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Coronavirus Manufacturing Special Coverage

Making Do

Kristin Carlson

Kristin Carlson says the pandemic has actually helped business at Peerless Precision, especially when it comes to making parts for defense and law-enforcement-related products.

Mark Borsari says he hasn’t been on a plane since a vacation in early March.

By his reckoning, that’s by far the longest stretch he can remember when he hasn’t been flying somewhere, especially in his role as president of Palmer-based Sanderson MacLeod, a maker of fine wire brushes for everything from makeup kits to gun cleaning.

The six months on the ground has been a time of reflection — and even humor.

“I’m sure my wife’s probably thinking I should be on a plane more,” said Borsari with a laugh, adding that he’s not at all sure when he actually will.

But being effectively grounded from air travel is just one of the many ways COVID-19 has shaken things up for manufacturers, and, in the larger scheme of things, perhaps one of the least consequential given the way Zoom has become the preferred method for communicating with clients and employees alike.

Indeed, the pandemic has prompted everything from weeks-long shutdowns to scrambling for needed parts; from strategies for keeping employees safe to the need to manufacture different products — often PPE — to keep workers busy because demand for the products that were being produced has slowed or stopped.

Much has hinged on the word ‘essential’ — a status bestowed on many manufacturers in the 413, an area with a large number of shops making parts for aerospace, defense, or the broad healthcare sector.

Sanderson MacLeod makes products for all those fields, said Borsari, noting that, after a short but still tension-filled time of uncertainty regarding the company’s status, it was declared essential. The same with Westfield-based Peerless Precision, a company that makes, among other things, products used in the cryogenic cooling systems for thermal imaging, night vision, and infrared cameras — items that are actually in greater demand because of all the tension in the world at the moment.

Mark Borsari

Mark Borsari says being deemed ‘essential’ certainly helps, but there is too much uncertainty with this pandemic for any company to feel secure about the future.

“Any time there’s any trouble going on in the world and more money is being put into the defense budget, we benefit from that,” said Kristin Carlson, the company’s president. “We’re getting new engine parts, new fuel-injection parts … things we’ve never made before. Any time there’s unrest in our country or anywhere in the world, the Defense Department spends more money.”

But not all area manufacturers have been so fortunate. Indeed, while golf balls are important to many, they are not ‘essential’ in the eyes of the state’s governor, so the Callaway plant in Chicopee was shut down as it was heading into its busiest time of the year — the start of the golf season in the Northeast and other colder climes. And shutting down a plant that size, which was running three shifts six days a week, is a complicated undertaking, said Vince Simonds, the company’s director of Global Golf Ball Operations.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again,” he said, noting that the massive plant was shut down from March 25 until May 18, when the first phase of the state’s reopening plan went into effect. “But overall, we’ve done very well.”

Fortunately, the company has been helped by something that could not have been foreseen in those dark days of March — a surge in popularity in the game of golf resulting from the fact that it is one of the few sports people can play while also socially distancing themselves from others.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again. But overall, we’ve done very well.”

This surge now has the company running three shifts seven days a week, said Simonds, adding that Callaway is now struggling to meet global demand, especially for its lower-priced, entry-level products (more on that later).

But even for those companies that were not shut down, have not seen shrinking demand for the products they make, or been helped by the rush to take up golf, the pandemic has led to a time of challenge, uncertainty, and questions about what will, and won’t, come next. And this is a difficult climate to operate in, said Borsari, who tried to put things in perspective for BusinessWest.

“The biggest challenge is that there is no playbook for what we’re dealing with,” he explained. “This thing has come through and almost indiscriminately picked out specific companies and industries and devastated them and left others somewhat unscathed. It depends on who their market is, where they are on the supply chain, who their vendors are, who their customers are … there are so many variables.

“Normally, when you run into these challenges in business, you can at least do some research or talk to some people who have been through it before to get a gauge for what was successful,” he went on. “With this, there is none of that.”

Parts of the Whole

Flashing back to early March, Carlson noted that, at least in one respect, the company was ready for what was coming.

