Terry Emerson, Dorel Juvenile Group's director of quality assurance, child restraint systems and regulatory affairs.

In front-end collisions, crumple zones and airbags protect occupants. In a side-impact crash, there's much less impact-absorbing structure to protect you, although new vehicles now include side airbags.

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 into 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.

Dorel Juvenile GroupDorel Juvenile Group

"I saved lives today... That's the truth." – Kenny DeBord

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."

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      Great to see a manufacturing company strengthening its roots in the US! Amazing what can happen when employees and management work together and have a genuine interest in their product. If only the masses would start to value US manufactured product a bit more, and realize the enhanced product and social value.... We had a brand new vehicle written off a couple of years ago when we were rear-ended at a stoplight by a drunk who didn't even touch the brakes. My kids were 7 months and 2 years old then and thanks to vehicle and child safety seat engineering they were both completely unharmed - made me glad I didn't skimp on their seats and had options beyond a 'high chair with the legs cut off"!!!
      • 1 Year Ago
      How about technology that scrambles cell phones while the engine is running? Pay attention to the road and stop killing people!
      • 1 Year Ago
      Great article. The truth of the matter is, Cosco seats, despite being made in the US, are actually price competitive with all the other brands of car seats. So it is definitely not true that we have to outsource everything to China.
        • 1 Year Ago
        Pre is not always indicative of quality nor is the country of origin.Manyparts from so-called American companies are outsourced but claim made in the usa.In this day and age very little is 100% made in the USA.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Awesome read, im glad they chose to stay US made, also they have our children in mind as they are manufacturing. We cannot help or stop what other are going to do, no matter how bad we try. It is good to know that their are companies out there looking out for our best interest.
      SCOTT !!!!!!!!
      • 1 Year Ago
      Love how the information is coming out of NASCAR....but the lead on the Article reads Indy car? Lolol....Huffington Post doesn't want to give the great unwashed of NASCAR any credit in the LEAD....lolol. Gosh forbid that a sport that is seen as only watched by the right is donating so much to our safety..lolol.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Too bad they don't give any credit to NASA where most of the material came from
      • 1 Year Ago
      all the high technology is a quarantee for a safe trip,i think it mostly depends on putting down their damn "smart" phones and actually driving smart,no distractions,just common sense thinking that most of us seem not to have sometimes.i have no children,but have heard of child seats installed incorrectly,people can go the nearest fire station I thought,and if they are not busy running emergency calls,they might be able to help you out.
      • 1 Year Ago
      I have been saying for decades that to make me safer, I want a strong seat that fits (i.e. not one that fits a 300 pounder) and really tight belts. Instead, I am offered more air bags and belts that fit me too loosely across the chest. If air bags were the answer, why aren't they in racecars?
      • 1 Year Ago
      ... and thank you for staying in America...
      • 1 Year Ago
      keep up the good work...what a fulfilling endeavor....
      • 1 Year Ago
      tax incentives for the company, so seems that states know that when you reduce the tax burden on companies they might stay, conversely states are looking to poach businesses by offering as NY is, 10 years of tax free business time. And not to mention runaway movie production. So everyone except the feds, and B.O. knows that high taxes destroy business incentives
      • 1 Year Ago
      American quality the best in the world as the father of seven and grampa to12 great grampa to 5 we have always used your american products thank you for being a true icon of caring and intelligence thanks also for keeping americans employed with living wage jobs and benefits
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