Gillette spends $750 million to make Mach3 Huge covert operation for new production line of three-blade razor

August 17, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

BOSTON -- Over the next year, Gillette Co. looks to make a lot of noise as it spends $300 million to market its new Mach3 razor to the world -- the ad campaign for the triple-bladed razor that has just kicked into high gear in the United States and Canada.

But since 1995, the company has quietly spent even more money to overhaul its manufacturing facility in South Boston.

When Hollywood spent $200 million on "Titanic," movie audiences paid attention. When the New England Patriots proposed a $200 million football stadium in South Boston, the neighborhood howled in protest.

But when Gillette renovated its South Boston facility and installed new Mach3 production lines, which cost nearly as much as a blockbuster movie and a football stadium put together, almost no one noticed.

With stealth worthy of the CIA, Gillette has designed, built and installed machinery that cost roughly $375 million, all to produce the Mach3 razor that hit retailers' shelves last month.

Billed as the world's first triple-bladed razor and the most revolutionary advance in shaving in a generation, the new product is vital to Gillette's continued success.

All told, Gillette says it will spend $750 million on the continuous-motion production lines and robotics that give it a capacity to make 1.2 billion Mach3 razor cartridges a year.

About half that total went to renovating the South Boston facility, said Gillette's executive vice president, Robert G. King.

Keep in mind that this $750 million does not include the money spent on the research and development of the Mach3 prototype, which at various times was known by such code names as Manx, 225, and "the Frankenstein razor" (because its bolted profile resembled the silhouette of the monster).

Nor does the $750 million include money spent on hiring 160 new workers and giving them 30,000 hours of training.

According to Gillette, developing a "revolutionary" triple-bladed razor is only part of the story.

The real trick is to take the prototype and reproduce it 1.2 billion times a year at a price low enough that consumers will buy it but high enough to boost Gillette's profits.

For Gillette, getting the Mach3 quickly into hands of consumers is crucial to success. But with a top speed of only 200 razor cartridges per minute, the production lines that Gillette uses to make its older Sensor razors were simply too slow to meet Mach3's goals.

So Gillette has developed new production lines that use rotary tables, continuous-motion machines, a system of automated forklifts, and a secret ion-deposition process. The result is a production line that can turn out Mach3 razor cartridges at a rate of 600 per minute, King said.

Gillette made secrecy a priority until the Mach3 was formally unveiled in April at a New York news conference.

To prevent rivals from learning ahead of time that it was working on a three-bladed razor, Gillette parceled out jobs to a variety of subcontractors.

In building components for the production line, each pTC subcontractor could see one small piece of a jigsaw puzzle; only a few Gillette executives could see the picture the pieces made when the jigsaw was fitted together.

"We worked strictly on a need-to-know basis," King said.

So while South Boston was loudly debating the merits of the $200 million football stadium, Gillette was sneaking more than $300 million worth of gear into its plant there.

"It's complicated, expensive equipment," said Michael T. Cowhig, Gillette's senior vice president of manufacturing. "But if you spend the money up front, it's cheaper to manufacture in the long term."

Pub Date: 8/17/98

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