“We had just put in a very large order for toilet paper and other supplies from Staples,” she recalled, adding that, soon thereafter, such essentials were certainly hard to come by. “I was telling everyone that I had something like 180 single rolls of toilet paper … so if you guys can’t find any, we’ll sell it to you for cost.”

But beyond that, there was little way to anticipate, let alone prepare for, the pandemic and the many ways it was going to change the landscape for all businesses, and especially manufacturers. And for many, there was uncertainty about whether the doors would remain open as the state began to shut down businesses to help slow the spread of the virus.

Fortunately, for many, this uncertainty was short-lived.

Vince Simonds

Vince Simonds says a pandemic-related surge in the game of golf has helped take the sting out of being shut down for two months this past spring, Callaway’s busiest time for making golf balls.

“We’re the largest medical and surgical manufacturer in the country, and we also do a lot of work for government agencies and the military with gun-cleaning products,” said Borsari, adding that Sanderson MacLeod was able to get the green light from the state and the town of Palmer to remain open for business.

“Getting deemed essential was important for us,” he recalled. “One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them, and that was the biggest concern they had from the beginning — whether we would be allowed to stay open.”

The company has been fortunate in other ways as well, he said, noting it had undertaken catastrophic planning and redundant sourcing before the pandemic, so there were few if any supply-chain issues once COVID struck. And its supply needs are relatively simple.

“Some of these companies are putting together computers with 4,000 parts,” he explained. “We’re really working with wire fiber and attachment components; it’s not nearly a deep a supply issue as other companies had.”

Meanwhile, demand for many of the products made by the company, especially those in the gun-cleaning realm, has actually grown, again because of the growing levels of turmoil in the world.

“One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them.”

Carlson sounded similar tones, noting that, in many respects, the pandemic hasn’t impacted the overall bottom line; in fact, it has helped generate more business with some clients.

It didn’t look that way back in the spring, when the state’s shutdown, which most thought would last a few weeks, instead stretched to nearly two months. “At that point,” she said, “I was pretty confident that 2020 was going to be a bust.”

Instead, it’s shaping up to be better than last year — which was quite solid.

“We’re not just steady, we’re busy, and we’re getting busier,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the company had a record July, usually one of its slower months. “A lot of that’s on the defense, not aerospace, side, but also our defense aerospace has picked up a lot as well.”

But in addition to creating more work, the pandemic has also changed how work is carried out, creating a number of challenges for those managing plants, especially early on in the pandemic, when there was little guidance on how to keep workers safe — and also little hand sanitizer to be found.

“We had to get people to understand that they can’t stand shoulder to shoulder with one another — you have to maintain that six feet,” Carlson said. “I had put limits on the number of people who could be in rooms with closed doors; we’d take turns disinfecting the entire shop. In the morning, one guy does the shop floor, at lunchtime, another one does it, and at the end of the day, they do it again.”

Simonds agreed, and noted that, by strictly enforcing the rules and following the protocols, the plant has seen no cases, and no interruptions, since reopening.

“We’re sticking to the CDC protocols, and it’s worked for us,” he said. “Everyone is temperature-screened; everyone wears a mask at all times; we’re restricting meeting rooms based on square footage and number of people in the rooms; no employee gatherings beyond the number cited by the state; anyone who goes on vacation and travels outside of Massachusetts to a restricted area has to follow protocols coming back in.

“One of the challenges was just getting used to things,” he went on. “Wearing a mask, especially in the summertime, is difficult, but people have been great, and we’re all used to it now; it’s just a matter of practice.”

Round Numbers

For Simonds and his team, the state-ordered shutdown came, as noted earlier, during the busiest time of the year for the facility, which has enjoyed a resurgence over the past few years as Callaway has made huge strides in gaining market share within the golf-ball industry.

And turning everything off is, as he said, a somewhat complicated undertaking.

“For any machines that have materials in them, they have to be purged properly,” he explained. “We need to take all the raw materials that are sensitive to environmental conditions and put them in environmentally controlled areas. We need to take care of WIP — work in process — and try to process as much as possible so we don’t have time-sensitive WIP sitting on the production floor.

