Gun-maker adding space to go leaner

Nighthawk’s new building designed to aid efficiency

BERRYVILLE -- High-end gun-maker Nighthawk Custom is expanding, adding 4,000 square feet to its work space to improve efficiency and productivity.

The new building, which sits near the company's current facility, will house about 20 Nighthawk gunsmiths and about 10 support employees. Nelson Davis, chief operating officer for Nighthawk, said the new space will streamline the process of making custom firearms and is the gun-maker's first stab at lean manufacturing, a system to minimize waste without affecting productivity.

The cost of the expansion is in the neighborhood of $750,000. The company plans to move workers into the new space in November with the area fully integrated by the end of the year. The company received a $125,000 Community Development Block Grant through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission for new equipment that will be part of the expansion.

Nighthawk employs about 55 workers and has been building 1911-style pistols and other custom firearms since 2004. The company offers several pistol models that are further customized based on customer specifications with a starting price tag of about $3,500.

Davis said the current layout isolates gunsmiths and requires them to go through a maze of hallways and offices as they build pistols, which adds for wasted time, miscommunication and general inefficiency. The new facility built with the input of Nighthawk's employees, will have an open floor plan with the gunsmiths working in close proximity to one another and with support staff close at hand.

"In the new building gunsmiths will be able to stand up at their bench and see everyone in the whole room," Nelson said.

According to the 2018 Firearms and Ammunition Economic Impact Report compiled by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms industry, Arkansas had 3,061 jobs directly related to the firearms industry in 2017, with annual wages of $102.6 million. Arkansas ranks second in the nation in total economic output per capita and sixth for total jobs per capita dependent on the firearms industry, according to the report. Nationally there are a little over 149,000 jobs directly related to the industry with total wages of $6.1 billion.

Demand for firearms is strong so far this year. The FBI reported National Instant Criminal Background checks for 2018 through September totaled nearly 19.2 million, up from 18.2 million for the same period in 2017. Total checks in 2017 stood at 25.23 million, the second-highest number on record, trailing 2016 with 27.54 million. While those figures don't equate to the number of guns sold, they are generally considered indicators of firearms demand.

Ken Smith, a consultant leading Nighthawk's lean manufacturing team, said like many small businesses, Nighthawk's growth has meant its processes and layout were matters of necessity rather than being designed for peak efficiency. He noted that a Nighthawk pistol being built travels an average of nearly a half mile as it's walked among stations.

"There was waste embedded in the system" Smith explained. "It takes three to six months to build a pistol and most of that time was spent waiting."

Now, with the additional space, pistols will spend the vast majority of their time in the hands of the gunsmith building them. Nighthawk prides itself on its "One gun, one gunsmith" philosophy, where a single gunsmith does the vast majority of work on any firearm, and then marks it with an individualized stamp.

Davis said the new building will mean a 30 percent to 40 percent increase in capacity that will help the company reduce its backlog of pistols and also allow it to get new products to market faster to meet growing demand. That will mean more revenue and pay raises for the gunsmiths.

"It will be the nicest firearms shop anywhere," Davis said.

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