‘Made in Kansas’ Label Means Even More Today

By Matt Smithmier

Flat, farms, flyover country. Producer of wheat, cattle, and corn. And wind. Lots of wind.

Common perceptions for Kansas, yet they fail to tell the whole story. So, how do you begin to change minds?

“How do we do it? We just keep talking about it. We just keep showing up.”

So says Tiffany Stovall, CEO of Kansas Manufacturing Solutions, an affiliate of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Manufacturing Extension Partnership program. Her organization is on a mission to not only deliver consulting and solutions to manufacturers in the state, but to spread the word about the growing role of manufacturing in Kansas.

“There’s quite a bit of manufacturing happening in Kansas—much more manufacturing than agriculture, surprisingly,” she said. “I think the good numbers speak for themselves. … When you can start to talk about what it really is here, there are some ‘a-ha’ moments.”

Those numbers she mentioned: $17.5 billion in annual farm and ranch cash receipts compared to $27.5 billion in manufacturing.

“I use that number quite a bit because companies are surprised, like, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t realize there was any manufacturing happening in Kansas,’” she said.

At least outside of aviation, of course. Kansas is well-known for its aviation aircraft prowess, contributing $2.25 billion in aerospace exports every year and boasting the third-highest concentration of aviation workers in the U.S., according to the Kansas Department of Commerce. Wichita is still widely considered the Air Capital of the World and is home to two premier light aircraft manufacturers (Bombardier Learjet and Textron Aviation’s Beechcraft and Cessna) as well as Spirit AeroSystems, the largest tier-one aerostructures manufacturer in the world, and primary source for fuselages for Boeing’s 737 passenger-jet series. 

Yet, even with the state’s dominance of the air, a lot is nevertheless happening on the ground, strengthening the state’s foothold in manufacturing. In fact, approximately 2,700 different manufacturers are located across Kansas, ranging from just one employee to nearly 20,000, adding up to more than 160,000 residents employed in the manufacturing sector.

While aerospace and food manufacturing continue to do well, advanced manufacturing in the high-tech sector is generating much of the current excitement, Stovall said, especially in the past year.

“It can’t be understated what’s happening right now,” she says.

Advanced Manufacturing Leads The Way

The news of the day—the year, really—continues to swirl around three big projects coming to Kansas:

Panasonic Energy. In Novem-ber, this subsidiary of the Japanese electronics giant broke ground on an electric vehicle battery plant—a $4 billion project, the largest economic development project in state history—in De Soto. In addition to 4,000 new jobs at the plant, a Wichita State University study estimates it will create 4,000 additional jobs with suppliers and community businesses and 16,500 construction jobs. 

EMP Shield. The maker of elec-tronic device protection will build a new computer chip manufacturing facility—a $1.9 billion project that’s expected to create more than 1,200 jobs—in Burlington. The facility is expected to also bring six out-of-state suppliers for an additional 1,000 jobs in Coffey County.

Integra Technologies. The Wichita-based company, founded in 1983, announced it would invest $1.8 billion—the second-largest private investment in Kansas history—in a large-scale semiconductor facility in Wichita, creating approximately 2,000 high-paying jobs. That will trigger an estimated additional 3,161 jobs created by suppliers and labor positions, according to Wichita State University.

These massive projects aren’t just a result of good luck, Stovall said.

“They didn’t happen in a vacuum by themselves. They’re the results of APEX [the Attracting Powerful Econo-mic Expansion Act incentive program] and the landscape of what’s happening right now—partnerships coming together and making sure we were all sort of rowing the boat in the same direction. … It was just a lot of people doing the right thing.”

Bobby Skipper is the director of economic development for Coffey County, where the new EMP Shield project will be built, and agrees with Stovall’s assessment:

“The political willingness—and I dare say, patriotism—of those leaders have led to the commitments and decisions, which allowed this project to take shape and become a reality,” he said. “Secondly, we have a governor who backs up what she promises with real action.”

Skipper also credits the federal bipartisan CHIPS Act, designed to boost U.S. competitiveness and in-novation in the semiconductor industry (and signed into law by President Biden last August), as the “largest contributing factor” for the economic boon coming this county’s way. The $52.7 billion legislation includes $39 billion that will be awarded to U.S. companies for new construction and expansion.

“We can no longer depend on other countries to produce the critical products and devices that keep our economy rolling,” he said. “For Kansas, this would be a new pillar of the already vibrant economy. Bringing in the very niche semiconductor and microprocessor fabrication to the Kansas economy would deliver a wealth of financial diversity and resilience to what is already a strong financial base. Our Kansas sons and daughters have another reason to stay and invest here at home now.”

Advanced manufacturing has been a key part of the state’s economic development strategy for a while, and the latest wins are examples of how the state is working to “reshore” key industries, said David Toland, Secretary of Commerce and right-hand man to Gov. Laura Kelly.

“Disruptions in global supply chains have led companies to seek a stronger U.S. footprint, to ensure on-time and on-budget manufacture and delivery of their products,” he said. “Kansas’ central location and outstanding infrastructure have propelled us to the top of the list for companies looking to make these types of investments. Our team has been laser-focused on embracing the new opportunities we’re seeing in this industry.”

Manufacturing A Smarter Future

A new manufacturing plant is a reason to celebrate, of course, but an addition of that magnitude can make big ripples in a community, especially in a smaller or rural setting. For starters, where do you find the people? The housing? The child care?

“It’s a multifaceted but good problem to have,” Stovall said.

Part of the answer, she said, comes from the advancements in technology and automation—what Stovall calls the “whole ‘work smarter’ kind of thing.” The other prong will be a more concerted effort around training a work-force that can not only work these advanced machines but also work on them—programming, maintaining, etc. Many of the state’s universities and community colleges are already launching and expanding existing programs designed to attract students looking to enter the manufacturing field.

“These are good-paying jobs. Kids are going into these programs in an earn-while-you-learn sort of a model, and they’re coming out with very little, if any, debt,” she said. “It’s really exciting where these programs are going—just the different way we’re thinking about manufacturing.”

The state has also established the Office of Registered Apprenticeship to connect employers with workers and developed programs to address the skills gap currently facing companies. Toland said these initiatives, which are designed to nurture relationships among education, businesses, and economic development entities, are crucial because manufacturing is so key to the state’s future growth:

“Great manufacturing jobs help preserve our way of life in Kansas,” he said. “They drive opportunities for more folks to put down roots and provide for themselves and their families. Each new job created in manufacturing is a life changed.”