“It’s a matter of systematically shutting down operations so we don’t have inventory sitting in the wrong places,” he went on, adding that the process was made more complicated by the fact that no one really knew for how long the plant would be dark.

Meanwhile, on the personnel side, most all employees were furloughed — and nearly all of them came back, he went on, adding that the operation slowly wound back up, but since then, activity has sped up dramatically, with many of those employees securing large amounts of overtime.

“We’ve gone from zero to 100 as quickly as we could. Once the golf courses started opening up, the demand for product was almost unprecedented — there was so much golf being played,” Simonds said, adding that courses in most all states were open several weeks before the plant was reopened — if they had closed at all. “And the golf business has remained pretty strong; we’re chasing demand.”

The same is true at Peerless and Sanderson MacLeod, where, in addition to meeting orders, the plants are coping with new ways of communicating, meeting as teams, and planning, as much as possible, for what might come next.

And also learning and growing from the shared experience of not only coping with a pandemic and all the challenges it has brought, but in some cases thriving.

Indeed, Carlson said the past several months have brought a close workforce even closer together as they contend with the protocols, the surge in business, and a shared desire to be prepared for the worst-case scenario while hoping for something much better.

Borsari agreed, and said some of the real ‘opportunities,’ a word he’s hesitant to use in this climate, come in the broad area of relationship building when it comes to both clients and the team at Sanderson-MacLeod.

“It’s been a unique opportunity to connect with our client base in a way we haven’t done before,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s all about collaboratively figuring out the best way to keep both companies open; we’re really had a lot of good relationships become even better because we realize how dependent we are on one another.

“And as an organization, finding our way through this together has made us stronger,” he went on. “We’ve done everything we can as a company to make this a place of normalcy. Everything else around them was going crazy, and one of the key points we made in March was to do everything we can to follow the mandates and make sure our people are safe, but we also want to make sure to maintain normalcy as much as we can.”

Up Off the Floor

Looking ahead, Carlson said her company has taken what steps it can to be prepared for what might come next.

Yes, that means stocking up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other pandemic-related needs that were in such short supply when the first wave hit six months ago.

“I’m ready for us to keep moving the way we’re moving,” she explained. “Even if we did walk back any of the phases of the reopening or went back into a shutdown, we’d still be open and still going at the pace we’re going, and perhaps be even busier; we’re prepared.”

But, as Borsari noted, even for manufacturers in the coveted ‘essential’ category, there is too much uncertainty to ever be comfortable, or fully prepared.

“Nothing is stable,” he said. “Just because we’re essential doesn’t mean anything’s safe or easy; so much is dependent on the attitude of the state, or the people who decide to come to work or not come into work, tariff measures, travel bans … all of these could have an impact.”

Such is life in a sector that, like most others, has seen COVID-19 change almost everything and create conditions that are anything but business as usual.

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

Coronavirus Manufacturing

Current Events

Tony Contrino

Tony Contrino says his utility’s extensive practice with preparing for weather events has certainly helped in its efforts to cope with the pandemic.

 

Tony Contrino says Westfield Gas & Electric, like all utilities, has considerable practice watching storms develop, getting ready for possible damage, and, as the old saying goes, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been like that — sort of, said Contrino, general manager of Westfield G&E. It could be seen coming, and there were certainly efforts to prepare for it. But the pandemic is, in most all ways, not like weather events like Tropical Storm Isaias, which barreled through Western Mass. earlier this month, leaving sometimes days-long power outages up and down the Valley and creating huge headaches for utilities — and the customers they serve.

Indeed, those storms come and go, the damage is repaired, and life goes — until the next storm. This crisis is different, not only in its duration, but in its far-reaching effects — everything from a significant drop in electricity use (7% to 10% are the most often-given estimates), and its impact on the bottom line, to an equally sharp rise in delinquent payments, which also affects the bottom line, to changes in how work is carried out — right down to putting one person in each truck, rather than two.

