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Chemex, Maker of Iconic Coffeemaker, Is Expanding Its Horizons

Eliza Jane Grassy

Eliza Jane Grassy shows off the famous Chemex coffeemaker.

The conference room in the Chemex manufacturing and distribution facility in Chicopee isn’t really serving the company in that capacity at this time — well, not only in that capacity, to be more precise.

Instead, while renovations continue at the plant on Veterans Drive, which the company moved into last summer, it is also acting as both storage area and museum of sorts, with all manner of material related to the famous Chemex coffeemaker — assembled on that site — and its inventor, Peter Schlumbohm.

“He was kind of a mad scientist — he had lots of inventions and lots of ideas,” Eliza Jane Grassy, vice president of the company, said of Schlumbohm as she pointed out photos of him, news clippings, and even a sketch of one of his concepts that never became reality — the so-called Chemmobile, an early form of SUV.

But most of the room’s artifacts are devoted to the coffeemaker itself, a work of art and a piece of Americana, both figuratively and quite literally — it is included in the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There is also one on display at the Smithsonian and other museums. Meanwhile, in 1958, designers at the Illinois Institute of Technology deemed it “one of the best-designed products of modern times.”

Its 74-year history, not to mention those various accolades and others, are chronicled in various displays scattered about the conference room, including advertisements, signs, early sketches of the product, and several of the actual items, in an array of sizes.

In most respects, the conference room is now a nod to the past. Indeed, most of the items are now decades old. But in one corner sit a few boxes containing the company’s newest product (actually, reintroduction of an old one), an automatic version of the iconic coffeemaker — called the Ottomatic — that is already becoming a hit. Meanwhile, out in the shipping area, the labels on the boxes provide more evidence that this company, while clinging to its proud traditions, is certainly not stuck in the 19th century.

The addresses are for commercial clients and retailers in England, Malaysia, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and other countries, and they are indicative of a strong push over the past few years to make this product an international phenomenon rather than just a domestic one.

Still more evidence can be found with the stamps on Grassy’s passport, and also those carried by her mother, Liz, the company’s president, and brother, Adams, who also serves as vice president. Indeed, Grassy has been to Australia and England in recent months, attending coffee conventions, while Adams has other territory, including Asia, and her mother travels almost everywhere.

“We’re now distributing all over the world, and it’s something we’ve been tackling over the past four or five years,” said Grassy, who traces the origins of this global expansion to aggressive outreach fueled by heightened interest from coffee roasters in virtually every time zone — simply one manifestation of the explosion in business opportunities generated by coffee.

She told BusinessWest that the sharp upward trajectory of sales and profits in recent years is not so much a case of being in the right place (planet Earth) at the right time — although that’s part of it — but rather having an iconic product, creating international demand for it, and then meeting it.

To do that, the company, which had been located in Pittsfield for more than 30 years, was forced to seek out considerably larger quarters, and eventually settled on the site in Chicopee, just down the street from the main gate to Westover Air Reserve Base.

The new facility provides more space for both the limited manufacturing that takes place there — what amounts to final assembly of the coffee makers as well as cutting and packaging of the filters — and the more extensive distribution efforts.

the Chemex coffeemaker

Renowned for its simplistic design, the Chemex coffeemaker is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other museums.

Several employees have been added over the past few months, and more additions are likely, said Grassy, noting that new machinery to package the filters has been acquired, and other investments in technology have been made.

Overall, demand keeps growing, and keeping up with it is a considerable challenge, meaning this is an exciting — and critical — time for the company.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest takes a look at this iconic product and the current efforts to continue its legacy, but in a contemporary fashion.

Bean Entrepreneurial

Grassy remembers virtually growing up in the Pittsfield plant where her parents took the company after acquiring it and refocusing its efforts solely on making coffeemakers after unsuccessful bids to expand the brand to other household items.

She recalls working a variety of jobs, from tying the strands of rawhide that go around the neck of each carafe to packing boxes in the warehouse. She also remembers the letters that would come with orders for new coffeemakers and especially the filters used in them, an equally potent source of revenue.

“People would write about how they had their coffeemaker for however many years, they love it, and it has become a part of the family,” she told BusinessWest, adding that such longevity isn’t the hindrance it might be if one were selling tires (primarily because the company also sells the filters). Instead, it’s a wonderfully effective selling point and a steady source of sales for the holidays, weddings, and virtually any time of the year.

Soon, the company will likely be getting more of these letters, and perhaps in a few different languages, as it continues its global push.

But before talking about that, Grassy set the stage by going back several decades and using the material in the cluttered conference room to help tell the story.

It begins with Schlumbohm. The German-born chemist-turned-inventor relocated to the U.S. in the 1930s and, within a few years, had filed more than 40 patents, most of them dealing in advances in refrigeration through chemical, mechanical, and engineering processes. But there were others, including one for a filtering device filed in 1939.

It would eventually become, along with the tremendously simple design, the heart and soul of the Chemex coffeemaker, which went into production only a few months after the U.S. entered World War II.

The product’s success is owed to a blend of chemistry and design: the narrow-waist flask, or carafe, uses filters made of chemically bonded paper, perhaps 30% thicker than those used for most drip-method coffeemakers, which removes most of the oils and chemicals, giving the coffee a distinctive taste that has helped Chemex more than withstand the recent onslaught from Keurig and other manufacturers.

“We have an entirely different philosophy, for lack of a better word, when it comes to making coffee,” she explained, adding that nothing has changed in 74 years. “The Chemex was designed as a pour-over method, so that the coffee grounds would be properly extracted. Schlumbohm, as a chemist, knew that pouring water over grounds created a chemical reaction, and his dissatisfaction with coffee at the time led him to develop bonded Chemex filters. When it extracts out all the undesirable oils, sediment, and fats, that just leaves the flavor of the bean and the caffeine.”

Peter Schlumbohm

Peter Schlumbohm, inventor of the Chemex coffeemaker, is seen is this photo, one of the company’s many artifacts, sketching the Chemmobile.

Upon its introduction, the Chemex immediately drew favorable reviews — it appeared on the cover of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Useful Objects in Wartime” bulletin — and solid sales that remained constant through the next several decades and long after Schlumbohm willed the company to an heir who later sold it to the first of a succession of private owners.

Over the years, the product has enjoyed a prominent place in popular culture. James Bond is seen using one in From Russia with Love, the second movie in the 53-year-old series; Mary Tyler Moore had one prominently displayed in her kitchen in her sitcom from the early ’70s; and the product appeared repeatedly in the Dick Tracy comic strip, for example. As part of its efforts to recreate the late ’50s and early ’60s, the makers of Mad Men placed a Chemex in Don Draper’s kitchen.

But the product has certainly stood the test of time, and has been anything but a museum piece, said Grassy, adding that it’s as popular now as it was in the ’50s, when Schlumbohm gave one as a gift to President Harry Truman.

The company was eventually sold to a concern that tried to broaden the Chemex brand to a host of kitchen appliances, said Grassy, adding that a succession of owners essentially failed to replicate the coffeemaker’s success with other products, and the company went into bankruptcy.

Sip Codes

When her parents bought it, they returned it to its roots, and it continued to “plunk along,” as Grassy put it, into the ’90s and the start of this century, when coffee ceased being a drink and instead became a thriving industry, with huge new chains like Starbucks and smaller coffee roasters setting up shop in cities across the country.

The Chemex coffeemaker has been part of the phenomenon, she said, adding that it is used by many specialty coffee chains, including Blue Bottle, Stumptown, George Howell, and others, who want to showcase their coffees in the best way possible.

