The company’s newest plant, built in 2000, is outfitted with robotic equipment. It can make a like amount of brick using 15 laborers each shift — a total need of 30 people.
“That operates every day of the week. That’s what automation has done,” Robert says. “We’ve got robots that actually pick up the brick, put them on the cars, take them off the cars and put them in the package, and everything else. There’s no individuals there that are handling brick like at every other plant.”
Though he expects robotics will take on a larger role in Belden’s manufacturing process, adding automation to older plants is difficult. Different robotics experts, as well as Belden’s own internal engineers, have looked at the company’s brick-making process, but haven’t yet been able to fully automate the process.
“When you have robotics handling things, everything has to be precisely in the right place,” Robert says. “Every brick has to be in a certain orientation and if it tips over a little bit or gets knocked cockeyed, a person can see that and adjust, obviously, very easily. Robots don’t adjust too well.
“I’m sure as we move forward there will be a lot more robotics,” he says. “We’ve even designed and built some of our own, especially in the packaging area. We’ve got a couple robotic systems that we’ve designed to do what our people have done over all the years.”
Belden Brick now employs the fifth-generation of Beldens. Robert’s great-grandfather, Henry, an entrepreneur and innovator, started the company.
Henry, once the mayor of Canton, invented the Belden Burner and had 13 patents for gasoline vapor streetlights, which he sold to cities throughout the U.S. He was also a lawyer who worked with his father, G.W. Belden, a judge whose partner at the law firm Belden & McKinley was future U.S. President William McKinley.
The story of the Belden Brick Co., however, almost stopped with him. Robert says Henry, who was in need of capital to operate the plant, was ready to give up in 1904, when his youngest son, Paul, Robert’s grandfather, came back to Ohio from the Carolinas. Over Paul’s 66 years in the business, he built up the company, expanding it from one to seven plants and from producing 3 million to 250 million bricks a year. Three of his four sons would join the company and carry the torch.
Robert and his cousin, Bill, joined the company in 1983. Bill was in Canton and left another business to be Belden’s president. Robert came from Chicago, leaving a job in the financial sector, and another cousin, John Belden, also joined. Today, the company employs their sons, nephews and cousins.
“We started in 1983. We had found the right people that have the right motivation to keep the family business going, to keep the reputation and the quality in the forefront of what we do, and I think the young guys that we have now that will be ready to take over also have the right idea about that,” Robert says.
“We’ve been very fortunate, needless to say. But we have certain values and traditions that have served us well and that I think that everybody is in agreement about. That’s helped us to weather all the different recessions, depressions and the cyclicality of this business.”