But as with those weather events, area energy providers are working their way through this crisis, adapting and pivoting, as businesses in all sectors have, and encountering challenges and opportunities — again, like most all other businesses have. But, unlike many businesses, they’re providing a vital service, and thus they’re being diligent about working with, and communicating with, those they serve.

“It’s certainly a different, and very challenging, time — for us, but also for all our customers,” said Contrino. “We’ve made a real effort to communicate through all this, not only with employees but customers as well. We’re trying to keep people aware of what’s going on and what our plans are, and try to give them some assurance that we want to work with them.”

Craig Hallstrom, Eversource’s president of Regional Electric Operations for Massachusetts and Connecticut, agreed. He said the investor-owned utility has been working to keep the power on — yes, Isaias has certainly impacted those efforts — while keeping employees and customers safe.

“It’s been a very different year for us and for all utilities,” he told BusinessWest. “We have half our workforce working at home, and people have been very creative and able to adapt to their work at home. We’ve been able to work differently to do the things we need to get done. Everyone’s working differently — we’ve learned how to use videoconferencing very well — and, for the most part, we’re getting our work done.”

Craig Hallstrom

Craig Hallstrom

“It’s been a very different year for us and for all utilities.”

While making adjustments within their own operations, the utilities we spoke with said they’re working with clients, both commercial and residential, to help during this time of crisis.

Jim Lavelle, general manager of Holyoke Gas & Electric, observed that, while his utility is facing declines in revenue and sharp rises in delinquent payments — further impacting cash flow — these problems often pale in comparison to what customers are facing.

“If we were looking at our losses in isolation, we would be very alarmed, and we are concerned about the numbers,” he noted. “But when we look at the impact to the overall economy and what many of our customers are going through … we’ll figure out a way to manage and get through this.”

For this issue and our ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, BusinessWest shines a light, pun intended, on how the pandemic has impacted those in the energy business — and how they are responding.

Hitting the Switch

As he talked with BusinessWest, Contrino was just returning from a vacation — only he didn’t get as much relaxation time as he planned, or hoped. Isaias saw to that.

“I was very involved in the storm activity — I just took care of it all remotely,” he said nearly a week after the storm came through, leaving tens of thousands across the region without power for long stretches and “hitting Westfield hard,” as he put it.

That phrase is appropriate for the pandemic as well, obviously, and it applies to every community across the region. Indeed, large numbers of businesses, including some large users of electricity, such as colleges and universities and some manufacturing facilities, but mostly smaller ventures in the hospitality and service sectors, have been shut down for long stretches. And some, like the colleges, are, for the most part, still closed.

Jim Lavelle says Holyoke G&E

Jim Lavelle says Holyoke G&E was thinking about consolidating some facilities, but COVID-19 and a need to socially distance has prompted a re-evaluation of those plans.

Meanwhile, many businesses that are open are struggling and finding it difficult to pay all the bills, including the one from the utility company. And many individuals working for these businesses — or not, as the case may be — are in the same boat, with matters likely to get worse before they get any better (see related story on page 53).

All this has presented a number of challenges for utilities, who are responding, as all businesses are, with use of reserves, belt tightening, and sometimes delaying planned expenditures when possible.

While estimates on the decline in power usage vary — Lavelle also put it at roughly 10% — and the overall drop in demand has been mitigated to some degree by a very hot summer that has commanded more use of air conditioners, said Hallstrom, the bite is significant.

“Over the course of a year, a 10% reduction would mean an impact to us in the vicinity of $4 million to $5 million — and that’s a big number,” Contrino noted. “We’re cutting back, we’re not doing some of the work we would typically be doing, and we’re trying to control expenses as best we can and work our way through this.

“We anticipate that we’re going to be hit on the receivables side, and we’re planning for that,” he went on. “We’ve got funds in place to help us with that, and we’re thinking long-term — I don’t think this is going to end that quickly; I’m sure it’s going to extend into next year to some degree.”

Lavelle agreed, noting that, while Holyoke G&E is looking at a similar hit, it has been helped by some new businesses coming online, including a few involved in cannabis cultivation, which are typically large users of power.

