Tour of Garmin's "Skunk Works"

A recent trip to Garmin HQ offers a glimpse of how Garmin's marine electronics are built.

Here's where one of a dozen of Garmin's engineers gets down to the business of building marine electronics.

Here's where one of a dozen of Garmin's engineers gets down to the business of building marine electronics.Ben Ellison

Messy maybe, but this is how marine electronics get made, and Garmin HQ in Olathe, Kansas, is all about making stuff. The engineer who leads the hardware side of the marine department told me how his office at a previous job was two floors away from the work benches where he and his colleagues could get down and dirty with their projects. By contrast, this is just one of a dozen well-lived-in work stations on the same floor housing both marine hardware and software engineers. And that particular lead engineer has been at Garmin for 17 years, his software counterpart 16. This is a company that engineers built, and, wow, is it cooking...

Ben Ellison| |What you can see in this photo is four phases of warehousing now totaling some 300,000 square feet.|

I tried to capture the philosophy that led Gary Burrell and Dr. Min Kao to such success in a 2004 PMY column, and in retrospect I think I got it pretty right. But of course the revenues,

building size, and much else has grown even more since then. In this view from the eighth floor of "The Tower" the original building isn't even visible. And at left you can see just a wee corner of the latest addition -- where the smart phone work is getting done. (I got a of hand's on time with the Garminfone, announced yesterday, and thought it an impressive sign of Garmin's committment to that bruising battle.) What you can see in this photo some four phases of warehousing now totaling some 300,000 square feet. All the aviation electronics made right here in Olathe, and all the North-America-bound gear made in Garmin's three Taiwanese factories go through this facility. So not only is every aspect of most every Garmin product created right here, but the creators get to see the finished goods steam out the truck bays.

Another notable aspect of the photo is that this part of America is so flat that you can see the curve of the earth from this height. I'd read that Olathe is Swanee for "beautiful place" but when I mentioned it to one of my hosts, he suggested that perhaps those Native Americans had not gotten around much. He was grinning, though. Not being in a hot spot means that Garmin must go to extra lengths to attract and keep talent. Apparently the company runs a extensive intern and scholarship program at various engineering schools in the region, and besides the long careers mentioned above, I saw signs that this is a relaxed, respectful, and even fun place to work. Below, for instance, is some humor included when a Sigma Six program required that the extensive testing lab label everything. Trust me, there lot's more sophisticated equipment here and elsewhere.

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