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Ron & Donna Miller - Publishers

From Footballs To Cars, Tours Show How
American Products Are Made

Almost as much a national holiday in February as President’s Day is Super Bowl Sunday. Even those who don’t care much for the game find themselves intrigued by the creative commercials that are broadcast on TV or enjoy the “Super Sales” that stores provide.

A few months ago, we had the opportunity to watch the footballs being made for the big game, on a visit to the Wilson Sporting Goods factory in the little town of Ada, Ohio.

The football manufacturing plant there originally started in the late 1930s as Ohio Kentucky Manufacturing in Cincinnati, but following a flood of the Ohio River in 1937, it moved to Ada, where it was eventually bought by Wilson Sporting Goods.
The plant is not what you would call automated. In fact, almost all the work there is done by hand. The approximately 100 employees produce about 2,000 footballs a day. Many of the workers have been there for 30-40 years, although they can switch jobs within the plant.

The first thing we learned was that the footballs are made from cowhide, not pigskin, despite the slang name that is given to them. The first step in the process is to cut the four pieces that are eventually sewn together, with a machine that looks like a huge cookie cutter. About 100 footballs can be produced from a cowhide if it is cut properly. If you look closely, you’ll see small Ws stamped into the hide.

A scraping machine trims off the excess leather on the reverse side to keep the thickness within the required parameters; each piece is matched and sewn to a liner; four pieces are sewn, right sides together, to make two pieces; name and logo stamping, and foiling if used, are applied; the white stripes are glued and then sewn on; and the two 2-part pieces are sewn together - a rather difficult job to keep all those points lined up.

Next is the hardest job in the plant - turning the ball right side out. It is steamed slightly and then pulled over an upright metal rod.

A bladder is inserted and then the balls are inflated and laced. The balls are placed in a machine that produces 100 pounds of pressure and then the final pressure is adjusted to 13 psi.

On our tour, the workers were willing to stop and explain what was happening in their step, a nice courtesy since they are paid by the piece and don’t like to interrupt the flow.

While we were there, this year’s Super Bowl balls were being made. Wilson provides 600 game balls and about 15,000 more for retail sales.

This particular Wilson plant makes footballs for all levels of play, including the smaller balls for young players. (Wilson has other football plants in addition to this one - you’ll find some balls marked with that “Made in China” statement.)

***

A couple of days later found us on another factory tour. Interestingly, this plant also produces abut 2000 of its product in a day.

This time we were in Georgetown, Kentucky, touring the Toyota plant. The only similarity between the two is in that number.

We donned safety goggles and boarded a tram which drove us through the 7.5 million-square-foot plant with its 7,000 employees.

The tour starts past the rolls of sheet steel, which are brought by truck every 20 minutes, and ends where the cars are driven off the assembly line.

The steel is cleaned, stamped, and cut into components. Presses with hundred of tons of pressure cut it into doors, hoods, roofs, etc.

The next step is Body Weld, where a combination of robots and team members (that’s what employees are called) form the chassis.

After the chassis is made and the doors put on, the car goes to the paint department, carried by overhead lifts. After 9 hours in the paint department, the doors are taken off again so that interior work can be done more easily.

The doors and chassis go their separate ways through the plant until almost the last step, where they are reunited; the final step is for a team member to drive the car off the ramp.

During the tour, we had to stop periodically to let the avgs (robots) scoot by, carrying parts from one place to another. They always get the right of way!

***

Both of these tours are great - and inexpensive. The Wilson plant asks $5/person, to pay the retired employee that comes in to host it. The Toyota tour is free. Both do require reservations, however.

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The operator is using the machine on the right to stamp out the individual pieces of the football from the treated cowhide.
The operator is using the machine on the right to stamp out the individual pieces of the football from the treated cowhide.

 

The liners are being sewn to the reverse side of each piece.
The liners are being sewn to the reverse side of each piece.

 

Logos have been applied by this step. Note that the four pieces of each football have been kept together since the cut-out step in criss-cross piles until they are finally stitched into one unit. This avoids differences in color that might come from the cowhide.

 

Our guide, a retired employee, is holding one of the intermediate steps. At this point, two pieces have been sewn together, the holes punched for the laces, and an opening left in the middle, to enable the ball to eventually be turned right side out.

 

A laundry basket full of completely stitched-together footballs, waiting to be turned right side out.

 


By this step, the football has its lining in, its logo applied, holes punched for the laces, four pieces sewn together and has been turned right side out. It will have a bladder inserted, lacing applied and then be filled with air.

 

By this step, the football has its lining in, its logo applied, holes punched for the laces, four pieces sewn together and has been turned right side out. It will have a bladder inserted, lacing applied and then be filled with air.

 

Strong hands are needed to insert the lacing through the leather

 

Footballs are inflated by a machine exerting 100 pounds of pressure.

 

Publisher Ron Miller holds a completed football, ready for use at the next Super Bowl game. (And he’s ready for the second tour with his Toyota cap on.)