“We’re seeing a few of those businesses start to ramp up, and that will offset some of the COVID impact,” he explained. “But the COVID impact is about 10% overall.”

And while that is, as Contrino said, a big number, it pales in comparison to what businesses across a number of sectors are facing, said Lavelle, adding that it’s important to keep things in perspective.

“We can’t compare to what some of the businesses and some of our residential customers are dealing with,” he went on. “Many of our business customers have shut down for months, and that’s been one of the frustrating things about this pandemic — seeing the customers we’ve worked with and that have worked so hard to build up their businesses go through this type of economic challenge.”

To help these businesses — and residential customers as well — Holyoke G&E, like other utilities, has been working with customers to help them through the crisis.

“Many of our business customers have shut down for months, and that’s been one of the frustrating things about this pandemic — seeing the customers we’ve worked with and that have worked so hard to build up their businesses go through this type of economic challenge.”

There is a moratorium on shutoffs for late payments — the governor put one in place for investor-owned utilities, and municipally owned operations have followed suit — and Holyoke G&E is working with individual customers to create payment plans, said Lavelle, adding that, overall, the utility has seen a 25% rise, roughly $1 million to date, in delinquent payments.

Like Contrino, Lavelle said his utility is handling the decline in revenue through reserves and some reductions in expenses, many of which are coming naturally as a result of the pandemic, such as those involving travel, training (some programs cannot be carried out remotely), and other areas.

Lines of Communication

While coping with the pandemic’s impact to their customers, and the bottom line, area utilities have, like other businesses, been forced to adjust and change how they do things.

This means everything from having some employees who can work remotely do just that, to putting one person in each service truck, instead of two; from closing offices, thereby compelling customers to pay online, to taking steps to make sure those in the pivotal control rooms are at minimal risk of exposure to the virus.

Overall, the goal, said those we spoke with, has been to keep people apart as much possible in order to keep operations moving as efficiently as possible. In fact, Holyoke G&E was thinking about consolidating some of its operations prior to the pandemic, and now, it is certainly rethinking that strategy.

“For a fairly small utility, we have several different buildings, and we had been looking at a consolidation plan,” Lavelle said. “But the distance between facilities and the number of facilities has actually helped us comply with social distancing and other recommendations associated with good COVID hygiene. So we’re revising that whole consolidation plan at present.”

Contrino said his utility’s experience in preparing for weather events like Isaias has been beneficial as it continually adjusts to life during the pandemic.

“We’ve had quite a bit of experience working through numerous storms and large-scale electric outages in the past, and have conducted various emergency-response drills over the years,” he explained. “So we were somewhat prepared to take action — although the duration of this pandemic is something we’ve never experienced before.”

Elaborating, he recalled that, as it became clear the pandemic was coming and there would be a significant impact, the Westfield G&E implemented an emergency-management plan, designated a COVID-compliance officer, and formed an incident-response team of key management personnel — a team that continues to meet regularly to discuss what’s happening and what is likely to happen in the weeks and months to come, although looking far down the road is extremely difficult.

“During this pandemic, we’re always concerned about the health and safety of our employees, our customers, and the general public,” Contrino told BusinessWest. “Although we have essential services to provide, we want to keep everyone safe; we have that balancing act going on — while we’re trying to provide our services, we’re also going to keep everyone healthy.”

Hallstrom concurred, also using the phrase ‘balancing act’ to describe how Eversource is working to keep the power flowing while keeping employees and customers safe.

He said roughly half the utility’s 8,000 employees‚ including those in finance, HR, accounting, and other business functions, have been working at home the past 20 weeks or so. Most of ‘his’ 2,800 employees, those who work to directly provide power and maintain service, have been coming to the office — in whatever shape it takes — every day.

Keeping these individuals safe has become a top priority.

“We’ve implanted many safety protocols — we promote face masks and washing hands, and instead of crews going out two per truck, we’ve had them going out one per truck,” he explained. “We’ve actually bought trucks and taken vehicles out of retirement to increase our fleet so that people can go out by themselves in a vehicle.”

