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Robert LeTourneau, a roving American evangelist and inventor, decided in the mid-1930s that a plot of lakefront land a mile and a half northeast of downtown Peoria would be a fine place to make earth-moving equipment. Skilled labor and suppliers were plentiful; transport links were good.
Nearly eight decades later, Japan's Komatsu Ltd., 6301.TO -0.65% which owns the plant, still thinks Mr. LeTourneau chose the right location—even though most giant mining trucks made there are shipped overseas to Latin America, Australia, Asia and Africa.
About 80 miles south, in Decatur, Ill., rival Caterpillar Inc. CAT -0.46% makes its large mining trucks, most of which are exported. Caterpillar, No. 1 in this market, and No. 2 Komatsu account for roughly 85% of global sales of these trucks, roughly the size of two-story houses.
Their presence has created a cluster of skills and suppliers that feeds the industry. At a time when politicians are hoping for a job-creating revival of American manufacturing, this is one area where U.S.-based plants are still global champions.
Inside a dimly lit Komatsu building roughly the size of seven football fields, workers weld together the 30-ton frame of a mining truck. They choreograph their movements to avoid spraying each other with sparks or searing their eyes with blue light. "You almost have to make it a ballet," said Jim Mathis, a general manager at the plant. Some workers have fathers and grandfathers who made trucks here.
The U.S. had a deficit of $509.7 billion in trade in manufactured goods in this year's first nine months, largely due to gaping deficits in such major categories as consumer electronics and clothing.