“The Chemex truly makes a really, really good cup of coffee,” she noted. “And that’s very important for coffee roasters — they want to showcase their coffee beans and the flavors, and with the Chemex process, they’re really able to do that; there’s no bitterness, and you can make it as strong as you want.”

When the company became more aggressive with regard to generating new business, both domestically and overseas, and orders started, well, pouring in, those involved started expanding their horizons, and in many different ways.

It was as that profound change was happening that Grassy and her brother decided to become part of the leadership team at the company. Indeed, while they both grew up at the Pittsfield plant, neither had intentions of making this a career, she said.

“I had just moved to Cambridge from San Francisco — I had attended an art school out there and had gone for fine art — and had planned to go to Leslie for an art-therapy degree, when I got diverted,” she said. “My mother said, ‘things are busy; I’d love it if you could come help, even on weekends or part-time.’

“So I started commuting back to the Berkshires, and that’s when I noticed something interesting was happening,” she went on. “I noticed it in cafés and online, and I said, ‘something’s going on here, and we just need to get involved,’ and the rest is history.’”

What was going on lay at the heart of the basic laws concerning supply and demand. Changing times and iconic products were creating demand, and now the company had to go about creating a supply.

While the company has always sold its product overseas, Grassy said, volume there was a fraction of what it was domestically. That started to change when she and her mother traveled to London five years ago for a coffee event.

“We started making connections there,” she said, adding that these involved both retailers and the growing legions of coffee roasters, and these connections helped introduce the product to new markets and new constituencies, thus generating sales volume.

The pattern has been repeated in other European countries, including Germany and Austria, and also in Asia, South America, Australia, and other spots around the globe, said Grassy, to the point where international sales are now approaching domestic volume.

And while expanding its market reach, the company is also introducing new products, such as the Ottomatic, a machine (manufactured in Ireland) that brings the same brewing chemistry and philosophy, but with the push of button.

“It’s a revolutionary automatic coffee machine,” she explained. “It actually has as shower head, so, as opposed to a regular coffee machine which has one stream straight down, ours showers down and has a pulsing to mimic the Chemex brewing. It’s been a huge success for us.”

Meanwhile, it has rebranded, changing a logo that had been constant since the ’80s, and also created new packaging, updated the website, and made full use of the wide array of social-media outlets to get its message across.

“It’s been quite an evolution,” said Grassy, adding that a thread through its many elements has been sensitivity to the company’s long, proud history, while also modernizing the brand as necessary. This approach can be seen in some of the new advertisements, which have a ’50s look to them.

“We want to take a company with a rich history and continue that legacy in a contemporary way,” she explained. “Our history is very special, and we don’t want to deviate from it. We want to marry the past with the present and future.”

Off-the-cup Remarks

As she wrapped up a tour of the Chicopee facility, Grassy paused in the spacious, still-vacant front area of the building.

Eventually, it will be reshaped into a display area for many of those artifacts now in the conference room — which represent only a fraction of what the company has stored in its archives — and there will also be a small coffee bar for employees and customers.

It’s an exciting development, one of many taking place at this company that is writing new chapters in a story that is rich in character — and flavor.

In other words, this is a venture on very solid ground — or grounds, as the case may be.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections
Excel Dryer Gains Market Share by Touting Green Benefits

Denis (left) and Bill Gagnon show off XLERATOR

Denis (left) and Bill Gagnon show off XLERATOR models branded with company logos, one of the product’s aesthetic selling points.

If there’s one statistic that drives Excel Dryer, it’s this one: 85%.

That’s the percentage of commercial restrooms in the U.S. that eschew hand dryers for paper towels. That represents significant — and attainable — opportunities, said William Gagnon, vice president of marketing for the East Longmeadow-based company started by his father, Denis, in 1999. After all, when Excel launched its signature product, the XLERATOR, in 2001, that number was 90%. And it continues to shrink.

“Excel Dryer works with all commercial facilities because all businesses have restrooms,” he told BusinessWest, listing some segments that purchase the most hand dryers, including schools; the hospitality industry — including restaurants, hotels, resorts, casinos, and amusement parks — assembly areas like stadiums, convention centers, and concert venues; healthcare; government; retail stores; and transportation facilities like airports, DOTs, and public-transit centers. “We are very successful with all facilities that focus on saving time, money, and the environment.”

The challenge is educating people about the benefits of using high-speed, energy-efficient hand dryers, which improve the user experience compared to older dryers, he said, adding that the XLERATOR dries hands three times faster than conventional hand dryers.

But the education efforts are working, and so is word of mouth.

“Since this new category of hand dryers has become available, hand dryers have gained significant traction versus paper towels,” Gagnon said, citing a report from Dodge Data and Analytics that Excel Dryer products are now listed among the specifications in more than half of new commercial construction projects that include hand dryers. “This means that architects and interior designers working in the commercial-restroom field prefer Excel Dryer models to any others on the market.”

Indeed, the XLERATOR’s initial success — it burst onto the market with a 700% increase in sales between 2001 and 2008 — was no fluke; the company continues to record double-digit growth each year, and 2014 was the best year in Excel’s history.

In fact, Gagnon says Excel has done nothing less than revolutionize the hand-dryer industry, changing the environment in commercial restrooms in more ways than one.

Heating Up

Environmental concerns are, in fact, at the top of Excel’s marketing strategy, but Gagnon said it’s fighting a messaging war with paper-towel manufacturers.

Specifically, he noted that paper-industry giants fund studies claiming that recycled paper towels must be better for the environment than electric hand dryers. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he added, claiming that Excel’s high-powered dryers actually represent a 70% reduction in carbon footprint compared to recycled paper towels.

“The paper industry also likes to say that paper towels are more sanitary,” he went on, “but independent, third-party studies from leading academic and research organizations debunk this myth time and time again.”

He cited a study from the Mayo Clinic that found no difference between paper towels and hand dryers in removing bacteria from washed hands. However, another study published in the American Journal of Infection Control found 17 species of bacteria on unused, recycled paper towels, and noted that this may have implications in industrial and clinical settings, like hospitals, which house immunocompromised individuals. “When a leading publication about infection control warns against using paper towels in healthcare settings,” Gagnon said, “that’s a pretty strong statement.”

To further emphasize the company’s dual emphases on cleanliness and ecological impact, Excel Dryer recently launched a new product, the XLERATOReco, which uses what Gagnon calls “no-heat technology” to dry hands quickly using only 500 watts.

“It offers all the same features and benefits of the original XLERATOR hand dryer, except for the heating element,” he explained. “This hand dryer significantly reduces energy consumption and is the best choice for facilities looking to reduce costs and energy usage.” He added that it’s also an attractive choice for facilities in warmer climates where the heating element is not as beneficial.

Even the original XLERATOR, because it dries hands so quickly, uses 80% less energy than conventional hand dryers, Gagnon said, and provide a 95% cost savings versus paper towels, once the initial cost of installation is recouped — typically, within one year. Add it up, and the Excel team believes it has a winning formula for continued growth, and not just domestically.

“Approximately 25% to 30% percent of our sales are exported outside of the United States, and we are experiencing tremendous growth in international markets,” he told BusinessWest. “For example, the European adoption rate of energy-efficient technology is significantly higher than here in the U.S. They have much stricter energy restrictions and less room in landfills for waste, so high-speed, energy-efficient hand-dryer technology is much more prevalent there.”

In fact, he added, the ratio of hand dryers to paper towels in commercial restrooms in Europe is three to one, a stark reversal of the U.S. model. “As awareness for energy conservation increases, environmentally friendly, energy-efficient hand-dryer adoption rates will increase on a global scale. The United States is not as far down the path of adopting sustainable solutions, but the demand in European markets is a good indication that energy-efficient technology is the way of the future.”