Precautions also extend to service in individual homes and businesses — crews will go in only after ensuring there are no COVID-related issues at the address in question — and to the control centers, which are vital to managing the electric system.

“Day to day, we have a sufficient number of people to manage these facilities, but one of the fears from the pandemic is that if someone got sick and they passed it to fellow employees, that might quickly impact our people and make it so we couldn’t operate that system,” Hallstrom explained. “Those people are highly trained, and in the case of transmission, they’re certified, so that was a big concern.”

While some utilities had control-room personnel quarantine and stay in what amounts to a bubble, he noted, Eversource, which has several smaller control rooms, has been able to spread out its people so there are fewer individuals in a given control room, while some of these facilities were set aside as ‘sterile environments’ that employees not infected with the virus could be moved to in order to keep the system running properly.

Meanwhile, like banks, utilities have had to close their doors to their main offices, which have traditionally seen large amounts of traffic involving customers paying their bills or conducting other business. This business has now shifted online in many cases, said Lavelle, and for some customers, it’s been a big change.

“Being shut down has really impacted how we conduct business,” he explained. “We’ve had online services for some time, so a lot of it has been training customers how to pay online or sign up for a new account online; we’ve seen an uptick of more than 200% in online transactions.

“It’s been pretty seamless,” he went on. “There’s been a little bit of hand holding with some customers, but other than that, it’s gone quite well.”

Watt’s Next

Drawing one more analogy to Isaias — and all the other storms his utility has confronted over the years — Contrino said that, when it came to the pandemic, Westfield G&E prepared for the worst.

And this is the mindset that will continue as the crisis plays itself out, with certainly more questions about what’s on the horizon than answers.

“It’s been a difficult time for everybody,” he told BusinessWest. “However, we’ve put a lot of thought and effort into working through this and moving forward in a disciplined and measured manner.”

With that, he spoke for all the utilities that have been working to keep the power on — tropical storms and all — during a crisis that is testing them in every way and on every level.

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

Manufacturing

Tight Squeeze

President Trump has made no secret of his hope that a series of tariffs on goods from China and other countries will eventually force a more favorable balance of trade for the U.S. But in the meantime, the escalating trade war has posed very real, often negative impacts for manufacturers, particularly in the form of higher costs and a general sense of uncertainty that makes it difficult to pursue growth. And no one seems to have any idea when the situation will ease up.

A trade war can hurt business in more ways than one, Kristin Carlson says.

For example, as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, her manufacturing company, Westfield-based Peerless Precision, doesn’t buy a lot of foreign materials, like steel and aluminum — in fact, she buys about 95% domestic — so she hasn’t been subject to the direct cost increases on imported goods resulting from the volley of back-and-forth tariffs posed by President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“As a result of tariffs and increased pressure on domestic supply, we’ve had supply and demand issues. We’ve been seeing pricing going up 25% to 40% from what we have historically paid.”

But those increased costs of Chinese products have pressured the domestic supply chain, so she is, indeed, paying more.

“As a result of tariffs and increased pressure on domestic supply, we’ve had supply and demand issues. We’ve been seeing pricing going up 25% to 40% from what we have historically paid,” she said. “Costs are a big issue.”

Peerless Precision, which makes parts for the aerospace and defense industries, employs 32 people and has generated strong revenue in recent years, but profits are being squeezed by the trade war.

Kristin Carlson says manufacturers are dealing with price increases and supply-chain disruptions due to the recent tariffs.

Lead times are also affected, she added. “Because of this supply and demand issue on the domestic supply chain, companies are stocking up to make sure they’re getting the prices they need. When times are normal, we’ll get material in one to three business days, and that’s turned into one to four weeks.”

Trump’s trade war, now about 18 months old, has had a ripple effect on the global supply chain of many products, driving up the price of imported raw materials and finished goods. It’s not just manufacturers feeling the heat — for example, farmers have lost lucrative markets as well.

