Insiders like to watch how products get made; the public enjoys the value.

Factories are about as glamorous as mud wrestling, but plant tours help fortify the soul of anyone who works in this industry. You wouldn't necessarily want to take your customers there. They belong in showrooms viewing the finished products, or seated in their own living rooms listening to your service techs explain the benefits and features. But I've yet to meet anyone from the trade who doesn't get a kick out of seeing where the wares begin and how they take shape.

Count me among them. My most recent plant tours took place last July when I accompanied a couple of dozen contractors from the Plumbing Council of Chicagoland on a visit of Gerber Plumbing Fixtures Corp.'s brass plant in Delphi, Ind., and its neighboring fixture factory in Kokomo, Ind.

These locations define Middle America, and the people at Gerber take considerable pride in the fact that they have kept faith with its occupants. The Sirens of the Third World constantly lure manufacturers with their pocket-change wage rates. Staying put in a place like central Indiana requires some soul-searching, and business ingenuity.

Some foreign factory workers earn less in a day than Gerber's UAW workers throw into the refreshment vending machines that are ubiquitous in U.S. factories. Those who think in economic terms marvel at the disparity, and wonder how U.S. manufacturers can keep up. Those who think in human terms marvel at the disparity, and wonder how the foreigners can stand living. Ingenuity comes into play figuring out ways to stay competitive amid such disparity.

Made In America

A factory tour provides the answers if you look for them. To the unpracticed eye, it may all seem a kaleidoscope of clanking machinery, dust, debris and unfamiliar industrial odors. But if you visit enough factories, and especially if you've worked in them, you begin to notice the three ingredients that lead hand-in-hand to competitive success: automation, worker skills and worker productivity.

Automation is indispensable for American factories to stay competitive. Gerber's brass plant has machine tools that can perform several operations at once. Its Kokomo china factory churns out 950,000 units a year thanks to casting apparatus that produces several units at a time. Muscle power still comes into play in certain operations, but much less so than in days of old. It takes computerized machinery for American manufacturers to compete in today's marketplace.

But it still takes humans to set up the machines, push the right buttons and monitor the bewildering array of gauges and digital displays. Well within the capabilities of the average Middle American. But a daunting task for people living in a culture swamped by illiteracy and backwardness. Factory managers tell tales of foreign ventures that looked great on paper going in, but turned disastrous when the workers turned out to be mystified by manufacturing technology.

Some of Gerber's operations remain labor intensive, like polishing faucets. One would think this would lend itself to automation, but the complex shapes create nooks and crannies that require human hands to put on the finishing touch. We were told this was one of the most highly skilled jobs at the Delphi plant.

Gerber's quality controls were of particular interest to the contractors. Each faucet and fixture gets inspected for defects and cosmetic flaws, then water tested. In the china plant, a computer keeps track of each defect caught and the inspector who caught it. Feedback from this operation leads to constant improvement in both the manufacturing process and inspection techniques. (The delicate nature of chinaware leads to spoilage of about 2.5 percent of the units produced. I would have thought it to be more.)

The assembly line workers exhibited hand speed that reminded me of Muhammad Ali in his prime. Chalk this up in part to piecework incentives. Mainly, though, it bears witness to the bedrock of American character - a willingness to work hard and invest as much sweat as necessary to forge a better life. Working Conditions: Speaking of which, on a muggy day in July, perspiration fills a factory like an open hydrant. Many in our group came back from the hour-long tours with shirts drenched. We felt sympathy pangs for the folks who had to exert themselves all day in these conditions, although they surely had it better than their Third World counterparts who, like a village of the damned, were virtually beyond sympathy.

Safety practices were exemplary as far as I could tell. This is of special interest to me, owing to my personal experience working in a factory of the mid-1960s. Many years ago in this magazine, I chronicled a former co-worker named "Little Joe," a likeable Polish immigrant who worked as a welder in the department next to mine. Out of 10 fingers, his hands had no more than three or four intact to full length. One day I listened, unable to eat my lunch, as Joe described each of the industrial accidents that had cost him a digit or portion thereof. What sticks in memory was his lack of bitterness. Joe shrugged off each sickening amputation as a worthwhile price to pay for the opportunity to earn a living in this great land of ours.

American workers and managers are more enlightened these days. OSHA does some really silly things, but even greater folly would be to go back to the bad old days of shrugging our shoulders at occupational hazards. Most foreign plants have yet to reach this stage of humanitarian consciousness. Gerber's plants were tidier than most I've seen, but even the best housekeeping cannot come close to eliminating the residues that attend casting, machining, trimming and grinding operations. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the mold-making section of the china factory, where worker bodies and everything else in sight get coated with plaster dust.

Vivid memories arose of the year I spent working in a factory. How grateful I am for the subsequent opportunity to go to college and learn a trade in which only my cranial neurons get soiled and sore at the end of a day.

Eye Of The Beholder

Watching the manufacturing process unravel, I was reminded of the story about the ugly duckling that turned into a beautiful swan. Noise and grime gradually gave way to products that looked familiar and took on a certain elegance. You can't really appreciate the shining smooth glaze on a toilet or the sparkle of a faucet until you witness the rough journey that brought it into being.

Even more than the cosmetics, you gain appreciation for the value embodied by these indispensable devices everyone takes for granted. The products coming off those assembly lines get used and abused numerous times a day, day after day, year after year. Yet, to ruin them you almost have to be bent on mayhem. (Our tour guide delighted in slamming a finished faucet repeatedly with a hammer to demonstrate its durable plating.) With minimal maintenance, you can expect your new faucet or plumbing fixture to last from the time a child is born till that child raises a family of its own - or even longer, sometimes a lifetime! This is value.

And you, the plumbing contractors of this great nation, add plenty of value of your own. After all, the wonderful products coming out of those factories are totally useless unless correctly installed and maintained.

It was an animated group of contractors that came along on the Plumbing Council tour. They peppered Gerber employees with questions at every step of the way. Dinnertime conversation centered on the products and the way they were made sprinkled with some talk of marketing and other industry topics.

It's fun to hang around people so engaged with their profession. And heartwarming to witness the bonds of fellowship between those who are present at the birth of this industry's goods and those who put them into service.