At the same time, Gagnon said, Excel has managed to keep its manufacturing base in East Longmeadow, using Kaizen Cell procedures to become more efficient instead of cutting costs by moving operations overseas, like others in its industry have done. In doing so, Excel continues to add manufacturing jobs locally.

Giving a Hand

Despite its continued growth, Excel isn’t resting on its success. It has added adjustable speed and sound control for sound-sensitive areas, and a HEPA filtration system and Microban anti-microbial wall guards to support hygienic standards. Excel also recently unveiled a sixth-generation motor for longer lifespan. Now, the control assembly features error codes to make maintenance easier.

On the aesthetic side, the device’s custom digital image covers can feature corporate colors, logos, images, and taglines. “You can see our custom covers here locally at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and all across the globe,” Gagnon noted.

“Big brands like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Coca-Cola, and even the New England Patriots have them in Gillette Stadium,” he added. “It’s great to see companies support sustainable solutions and co-brand the XLERATOR hand-dryer models with their unique style. It says a lot when an organization like the Patriots believes in your brand enough to put their logo on your product.”

The covers can also feature sustainable messaging, including statistics from the EPA, explaining why hand dryers are a better choice for the environment than paper towels, Gagnon said, adding that customers have increasingly come to appreciate the green appeal of the product.

In fact, Excel is the first hand-dryer company to become affiliated with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which hosts the largest green-building trade show, and is the force behind LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for environmentally friendly buildings. “We don’t just talk the talk; we walk the walk,” Gagnon added. “Our latest Excel Dryer corporate office expansion was LEED Gold-certified.”

In addition, the company touts its membership in the Green Building Initiative and the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council, and endorsements by the Green Restaurant and Green Hotels Assoc. and a listing on the GreenSpec guide to ecologically conscious building products.

“According to the EPA, one ton of paper towels requires 17 trees, pollutes 7,000 gallons of water, and takes up 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space,” Gagnon noted. “This is just too taxing on our environment. We need to find better, sustainable solutions. Going green is no longer just a movement; it’s becoming the expectation, and we are proud to be a catalyst for positive change.”

In addition, Excel is an original seed sponsor of the Green Apple Day of Service, a program of Green Apple, a cause-marketing initiative of the USGBC Center for Green Schools.

“Three years ago, they launched a national day of service, challenging school officials to improve education facilities and promote a safer, healthier, and more sustainable place to learn,” he explained, adding that Excel has participated each year by donating custom-covered Green Apple XLERATOR hand dryers to schools around the world. The Green Apple dryers are available for any facility to purchase, and a part of the proceeds goes back to support the Green Apple initiative. The next day of service is scheduled for Sept. 25.

“As awareness of green industry has grown, so has our business,” he said, “and we look forward to continue partnering with green-industry thought leaders and organizations to continue building momentum.”

(Rest)room for Growth

To that end, Gagnon anticipates sharing more developments in the coming year, from a hand-dryer model compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act to a new, integrated sink system that features the latest XLERATOR technology.

“We continue to focus on innovative solutions for the industry,” he told BusinessWest. And with so many commercial spaces still dependent on paper, he knows there are plenty of minds left to change.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections
Toolmaker Disston Completes Its Move to Chicopee Location

Mark Marzeotti

Mark Marzeotti says Disston’s move to Chicopee is part of a larger strategic initiative to make the company more competitive.

In the annals of handsaw manufacturing, the name Disston holds a special place.
Indeed, for decades, that brand was synonymous with quality and the phrase ‘top of the line.’ Visit eBay, and dozens of the company’s saws are listed, some with price tags well above $100, depending on the age and condition of the item in question.
But one doesn’t see that name or distinctive medallion much anymore. Instead, the current iteration of the Disston Saw Works of Philadelphia, started in 1840 and later known as Henry Disston & Sons Inc., makes a number of power-tool accessories, including bandsaw, reciprocating jigsaw, and circular saw blades, and other products for the industrial markets under the brand names Blu Mold, Blu Mold Xtreme, RemGrit, and Aggressor. It also makes tools for the consumer market, with most carrying private labels such as Craftsman (Sears and Kmart), Master Mechanic (TrueValue), and Cobalt (Lowe’s).
But while the Disston name is, for now at least, gone from the marketplace, more importantly for the region, it remains a part of the its still-vibrant manufacturing sector, and now appears on signage at the old Buxton warehouse and distribution facility on Plainfield Street in Chicopee.
The company completed the relocation of its remaining U.S. operations from Deerfield to that site last month, the latest step in what has been a large-scale reorganization aimed at keeping the company competitive and reducing its overall cost of doing business, said Mark Marzeotti, Disston’s vice president of Sales & Marketing.
Most of the domestic manufacturing operations have been moved to China, Marzeotti explained, noting that almost all of the company’s main competitors, including Black & Decker/DeWalt, Skil, Stanley, Irwin, and others, moved all or most production overseas years ago.
“We’re one of the last companies to transition manufacturing of power-tool accessories to China,” he noted. “And we were truly at a disadvantage on a cost standpoint, due to labor-cost differences, by continuing to manufacture in the United States; this seems to be the nature of the beast as it relates to our industry.”
The Chicopee plant, which staged an open house on Aug. 30, is roughly half the size (100,000 square feet, compared to 250,000 square feet) of the Deerfield facility, and more efficient, said Marzeotti, noting that several potential sites were explored before Disston settled on the former Buxton building.
There are currently 50 employees at the Chicopee facility, down from 65 in Deerfield (a number that has been falling steadily in recent years), he continued, adding that there is optimism that this figure could rise, based on recent success in that aforementioned consumer market.
Tracing the Disston company’s recent history, Marzeotti said it was owned for several years by Greenfield Industries, which eventually sold it to Stephen Chen, an entrepreneur and owner of several manufacturing operations, including one that made bandsaw blanks for Disston.
Over the past 24 months, Chen moved most components of the U.S. operation to China, where he owns several plants and is also involved in a number of joint ventures, said Marzeotti, adding that the light-manufacturing operations now in Chicopee are centered on production of Remgrit brand products — hole saw, bandsaw, and reciprocating saw blades with a carbide grit edge — for the industrial market, as well as custom welding of bandsaw loops, another subspecialty the company developed in recent years.
Company officials determined that they could these manufacturing components in this country because they are higher-margin products, said Marzeotti, and also because there is not U.S.-made competition in those categories.
Growth in employment numbers at the Chicopee plant is likely, he told BusinessWest, because of improved volume in the consumer market and projections for more of the same in the near future.
“We won a recent review at TrueValue and went from 100 SKUs to 700 SKUs, we’ve added 22 Craftsman-branded items at Kmart, and we’ve doubled our business at Sears,” he explained, adding that, while these consumer accounts and other industrial accounts involve mostly products overseas, there will be likely be a need for additional employees to receive, repackage, and distribute these products, and that work would be done in Chicopee.
Looking down the road, Marzeotti said the company is mulling the possible return of the Disston brand of handsaws. “Since handsaws are still sold, it would likely make sense for us to come out with a premier line of handsaws under the Disston label,” he said, adding quickly that there is no timetable for such an initiative.
In the meantime, though, the company will work to expand production of those other brands that currently roll out of its plants, and grow market share in the ultra-competitive power-tool-accessory market.
And the Chicopee plant will play a big part in those plans.

— George O’Brien

Manufacturing Sections
Savage Arms Continues a Tradition of Entrepreneurship, Innovation

Al Kasper

Al Kasper says a passionate team focused on innovation and lean manufacturing is the key to success at Savage Arms.