NPR recently reported that cranberry growers worked for years to develop a market in China, and sales of dried cranberries to China increased by more than 1,000% between 2013 and 2018. But after the White House approved tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods in July, China immediately retaliated with tariffs on dozens of U.S. goods, including dried cranberries, and now growers — many of them in Massachusetts — are faced with a serious glut of product.

That’s just one example of the impact of tariffs, but for manufacturers, the equation can have even more moving parts (pun intended). Many shop owners say the uncertainty of the situation is causing them to hold off on hiring and expansion because they’re not sure how or when a deal will take shape.

“The imposition of 15% tariffs on $112 billion worth of Chinese goods on Sept. 1 underscores the uncertainty facing employers, particularly manufacturers, who do business in overseas markets,” Raymond Torto, chair of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Board of Economic Advisors, wrote last month. “At the same time, employers are beginning to see evidence from both customers and suppliers of a slowdown in the U.S. economy.”

Stirring the Pot

Robert Lawrence, professor of International Trade and Investment at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former member of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, recently told the Boston Globe that, while U.S. strategy over the past century has been to use protectionist measures like tariffs sparingly, Trump has a more aggressive outlook.

“This is at odds with the entire thrust of our policies over the post-war period,” he said. “We’re acting unilaterally. We’re bullying the Chinese by putting these tariffs on them.”

The Trump administration has taken aim at China for a variety of economic reasons, from the nations’ trade imbalance to accusations that Chinese companies steal intellectual property from American companies. But, as Carlson noted, China isn’t the only affected supplier.

“When we submit a quote for a customer purchase, we’re locked into the price we quote them. If our cost changes, we have to suck it up. We can’t go back to the customer and say, ‘oops, materials went up 50%, so we have to raise the price.’ We don’t do that.”

“Tariffs weren’t just slapped onto China, but onto Canada, Mexico … maybe three to five countries in the entire world don’t have tariffs on them.”

Not all manufacturers see the impact the same way. Eric Hagopian, who owns Pilot Precision Products in South Deerfield, told the Globe that, while the price of domestic steel he buys has gone up 43% this year, the tariffs are boosting American industry as many companies are moving to American products as a result of tariffs on products from Pilot Precision’s Chinese competitors. “It actually helps our business,” he said.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., said he has heard from members with differing perspectives on the impact of the trade war.

“Some people, I think, are really impacted; they feel there are some pretty serious impacts on cost and competitiveness,” he told BusinessWest. “Then, if you go to someone like Eric Hagopian, he’s a little less adamant that it’s a big issue.”

MassBenchmarks, an initiative of the UMass Donahue Institute and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, reported on economic trends in Massachusetts this week, pointing out that the economy is doing well overall, with low unemployment, but employment and output growth are decelerating.

“Growth in the global economy is slowing, and labor-supply constraints, softening demand, and rising international geopolitical uncertainty all signal concerns for the economy going forward,” the report notes.

Rick Sullivan says manufacturers — and other businesses — have differing takes on the pros and cons of a trade war, but no one likes the uncertainty it generates.

Board members focused on a number of broad sources of uncertainty in the economic and geopolitical environment and what they could mean for the Massachusetts economy. One board member said the current environment is characterized by “considerable internal and external disharmony,” which includes ongoing trade conflicts, as well as continued tension around Brexit, the apparent impacts of climate change, particularly as it relates to agricultural production in various places around the world, and increasing instability in global markets among advanced economies. Against that backdrop, Trump’s ongoing impeachment inquiry is yet another wild card.

But there’s a reason MassBenchmarks placed trade conflicts at the top of that list.

“I think they create an uncertainty, and they increase costs,” Sullivan said. “Certainly, costs are a concern, and competitiveness is a concern.”

Cost and Effect

Those costs aren’t easily passed on to customers, Carlson said, and manufacturers, by and large, would rather not do that.

“When we submit a quote for a customer purchase, we’re locked into the price we quote them,” she explained. “If our cost changes, we have to suck it up. We can’t go back to the customer and say, ‘oops, materials went up 50%, so we have to raise the price.’ We don’t do that.”

