published Saturday, September 24th, 2011

Cleveland Duracell plant marks 50 years making batteries

A P&G employee sends a package of batteries  down a conveyor belt at the P&G Duracell packaging center in Cleveland, Tenn., on Friday afternoon. Duracell is celebrating 50 years of making C- and D-cell batteries at the  Cleveland plant.
A P&G employee sends a package of batteries down a conveyor belt at the P&G Duracell packaging center in Cleveland, Tenn., on Friday afternoon. Duracell is celebrating 50 years of making C- and D-cell batteries at the Cleveland plant.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

There's electricity in the air.

An expensive-looking robot grabs 12-packs of batteries and arranges them in a row while a second robot politely pauses, waiting for his partner to finish.

The instant the first robot completes his intricate task, the second one dashes in to seize the batteries with human-esque quickness, then spins around to deposit the coppertops neatly in a rack.

Add a little music, and they could be dancing.

This is just one cog in the wheel of a giant machine -- the Cleveland, Tenn., Duracell plant -- that makes millions of batteries each day along miles of assembly lines.

In fact, if you've handled a C or D battery anywhere in the world, it's certain to have come from Cleveland, Duracell officials said.

"We power the lives of more consumers in more parts of the world than anybody," plant manager Bill Barkley said Friday.

Officials won't say how many batteries the plant makes, how fast it makes them or how much each battery costs to make. But they are proud of their 300 local employees, taking every opportunity to brag about their Cleveland work force.

"It's a family feel, and a lot of things we do are talk about how we treat each other," said Terence Moore, director of Global Product Supply at Procter & Gamble. "They embrace that are part of our culture."

At the battery fabrication plant, thousands of incomplete batteries shoot through a high-speed assembly line that could pass for a Rube Goldberg machine to the untrained eye.

Magnetic belts pick up uncoated batteries, hurtling them toward the labeling machine which stamps each group with the company's trademark copper top.

"We're basically taking dirt and making chemical energy," said 17-year veteran employee Dana Moses, noting that the plant handles nearly every part of the process in house.

At the nearby packaging plant on Copper Top Lane, batteries from all the company's U.S. manufacturing plants are boxed up and shipped out to retailers.

Duracell has been making batteries in Cleveland under several names and owners for 50 years, and though the technology has changed, the location has stayed the same.

Starting in 1961, the plant was founded by the P.R. Mallory Co., before adopting the Duracell brand name in 1964. The company is owned by Procter & Gamble now, one of more than 80 other brands under the P&G umbrella.

But unlike the Cleveland factory's packaging robots, Duracell is more than just a cog in the wheel of a corporate giant, officials say. The Cleveland plant is a key plant that's competitive all over the world, Moore said.

It even sells batteries in China.

"What the Cleveland plant has been able to do is streamline the plant apparatus to keep our cost structure low," Moore said.

In some cases, the key has been automating labor-intensive jobs, veteran worker Vernie Tippens recalled.

"We used to have 15 to 18 workers on a line," he said. "Now we have one to three."

If workers can keep costs low, they stand a good chance of making it another 50 years, Moore suggested.

"Keeping good talent, good logistics and good quality power are all key pieces that will help us be competitive," he said.

The Cleveland plant is just one of three in the U.S. where the company produces batteries, with the other two located nearby in South Carolina and Georgia.

And though it's not a new business, as are Amazon or Wacker, State Rep. Kevin Brooks still considers Duracell a feather in the town's cap.

"A lot of new industry gets the attention, but we are grateful for the 50 years and we hope you'll stay for 50 more," Brooks said.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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