Al Kasper says there are three business fundamentals that have made 119-year old Savage Arms, the world’s largest manufacturer of hunting rifles and shotguns, so successful since its well-documented recovery from Chapter 11 bankruptcy two decades ago.
The first is a dedicated and passionate leadership team, one that has been hand-picked over the past 20 years. The second is a focus on lean manufacturing that was decidedly missing for most of the ’70s and ’80s, one of the main reasons for the company’s financial turmoil. And the third is a practice of innovative product development, enabled by a company-wide philosophy of not only listening to customers and industry experts, but also responding proactively to what they’re saying.
Kasper — who took the helm as president and CEO after ATK, an aerospace, defense, and commercial-products company, completed its acquisition of Savage in June — said those traits were instilled by his predecessor, Ronald Coburn, who is credited with rescuing the company from bankruptcy.
And today, they are taking Savage to the top of a highly competitive shooting-arms industry, with more than $200 million in annual sales, said Kasper, adding that the lessons learned then still apply today.
“Ron, himself, went out and sold,” recalled Kasper, who joined Savage 1996 as Coburn was staging the comeback. “Coming out of bankruptcy, the company didn’t have a lot of resources, so he literally went customer to customer — Wal-Mart, Kmart, and others — and was successful getting our rifles into those stores at the time.”
The efforts brought much-needed revenue to the company and gave it the time and breathing room to create a culture defined by innovation and entrepreneurship.
Indeed, while fixing what wasn’t working from an operations standpoint, and putting the company on a sound fiscal footing, were Coburn’s primary missions at first, he later created — and continued to inspire — new-product development and continuous improvement in production efficiency that caught the attention of the world.
Looking back, Kasper pointed to the year 2001, what he called ‘the renaissance’ of Savage Arms, and what followed, which was the growing popularity of the model 110, the flagship rifle of the company, and important innovations such as the AccuTrigger and AccuStock (more on them later) — key developments in taking the company to where it is today.
While talk of more stringent gun-control measures is driving sales of guns and ammunition to new heights in this country, Kasper said the lessons learned years ago and the ability to stay on the cutting edge of innovation are the real driving forces behind Savage’s continued success.
For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest toured the cavernous, 350,000-square-foot Savage Arms plant in Westfield to get a first-hand look at how the entrepreneurial spirit that originally defined the company and then enabled its historic comeback is still very much in evidence.

Taking Their Best Shot

The famous Savage Arms Indian head logo

The famous Savage Arms Indian head logo is on display in the company’s museum-like front lobby. It was a gift from Chief Lame Deer to company co-founder Arthur Savage in 1919.

Tracing the company’s history, Kasper said the story begins with Arthur Savage, inventor of the model 99 hammerless lever-action rifle, and Joshua Stevens, inventor of the .22-caliber long rifle cartridge, two entrepreneurs who struggled to get their own ventures off the ground, but persevered and came together to launch the Savage Arms Company in Utica, N.Y.
“Arthur Savage was a prolific inventor — he started with a rifle and built the company from that point,” said Kasper as he showed BusinessWest the expansive front lobby at the plant, which serves as a museum of sorts, showcasing hundreds of rifles, handguns, and some of Savage’s other developments, including an upright washing machine invention and the world’s first motorized lawnmower.
By 1919, Savage and Stevens were manufacturing high-powered rifles, .22-caliber rifles, pistols, and ammunition. Their products caught the attention of Cheyenne Indian Chief Lame Deer, who struck a deal for lever-action rifles in return for Indian-reservation support and endorsement — as well as the imagery that became the Indian head Savage Arms logo, which remains in use today.
Savage passed away as World War II was beginning, but the company provided a variety of weapons for that conflict, including something called the Savage-Halpine torpedo, as well as machine guns for planes and ground forces.
The company moved to the Westfield location in 1959 and continued to grow, said Kasper, but between the early ’60s and late ’80s, several public and private corporations owned and sold Savage Arms.
“These owners were conglomerates and/or private-equity holders that just continually took cash out and put no cash in,” said Kasper, adding that the slide that ended in the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing was a two-decade-long decline characterized by inefficient operations — to the point where the cost of making some products exceeded their sales price — and an overall lack of passion in the leadership of the company. With no new-product development and no advancement in equipment, the quality of the products plummeted, and the company fell on very hard times.
Enter Coburn as president and CEO in 1989. Kasper said he analyzed the production line and determined that the only product being made profitably was the lowest-volume product, the model 110 bolt-action rifle.
“Ron did a phenomenal job of taking the corporation from bankruptcy in 1988 and righting the ship, positioning the company to begin a growth path,” said Kasper. “He simplified the right products, stayed the course, and started putting a team together.”
Indeed, Coburn halted all production and, once his analysis was complete, began to focus on lean manufacturing of that one product.
By 1995, Coburn raised enough money to purchase Savage Arms and took it private, later hiring Kasper to assist him with the financials and operations of the company.
In the years to come, the company would put its name on a number of landmark innovations, including the SNAIL, a Savage-designed and patented environmentally friendly shooting-range system that has since been adopted by the NRA, FBI, numerous special forces, all major firearms manufacturers, police, military, and private shooting clubs in the U.S. and 14 other countries.
Meanwhile, in 1998, a hunting handgun called the Striker Rimfire was introduced through a newly acquired factory in Canada, and in late 2000, Savage developed the world’s first smokeless muzzleloader and introduced a number of short magnums to complement its Centerfire rifle series.
While Coburn may have started the rebirth of Savage Arms through independent retailers and national giants like Wal-Mart, in recent years, the rise of mega-specialty sporting-goods stores, like Dick’s, Cabela’s, and Bass Pro Shops, gave Savage even more effective points of sale. Featuring Savage Arms products in an atmosphere that is almost Disney-like for hunting and target-shooting enthusiasts, the manufacturer rose to prominence and caught the attention of ATK.
On June 24, ATK announced that it had completed the acquisition of Savage Sports Corp., allowing Savage’s products to be natural complements to ATK’s existing hunting and shooting sports ammunition and accessories business. Ron Johnson took over briefly as Savage’s CEO after Coburn’s retirement until the sale with ATK, then moved on to head up Savage’s BowTech Archery brand, which ATK did not acquire.
“The Savage acquisition adds tremendous capability to our hunting and shooting sports portfolio,” said Jay Tibbets, ATK Sporting Group president. “Their current offerings are well-positioned as affordable, high-quality products, and Savage Arms will help make us a more valued supplier to our customers.”
Kasper praised ATK’s flexible integration plan and its understanding that, with limited resources, and business being as healthy as it is, shipping products on time and keeping customer service at a high are main focuses.
The company now boasts 468 employees in the Westfield plant, and another 158 split between the Ontario, Canada plant and the Suffield, Conn. sales and marketing office.

