NANTONG, CHINA – Nolan Howell likes to do a walkthrough of his concrete realm two or three times a week. “Just to see what’s working and what’s not,” he tells me as we head toward to front door of Shaw Industry’s carpet tile facility on a bright spring morning. Even as the plant rises, the list of things still undone is a tangle of big decisions and small details: sign the landscaping contract, fix the glass facade on the front office, get the wheelchair ramp in place – “when is that scaffolding coming down?”
A few months ago, the plant kitchen – the gastronomic laboratory for hundreds of Shaw associates and executives alike, following Chinese custom to feed employees – was a dark, empty cave. As we swoop through this time, it looks like the set of Top Chef, complete with a wok the size of a sled that can stir fry a feast’s worth of chicken and broccoli. Whatever Chinese delicacies will be concocted there, Howell plans on enjoying them. “The more I eat with the workers the better my Mandarin will get,” he says.
On the plant floor, Howell introduces me to two key players in Shaw’s recipe for Chinese success. They have come all the way from Chattanooga, TN, but they don’t look exhausted from their journey in the least. A pair of tufting machines – steel monsters filled with rows of needles – sit gleaming and silent under fluorescent lights. They will churn out up to 500 square yards per hour, Howell explains. That’s enough carpet tile to fill 16 singles tennis courts every day.
As part of Shaw’s commitment to sustainability, the Nantong plant incorporates the most cutting edge technologies around, from the state of the art energy control system in the ovens, which reduce gas usage and improve tile quality, to advanced high efficiency equipment for yarn usage, backing and latex application.
But the machinery on site won’t do their jobs alone. Chinese managers, engineers and supervisors have spent weeks in the United States “getting nothing but equipment training,” Howell says, with stacks worth of manuals and hours of instructional videos.
They need to learn fast. In a few weeks, each machine will come to life in a crescendo of industrial might as Shaw begins the testing process in May. The tufting machines, so quiet now, will emerge from their mechanized slumber to whir and vibrate, their needles dancing a designated choreography across the color palate. They will be joined by other marvels of technology such as a machine the size of a whale that processes computer signals.
I try to imagine the noise that will resound in this cavernous space and the workers on hand to keep the production line flowing. But all there is now is the distant percussion of hammers and saws – the symphony of construction, with Howell as its conductor.