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Crown in the 21st Century

ELKHART, IN—“We design, we market, we sell, we manufacture, we service, we distribute.

Matthew Bush, senior director of
operations for Crown Audio, is
leading a transition in manufacturing
from the traditional long, final
assembly line to a more agile pod
approach at the Elkhart, IN HQ.
Behind Bush is the testing station
at the first of four final assembly
pods installed.
ELKHART, IN—“We design, we market, we sell, we manufacture, we service, we distribute. Everything happens here.” That’s how Matthew Bush, senior director of operations for Crown Audio sums up life at the Harman International’s headquarters. Until relatively recently, all manufacturing operations for Crown took place in Elkhart, IN. “We’re in the middle of a project to realign our business and our operations to our current strategy which is all about innovation and new product development,” says Bush.

Competing in multiple vertical markets and with eight different product lines, Crown needs to be able to “drop new products out faster than we’ve been able to,” explains Marc Kellom, director of marketing for Crown. Bush adds that Crown aims to increase new product introduction from four to eight products a year to a minimum of one new product a month and ultimately to double that goal. “We’re going to have to go into different formats than we were in before,” says Kellom, who reports that Crown’s biggest growth markets are the “lower end of the install market and, maybe surprisingly, portable PA…It’s just a matter of us bringing really innovative products into the space.”

At the peak, the Elkhart facility produced 6,000 to 15,000 amplifiers per month on multiple assembly lines with hundreds of employees. “We decided that we can either afford to be a mass producer or we can afford to maintain our manufacturing capabilities and our speed,” says Bush. Crown, he says, is deliberately maintaining its manufacturing expertise, but teaching that prowess to others, improving margins by manufacturing where there is a lower cost base, then using improved profit margins to fund ongoing business and product development.

While Crown now manufactures only about 30 percent of its products in Elkhart, Bush says that reflects “approximately 40-50 percent of our revenue; we’re making the higherprice, more complex units in-house.” While he expects outsourcing to increase another 10 percent, “Every product we design here, though, will be launched in this factory. And that’s a key difference between an all-ornothing model.”

A factory tour vividly illustrates the changes afoot at Crown. For example, on the surface-mount board assembly line, four operators have replaced many, overseeing automated component placement. “Even if we decided not to do mass production, only prototypes, it’s still a required technology,” Bush explains. Laser and x-ray automated testing are a part of the process; “It’s all about getting it right the first time,” says Bush. Traditionally, large, final assembly lines have been used for both small and the biggest product runs, though Bush qualifies that “it’s not a very effective way to do small runs.”

As he did previously at the Harman Music Group in Salt Lake City, Bush is overseeing a major shift away from the massive linear assembly lines to a “final assembly cell” approach, where four to five operators will take the place of 22. While slower, Bush says the cells “will have all the capabilities of the long line. The difference is… it can actually do five products as efficiently as it can do 100…One cell doesn’t replace a line of 22, but four cells will.” Up to four different products can be built simultaneously, and efficiently in smaller volumes. People are still key to the process, with the knowledge necessary for workers increased significantly.

The remaining 70 percent of Crown’s manufacturing is largely outsourced to China. Aside from manufacturing, Kellom sees business opportunities internationally, although with challenges. Harman is building local infrastructure, such as creating an India-based development center, transforming Selenium into Harman Brazil with regional manufacturing capability, and with a Chinese Harman design center, where Kellom notes that local teams are defining products specifically for that market.

Key to Crown’s legacy is international senior VP of R&D, Gerald Stanley, who joined the company in 1964 and shortly after designed the venerable DC300 amp. His contributions continue into the digital age, including development of the proprietary DriveCore IC that blends a Class-D amplifier drive stage and power amplification stage into a single, tiny chip. The hallways at Crown are lined with plaques commemorating numerous patents, most bearing Stanley’s name. In addition to Stanley’s lab, engineering activity at Crown is substantial, with room after room graced with design workstations, audio test gear and amplifiers under test.

It’s not all hardware at Crown. During the visit, Brian Pickowitz, market manager for tour sound, demonstrated the new “Powered by Crown” iPad app, offering control and monitoring of Crown amps connected to a basic Ethernet or HiQnet network. Pickowitz also previewed the new Harman HiQnet Performance Manager software, a task-specific iteration of System Architect 2, offering streamlined and simplified yet still sophisticated graphical-based amp and loudspeaker system configuration, control and monitoring.

Crown appears intelligently poised to stay competitive in a troubled marketplace. “We’re a technology company,” Bush concludes. “We actually invent amp technology ,so what we’re trying to maintain is all of the elements to keep that competence, not just engineering, but also how to build and produce that amplifier.”