High-caliber Innovation
Returning to the Coburn legacy, Kasper explained that the former CEO and the team he was building had no qualms about reaching out and seeking advice from experts and those who love hunting and target shooting, and this willingness to reach out has become another key element in the company’s success.
Bill Dermody, director of marketing for Savage, calls this practice “corporate humility,” while quickly acknowledging that this is his term for outreach.
“At Savage, if we want to get into a certain market — long-range target shooting, for example — we don’t assume we know everything,” Dermody told BusinessWest. “We’ll go out and find experts on that topic and bring them in and have them advise us on how that product needs to be.”
But simply soliciting feedback isn’t enough, said Kasper.
“It’s whether you listen to them or not that matters most, and we know our competitors are hearing the same things and seeing the same things in the marketplace,” he said.  “Yet, we’re the first to be there and address the issue with a particular product.”
In addition to calling upon experts, listening to customer opinions is a company policy, and commentary is solicited via e-mail and phone, and at more than 70 consumer events and 85 private gun clubs per year in the U.S. alone. Such outreach has been a driving force in the company’s new-product development, strategic plan, and pattern of innovation in recent years.
For instance, the model 110, the former staple of the company during the 2001 renaissance period, is now obsolete. “That gun today has no common components to what Ron was peddling in the ’90s,” Kasper said with a laugh.
The reason is the AccuTrigger.
It was developed by the company in early 2003, and it became the answer to a nagging problem within the industry — the need for a better, crisper trigger that would prevent discharge from jarred or dropped guns. The trigger problem was inadvertently supporting an already established, and quite aggravating, after-market industry of custom gunsmithing, known as ‘trigger jobs,’ that brought an additional expense to gun owners.
“So we looked at these things that gunsmiths were doing to customize rifles and said, ‘how can we do that on a manufacturing basis?’” said Dermody. “How do we give the end user what he wants right up front as a final product?”
The AccuTrigger did more than just solve a safety and accuracy issue for all rifles; it set a new standard in the industry and put Savage back on the map.
“AccuTrigger made people that had never considered buying a Savage want to pick up a Savage and check it out,” said Dermody. So significant was the development that it pulled customers from major competitors like Ruger and Remington.
“If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we’re the most flattered gun company out there,” Dermody added. “And it took everybody [competitors] about five to six years to figure out a way around the patent.”
Not content to rest on its laurels — another trait instilled by Coburn and his leadership team — the innovators at Savage looked for the next problem to solve. They found that, due to the market moving from wood stocks, which would scratch, warp, or dent, to synthetic stocks, which were lighter and less rigid, a new problem had arisen: heat and stress would cause the stock to flex ever so slightly, causing the bullet to fly off line.
The solution, eventually named the AccuStock, was an aluminum-rail system molded into the stock, engaging the action three-dimensionally along the rifle’s entire length.
Both the AccuTrigger and AccuStock are textbook examples of how Savage Arms has stayed on the cutting edge of technology in the industry and how its tradition of innovation has generated visibility and, more importantly, sales.
Today, Savage Arms offers more than a dozen gun models, but there are more than 1,000 SKUs to customize each product. The biggest seller now is the Axis bolt-action mounted rifle, designed and developed to be a low-cost, high-value, entry-level hunting and sporting rifle, offered in a number of calibers.

Triggering Results
The front lobby at Savage has always been a tribute to the past, and for a few decades, that’s all it was, because the past was all the company could celebrate.
But today, the pieces on display, including some of the innovations of the past few decades, are symbols of an ongoing tradition of excellence and innovation, and a clear indication that this company isn’t done with creating products that can change an industry.
“The most important part of Ron’s legacy is the team he built here,” Kasper said. “We’re not short on ideas; there are exciting opportunities that lie in front of us.”

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections
Instrument Technology Inc. Has an Eye on the Future

ITI

ITI has found a number of military and law-enforcement uses for its scopes.

Walk inside the Westfield headquarters of Instrument Technology Inc., and the first thing you’ll notice is the totem pole. It’s kind of hard to miss, rising dramatically up two levels of the front atrium.

In fact, an abundance of Native American art graces many of the walls and offices of the facility. ITI President Greg Carignan says there’s a good reason for this, and it has to do with a hobby his father, Donald, stumbled upon by accident decades ago, shortly after founding the company.

“He was on the road, in very remote areas of the United States, calling on nuclear power plants that were usually out in the boonies,” Carignan said. “Usually, there was nothing around except Indian reservations. So, when he had time on his hands, he’d visit these reservations and meet artists, and he started growing an interest in Indian art. He started collecting it, and when his house overflowed, it started coming here. It’s quite a collection.”

Why nuclear power plants? When he launched ITI in 1967 as a manufacturer of optics equipment, the elder Carignan got heavily involved in the nuclear-energy market; “he started building underwater periscopes and wall periscopes to look at the spent fuel rods being stored underwater.”

Greg Carignan explained that, after a period of time, a nuclear fuel rod’s energy is spent, but it’s still radioactive, which has led to debate over the years about establishing a national repository for those spent rods in the Southwest, but bureaucracy and public opposition have made that all but impossible.

“So nuclear plants are required to store spent rods at their facility, mostly underwater, and they’re required to be inspected periodically,” he said. “Dad developed a large-diameter periscope that could go down underwater and look at those spent fuel rods and make sure they’re in good condition. He built quite a few of those scopes in the late ’60s and early ’70s.”

Greg Carignan

Greg Carignan says the company’s diversity has allowed it to thrive during societal changes, such as a shift away from nuclear power plants.

Today, Carignan, who, along with two siblings, took over the company from their father in 1990, oversees a 47-employee workforce designing and building cutting-edge optical equipment for a wide range of purposes, from peering around corners in war zones to helping doctors navigate inside the human body.

For this issue’s focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest pays a visit to Instrument Technology, which has been scoping out new opportunities in an intriguing field for the last 45 years — and shows no signs of slowing down the pace of innovation.

 

Solo Act

Donald Carignan, his son recalled, had a background in optics and worked as a project engineer for American Optical from 1960 to 1966. He then took a job with Kollmorgen Electro-Optical; “that’s where he got his experience building borescopes and periscopes.” Just a year later, he was ready to strike out on his own, launching ITI in Southampton.

“My dad was a pretty driven individual; he worked hard to make it a success,” Greg Carignan said, noting that the company was a bit gypsy-like during its first two decades, moving from Southampton to West Springfield, then to Westfield, and finally to the current facility on the other side of the city in 1985.

“We specialize in the design and manufacturing of remote-viewing instruments,” he explained, noting that the company employs designers and engineers, as well as a full machine shop and assemply department to build the products it designs.

“What is remote viewing? It’s the ability to view a photograph or video-record any area that’s inaccessible or hostile, as well as the ability to view covertly,” he explained. “We added that last portion over the past 20 years because, before that, it hadn’t been used for covert operations.”

But he backed up a bit to describe how ITI has branched into so many diverse fields.

It began with the nuclear-power plants, for which the company developed not only those underwater-viewing scopes, but wall periscopes that allowed workers to see past thick concrete walls into the ‘hot cells’ where radioactive materials were handled. But societal changes that impacted the nuclear-power industry would force ITI to shift its focus — and not for the last time.

“During the Carter years of the late 1970s,” Carignan said, “the nation saw a drastic decline in the number of nuclear facilities being built. And most facilities had our equipment in them. My dad was in need of business, so he looked elsewhere to try to continue moving ITI forward.

“He looked at the industrial market and saw that it was being served by medical endoscopes at the time, and nobody was building industrial borescopes,” he said, noting that the two words are essentially interchangeable, with ‘endoscope’ typically referring to a medical instrument and ‘borescope’ a non-medical one.

“Endoscopes for the human body came on the scene about 40 years ago, but it wasn’t until later on that people figured out they could use the same scopes to look into jet engines, castings, pipes, and other things in industry,” Carignan said. “My dad started working for companies like Pratt & Whitney and General Electric to build delicate industrial borescopes to inspect their engines. They called it the ‘jetscope.’”

Many years ago, he explained, the airline industry had to take apart engines to conduct inspections required by the Federal Aviation Administration — a very costly, time-consuming process. But the development of a flexible borescope that could be inserted into each end of the engine was a revolutionary and cost-saving change.

“Designers started designing points along the engine so they could look in the middle, too,” he said. “You take out a plug and stick in the scope to look at the different sections of the engine.”

During the ’80s and ’90s, the industrial market grew for ITI, and the scopes became more complex, with flexible shafts and articulated tips allowing for more flexible movement.

 

A Time to Kill, a Time to Heal

Dawn Carignan Thomas

Dawn Carignan Thomas holds one of ITI’s scopes used for medical applications.

Throughout this expansion, ITI hadn’t done anything in the medical market. “But that changed in the 1990s when a company on the West Coast — Accuscan in Mountain View, Calif. — knocked on our door and asked us to make what they called a gastroscope for them,” Carignan said.

“They didn’t want to see through it; they didn’t want fibers in it or optics of any kind,” he continued. “They were going to put a transducer in the tip and use it as an ultrasonic device for an esophageal probe down the throat to scope the heart, which is much easier than to try to do it externally and look through the rib cage and all the muscle and fatty tissue.

“We worked with them for a year and a half, and that’s when we started in the medical business,” he continued — a shift that has seen the company produce rigid arthroscopes, ureteroscopes, otoscopes, spine scopes, and laparoscopes; flexible gastroscopes, bronchoscopes, and colonoscopes; as well as equipment for video intubation.

“After 20 years, we’ve become a lot more selective about who we decide to work with,” Carignan said regarding the ideas potential customers pitch to ITI. “If it sounds like a very high risk, or a low chance of successfully bringing it to market, we may not get involved. If it’s a startup company or doctor/inventor that’s asking us to do it on our dime and pay for the development costs, oftentimes we’ll say no.

“The model we’ve come to develop,” he continued, “is companies that have some success already and are willing to share the developent costs of the product.”

Eventually, ITI expanded its offerings even further by getting involved in the law-enforcement and military markets, with products such as telescopic cameras that can see around corners and in darkness, under-door scopes, and scopes that see into rooms using tiny (as small as 2.6 mm) holes in the wall.

“We also needed non-conductive probes that could look into a package or parcel to check if there was anything explosive,” Carignan said. “You don’t want to stick in something metallic that could short the device and cause an explosion.”

The original models used infrared light to expose images, and “that was very successful — then the bad guys figured it out,” Carignan said. “So we were asked to find out new ways of seeing. So we developed a blue-light diode, with different characteristics that wouldn’t trigger detection devices. We always want to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.”

ITI also built a pole camera to look into second stories of buildings, down stairwells, into ceiling tiles, and even underwater. “This was a scope we sold quite a bit of to special-ops groups in Iraq, to clear buildings, streets, and neighborhoods, to look around corners and into rooms where the bad guys might be before clearing out a room. They were eventually used in caves to hunt down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”

The wars and Iraq and Afghanistan saw a surge in the production of such devices. Carignan showed BusinessWest a chart breaking down sales from 1999 through 2008, and while medical devices tend to make up the biggest percentage of the company’s sales in a typical year, the law-enforcement and military division took that spot from 2003 through 2006. Meanwhile, sales of industrial scopes have fallen off somewhat over the years, but are rebounding.

 

Next Generation

The three siblings — Greg, Controller and Purchasing Manager Dawn Carignan Thomas, and Manufacturing Manager Jeff Carignan — admit their devices don’t allow a clear view into the company’s future. With six kids among them, third-generation ownership is always possible.

“We’re wondering where the next generation might take us,” Greg Carignan said, “but it’s still early for that.”

For now, they continue to grow and innovate, scoping out new ideas to help people — manufacturers, surgeons, and soldiers alike — see a lot more clearly.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections
Chamberlain Group Has Become a Model of Success

Lisa and Eric Chamberlain

Lisa and Eric Chamberlain say their immersion in all things anatomy-related was like going to medical school.

They were working in Hollywood special effects when someone suggested that they take their model-making talents and put them to use making lifelike body parts for medical training. That’s how Eric and Lisa Chamberlain entered an exciting new field with a world of growth potential. They’ve become a leader in that realm because of something they’ve taken from their days working on Arnold Schwarzenegger movies — what Lisa called a “propensity for invention.”

It’s called the ‘bullet-time effect,’ a term that has come to describe a filming technique that goes way, way beyond simple slow motion.
Perhaps the best-known example of this effect are the sequences in the movie The Matrix, where, for example, the character played by Keanu Reeves leaps in the air and appears to suspend there while the point of view rotates 360 degrees around him to reveal a series of improbable, hyper-slow-motion activities, such as bullets flying at and past him.
Eric and Lisa Chamberlain were part of the team that designed the camera system for those sequences, and, as it turned out, this was to be their last real work in Hollywood special effects. Indeed, by that time (1998), their talents with model making — on display in several other movies, including Judge Dredd, Eraser, and Starship Troopers — had caught the attention of someone in a completely different field: the making of physical models (body parts) for medical training.
That individual, Mark Curtis, a subcontractor who did staff training for medical-device makers, eventually gave the Chamberlains a few projects, such as one to build a human leg on which individuals could practice saphenous vein dissection. Before long, the two were hooked. And soon, they saw this emerging industry as a way to trade the erratic lifestyle of a special-effects artist — “it’s OK if you’re willing to live like a gypsy,” said Lisa, noting an inconsistency in work and thus cash flow — for something more potentially stable. Meanwhile, it was also as a way to remain in the Berkshires, a region they had come to love.
Fast-forwarding through the ensuing 12 years — and a steep learning curve on the broad subject of anatomy (more on that later) — the Chamberlain Group, the company formed by the couple, has become an industry leader in physical model making. Its customers include medical-device makers such as Johnson & Johnson, Boston Scientific, and Intuitive Surgical, as well as medical care providers ranging from Johns Hopkins to the Lahey Clinic to Baystate Medical Center.
The company currently does business in 48 states and 50 countries, supplying customers with everything from entire hearts (some that beat) to a synthetic bowl product, called Tactility, developed in collaboration with Baystate for use in the training of residents.
And when asked how this success was accomplished, both Eric and Lisa Chamberlain went back to their days with The Matrix and several Arnold Schwarzenegger movies to help find answers.
“When you work in special effects, you have a propensity toward invention,” said Lisa. “You’re essentially recreating something from scratch, without relying too much on the work you’ve done before. Doing something new was just part of the game, and that has kept us very open-minded to learning and developing.”
This open-mindedness, coupled with film work involving three dimensions, has transferred nicely to the making of body parts, said Eric, noting that the team at Chamberlain Group, like special-effects artists, are, in a nutshell, problem solvers and solution finders.
“Each project is different and has its own set of challenges,” he said, while drawing comparisons to his previous line of work. “You’re just diving in each time; the learning curve is different with every project.”
Lisa Chamberlain did not disclose sales figures, but growth for the Chamberlain Group has been steady, and the outlook is positive, despite predictions made years ago that the medical field would, like aerospace, come to rely on computer simulation for much if not all of its training.
For this issue, BusinessWest takes a look at what goes on inside the Chamberlain Group facilities in Great Barrington, and why the company’s operating slogan, “Bringing Practice to the Practice of Medicine,” has become a formula for success.

Body of Evidence
There’s a framed copy of the poster from the first Ghostbusters movie hanging on a wall just off the front lobby of the company’s headquarters. It’s one of many mementos from the days when the Chamberlains were working for R/Greenberg Associates in New York, where they met.
Eric was head of physical effects for the production company, specializing in miniature models, mechanical effects, and motion controls, while working on pictures ranging from Ghostbusters to Tootsie, while Lisa worked more on the promotions end, working on posters (like the one on the wall), trailers, and other forms of advertising.
Seeking to get away from the bustle of Gotham, the Chamberlains and others at R/Greenberg headed for the Berkshires to join a budding special-effects house called Mass Illusion, where they created a memorable explosion scene in Eraser, among many other credits.
By 1997, however, a number of circumstances were colliding to bring the couple into the medical field. Mass Illusion was in the process of migrating to the West Coast, Mark Curtis was starting to feed projects to the freelance model makers, and the Chamberlains were looking for more stability in their careers.
At first, they had no idea of what they were getting into with medical models, understanding only that it was work — which they needed.
“We said, ‘sure, what’s that?’” noted Lisa, when recalling Curtis’s initial inquiries. “We were like all good freelancers — you take the work first and figure it out after.
“Eventually, we saw this as a way to take our talents and put them to a different end, we felt, and a more meaningful end,” she said. “And the anatomy part became very attractive to us, so much so that we thought that, from an intellectual-curiosity standpoint, this would be a great opportunity, and from a wanting-to-stay-in-the-Berkshires standpoint, it would potentially make for a more even-keeled life.”
Near the end of 1998, the two had made up their minds to take their careers in this new direction — and they took several Mass Illusion artists along for the ride.
But first, they had to learn anatomy. Actually, they learned it as they went, burying their noses in Gray’s Anatomy and other 3-inch-thick volumes, while also asking myriad questions of physicians and even attending several surgical procedures to observe first-hand how and why physicians do what they do.
Eric joked that they thought about taking a college course or two on the subject, but couldn’t find the time because their business was growing so fast. “Anatomy was a real learning curve,” he said. “It was almost like going to med school.”
Lisa agreed. “There was a huge amount of learning,” said the college English major, who can now recite the names of hundreds of surgical procedures or the corresponding acronyms. “We learned a procedure, an anatomical sequence at a time, and we always tell our clients, ‘teach us as if you were teaching a resident or a physician about your new device.
“We know our stuff — because we have to,” she went on, “And we’re pleased when we hear surgeons say, as one did last week, ‘boy, you guys really know a lot of anatomy.’”

In the Right Vein

Lisa Chamberlain, seen here with one of the many heart models

Lisa Chamberlain, seen here with one of the many heart models made by the company, says a “propensity for invention” has helped drive consistent growth.

They’ve heard that phrase, or words to that effect, many times over the years, as they’ve introduced new products and added new lines to the client list, a process that gained some serious momentum after the Chamberlains attended a medical-device convention for the Society of Thoracic Surgeons in Fort Lauderdale in the winter of 2000.
“We went there essentially to see who the competition was, and what we found was that there was very little competition,” Lisa explained. “We got very excited and said, ‘there’s real potential here to make a business. We passed out business cards — we had no real sales/marketing plan or any experience in those areas — and started a contact at a time, and a project a time.”
Much of the early work was with hearts, which led to the development of several different models, including one that beats, as well as accompanying component parts such as small blood vessels for bypass-surgery training, radial arteries for harvesting, and many others. Eventually, though, the company branched out into other areas of the anatomy, and in each case, the products involved what she called “involved interaction.”
The basic operating strategy, she continued, is to “wait for the phone to ring” with requests from medical-device makers and health care providers for specific (and sometimes very specific) training aids.
Such was the case with Baystate and Tactility, she explained, noting that the product, developed in conjunction with Baystate with the help of a $150,000 grant from the John Adams Innovation Institute, represents a significant improvement over the pig intestine that had been used in resident training.
There is no catalog, per se, although several products are listed on the Web site, said Chamberlain, because the company believes it serves its customers better by engaging them in what they desire to purchase.
“Not every piece of anatomy is designed to do what it is that you want to do with it,” she explained, choosing the words carefully. “So we try to engage our clients to find out what their needs are, and then meet those needs.”
The company produces perhaps 100 different models of the heart, she continued, all with some standard equipment, but with variations on the theme depending on the intended subject matter for training.
When it comes to making trainers for medical-device makers, said Lisa, the company usually starts with a prototype sent by the manufacturer with the purpose of familiarizing Chamberlain Group artisans with the device’s use and “tissue interaction,” which she called a critical part of the learning process when it comes to manufacturing useful tissues that behave like the real thing.
This is part of what she called a “knowledge-extraction process” the company goes through with clients, and while discussing it, she again drew comparisons to movie special-effects work, and specifically those aspects of creating things from scratch — and working tirelessly to create a solution.
“We’re serious people taking a serious approach,” she explained. “You don’t get to the top of the industry in visual effects by working a 9-to-5 job. That was never our mode, and it’s not our mode today.”
One of company’s early clients (and still a steady customer) is Intuitive Surgical, maker of the da Vinci surgical robot, said Lisa, noting that, about a decade ago, the Chamberlain Group developed something called the ‘robotic trainer kit,’ a simple skills kit that has enabled the company’s products to reach markets around the world, and remains one of its best-selling items.
Word-of-mouth referrals, coupled with a high degree of mobility within the medical-device-manufacturing industry, have certainly helped the Chamberlain Group, she went on. “People move around a lot from company to company, and as they’ve moved, people who have had good experiences with us have brought us with them as a resource for their new company.”

A Leg Up on Competitors
As he talked about how the company’s products are taken from a phone call to conception to the training facility, Eric Chamberlain, who handles the design and development aspects of the business, stared at his computer, equipped with 3-D design software.
There, he demonstrated for BusinessWest how a model begins to take shape digitally, with scanned images from CT scans or MRIs. And he used, as an example, actual patient data, specifically an individual with an abdominal aortic aneurism, or AAA, as it’s known in medical circles, for use in creation of a kit to train people in how to treat that condition.
“It occurs when … the aorta passes through the diaphragm, and down lower it bifurcates into the fenurals,” said Eric, exercising some of that knowledge of anatomy he has absorbed over the years. “Right at that bifurcation, the aorta loses its resiliency, and it bulges, and depending on how much it bulges it can be very dangerous, because it can burst.”
As he deftly manipulated his mouse, Chamberlain was able to isolate the bulging aorta and create a 3-D view of it. This piece can then be exported, he explained, and the company can make a mold for it, machine it with milling equipment, or 3-D print it using state-of-the-art technology that uses thousands of thin layers of powder which adhere together.
Using these processes, the company has created the ‘liliac artery approach training model for AAA stenting, with replaceable aorta’ and several hundred other kits involving individual body parts and systems that look and feel like the real thing, and, more importantly, provide invaluable hands-on learning opportunities for those who will use them.
And to ensure that the products provide those experiences, the company works closely with its clients — and immerses itself in a learning process — to gain the complete understanding of the anatomy, mechanical interface, and procedure subtleties necessary for the product to fulfill its intended mission — that aforementioned involved interaction.
Lisa Chamberlain told BusinessWest there is no five-year plan for this business, primarily because the industry, the technology, and the needs within the medical community are changing at much too rapid a pace for that, as their first 12 years in business have clearly shown.
“The industry has changed tremendously — the whole field of what is called health care simulation is in its infancy still, but it’s a whole lot bigger infant than it was when we got involved; it was really embryonic in the early days, and it’s now emerged as a whole new field in health care education, and we were just lucky enough to be a part of it.”
And because this pace of growth is expected to only accelerate as the infant continues to grow, the Chamberlains see a bright future for their venture, in work for both medical-device makers — who will need trainers on which residents and physicians can become proficient with their instruments and robots — and health care facilities that want to train individuals in an environment that is as close to the real thing as possible.
Which brings Lisa Chamberlain back to the subject of virtual-reality simulators, and her contention that they have only limited application in the health care field. “This is a pedal-hits-the-metal problem,” she explained. “When you have an instrument in your hand and you are touching tissue, if you don’t have appropriate haptic feedback [software that gauges applied force], you can negatively train.”
Harkening back to the Chamberlains’ special-effects background one more time, she said their experience in that industry revealed to them the limitations of computer graphics, something that fuels optimism about their future in business.
“So when the industry said that all this will go computer-based,” said Lisa, gesturing to the work being done in their shop, “we didn’t really think so, and in fact there is a shaking out of that process that’s going on right now.”
Drawing an analogy to the architectural field, she said that, while computer animation is allowing those in the profession to see and understand how a building will look and function long before it’s built, many in that profession still draw by hand on drafting tables.
“Traditional apprenticeship-oriented professions, such as architecture, such as medicine, have had an inherent resistant to change,” she explained, adding that this phenomenon — coupled with the rapid pace of innovation in surgical technique and, therefore, the need to continually train physicians and residents — adds up to opportunities for those making physical models.

Roll the Credits
Beyond the Ghostbusters poster, there are few reminders of the Chamberlains’ “other life,” as Lisa called it, creating special effects for Hollywood.
On one wall, there’s a map of the world with push pins in every country and state the company has penetrated. Meanwhile, other wall space is devoted to images of anatomy more likely to be found in a physician’s office.
But while they’ve left the movie business behind, they’ve taken many important lessons with them, especially that “propensity for invention” that Lisa mentioned.
It has served them well, and helped create a model of entrepreneurship and business success — in more than ways than one.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections
Company Makes Medical Instruments, Implants That Change Lives

John (left) and Steven Hicks

John (left) and Steven Hicks say they take pride in being on the leading edge of innovations in medical equipment.


When most people get together at a party or with friends and someone asks what they do, it sparks a brief conversation.
But when Steven Hicks, general manager of Thorn Industries Inc. in Springfield, tells people that he makes implants for knee, hip, and spine surgery as well as instruments used by doctors to perform the operations, people launch into detailed stories about their own medical histories.
“Someone will say, ‘I have one of those implants in my neck,’ ” he said, adding that he often shows them the tiny cervical plate that dangles from his keychain. “People have told me about big screws they have in their legs or other implants. The product may not be something we made, but is often something similar. My nephew had problems with his knees, and I was able to show him pictures of a cadaver part and the section of meniscus that was torn in his knee.”
In fact, Thorn Industries is a family business that Steven and his father, John Hicks, who gave birth to the company, take tremendous pride in. “We’re always on the leading edge of something new in the medical field, and we enjoy hearing these stories and being a part of this field,” Steven said. “It’s a very challenging business, but at the end of the day, you know that someone is using your products to better people’s lives.”
Thorn manufactures instrumentation and implantable surgical devices for the spine, knee, and hip using state-of-the-art computer numeric-controlled machinery. It also does its own laser marking, using a laser to mark parts for customers, as well as a process called passivation, which cleans instruments and implants with citric acid to remove imperfections in stainless steel or titanium.
“This business appeals to us, as it’s not something everyone can do,” Steven said. “You need the proper certification, which is difficult to obtain, and we work hand-in-hand with many design engineers on proprietary projects. We’ve done studies in our building on cadaver parts for knee surgery as well as on human feet and a cow’s spine.”

Taking Root
Thorn Industries was launched in February of 2002, after John moved from his job at the manufacturing company where he had worked for 33 years. “It was clear that it was time to go off on my own,” he said. He operated for a short period of time in Ludlow, but when Blackstone Medical Co. invited him to move his company into its facility at 90 Brookfield Dr. in Springfield, he embraced the opportunity for growth.
“They knew the medical business and needed someone to do small jobs for them,” John said, adding that he rented space in Blackstone’s modern plant, which contained state-of-the-art machinery.
At that point, his son Steven, who had started working at age 15 in the same company where his father spent three decades, joined him in the venture. Steven is a manufacturing engineer and had also worked in the field of research and development.
Their business included manufacturing parts for the aviation and firearms industries. But their medical knowledge, which was limited, grew quickly as they worked closely with Blackstone’s engineers and designers, and learned how to resolve issues that involved quality control with members of that firm’s engineering and quality department.
As time went on, Blackstone asked Thorn to expand its production manufacturing, which meant it had to make an investment in new and expensive computer numeric controlled machinery. The company received a grant for $36,000, which they triple matched in order to meet the stringent requirements it took to obtain an ISO13485 certification, which was necessary to allow them to produce medical devices used in the human body.
The added expense meant they needed to acquire more customers to make their investment worthwhile. But they have done so and met with real success.
Nine years later, Thorn is among leaders in the manufacturing of medical devices and instrumentation in Western Mass., and has less than a handful of competitors. Today, it works with about 15 clients and produces approximately 20,000 pieces each month.
The products they make are intricate and cross a wide range of needs within the health care field. In addition to tools used by physicians during surgery, “we work with people who harvest bone and tissue for transplants and want new instruments to do their work,” Steven said. “An engineer will call us and present an idea, and we help the firm develop it from prototype to production.”

Budding Venture
It’s not unusual for Thorn to have a request for a customized medical instrument to fit a specific doctor’s hand. The company also makes instruments and implants to accommodate different-sized patients, and Steven says the “fit, form, and function” of each piece must be precise.
“The size of a doctor’s hand can vary, and many want a tool that fits it exactly,” he explained, adding that physicians are concerned with aesthetics as well as fit and the ease of using a new instrument. “Engineers come to us with their wishes, and we are also called upon to make things in different sizes so they can accommodate surgeries in children as well as adults.”
This is no small feat, as every instrument or implant requires a new prototype. In addition, each one must undergo stringent testing to ensure that it meets those requirements for fit, form, and function without fail.
For example, screws used in surgery must fit exactly inside a stacked tolerance. “You can over-engineer something and still have the right fit and function. But if there is a design flaw, it could break if there is too much pressure put on by an instrument,” Steven said.
It takes two to five prototypes to create a finished design, with the number dependent on its complexity. Once that process is complete, the instrument or medical device is used in cadaver labs, and lengthy testing is required before it can be marketed.
This type of risk analysis is critical, John said, to ensure that accidents don’t occur during surgery.
John and Steven have both watched and worked alongside engineers who have performed surgeries under their roof on cadaver knees and feet, and figured out changes that needed to be made in an implant or instrument.
However, John makes it clear that the utmost respect is paid when cadaver parts are used.
“The people who work on them always take a moment of silence before they begin their surgery to appreciate the person,” he explained. “They will make a cut, then stop because they are extremely careful about what they do. We saw a surgery done on a knee that was scheduled to have four more surgeries after it left our company. It’s not as simple as people think.”
Nor is the production of these instruments and implants used in the human body.
After all modifications have been made to a design that are deemed necessary, it is frozen. “No changes can be made after that, which is why it is important to hash out problems so that, once it is being used in the field, the probability of failure is minimal,” Steven said.
At that point, doctors are trained in the use of the new equipment and/or implant. However, every piece that is manufactured must be marked by the manufacturer, so it can be traced in the event of a problem. “They need to be able to find out who made it and what processes and materials were used in the event that something goes wrong,” Steven said.
John explained that the tools used today are not much different than those used 100 years ago. But the designs have become more sophisticated, and custom fitting and new ideas make the industry one that continues to evolve.
For example, a medical device that has a history of becoming easily contaminated and has many different parts may be modified so it can be disassembled and the parts can be sterilized after each surgery. “Old designs are weaned out as engineers analyze how surgery can be done faster and more efficiently,” Steven said.

Scoping Things Out
The firm also continues to do work in the field of aerospace manufacturing as well as firearm production. But the bulk of its business is dedicated to helping improve people’s lives, which is accomplished with a staff of 12 employees and a team of support people.
“There are always new designs, and we have to keep a competitive edge,” Steven said. “We are always on the cutting edge in terms of equipment and personnel.”
Which makes for some really interesting conversations.