AIM releases its Business Confidence Index every month, gauging exactly that — how member businesses are feeling about the economic outlook of the state and their own businesses. The overall Index, which is scored on a 100-point scale, has lost 3.7 points since a year ago but remains within optimistic territory.

“For a long time, a lot of us have been eating the material cost increases. Everything I hear is there’s not really an end date. We’ll see what happens.”

However, September’s reading was weighed down by weakening sentiment among Bay State manufacturers. The Index’s manufacturing component dropped 2.4 points in September and has lost 7.9 points for the year. Non-manufacturers were more confident than manufacturers by a 6.5-point margin.

The results mirrored the national Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index, which fell to its lowest level since 2009 last month. A separate report by IHS Markit showed that the manufacturing sector suffered its worst quarter since 2009, though activity increased during September.

“Manufacturers are bearing the brunt of both actual and threatened tariffs against goods imported from China,” Torto wrote. “Many Massachusetts companies have also become caught in retaliatory tariffs and are seeing significant weakening of their overseas business.”

Michael Tyler, chief investment officer at Eastern Bank Wealth Management and a BEA member, noted that the gaps in confidence between manufacturing companies and other businesses appear to be growing.

“Manufacturing has been hit by the steady increase in tariffs imposed by the United States, China, and other nations since 2018,” he noted. “The World Trade Organization estimates that the flow of goods across borders will increase by just 1.2% this year, and manufacturing companies are feeling that downdraft.”

Carlson is feeling it, for sure, and as president of the Western Mass. chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Assoc., she knows others are, too.

“For a long time, a lot of us have been eating the material cost increases,” she told BusinessWest, conceding that the uncertainty around the trade war has been equally vexing. “Everything I hear is there’s not really an end date. We’ll see what happens.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing

Taking Flight

Since the announcement last month that defense and aerospace giants Raytheon and United Technologies will merge into one firm based in Eastern Mass., few other details have emerged, and questions remain about the impact on the companies’ workforce, particularly those currently based at UTC’s Connecticut plant. But some see potential growth in the merger, which may bode well for the many Western Mass. machine shops — and their 5,000 employees — that make components for those companies.

Rick Sullivan calls it the “invisible backbone of the economy” in Western Mass.

He refers to precision manufacturing, and he chooses each of those words for a reason. Machine shops — virtually all of them in the small (make that very small) to medium-sized range — exist in almost every community in the four counties of Western Mass.

“Those companies, if we could put them together under one room, it would be a giant company that gets everyone’s attention all the time — national attention. It’s that significant,” said Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council.

As for invisible? “These shops each have a real niche and do high-quality work, and you don’t see that impact every single day,” he went on. “But it’s a true center of excellence. It’s important.”

Among the work many of these shops do is supplying components for major companies — like Raytheon and United Technologies Corp. (UTC). And when two companies of that size announce plans to merge, as they did last month, it sends ripples of concern through that often-invisible but critical industry, simply because of the uncertainty it produces.

“Obviously, when anything changes out there, we have to evaluate that change in terms of what it’s going to mean locally,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “No question, the relationship of Massachusetts manufacturers with both companies is significant.”

The merger — which will create one of the world’s largest defense companies, with combined sales of $74 billion — will close in the first half of 2020 after United Technologies completes the previously planned separation of its Otis and Carrier businesses.

The combined company, to be named Raytheon Technologies Corp., will be a major player in defense research and technology — not that the two companies weren’t already. In announcing the merger, the two giants said they will be able to develop new technologies more quickly, with combined research and development spending of $8 billion annually and more than 60,000 engineers.

In many ways, that’s good news, but there are workforce-related questions, state Sen. Eric Lesser noted the day the merger was announced.

Rick Sullivan says the economic impact of the region’s precision manufacturers is significant, even as it often flies under the public radar.

“The UTC-Raytheon deal means another major corporate HQ is relocating to Massachusetts, which overall for Massachusetts is positive news and will be celebrated in Boston,” he said, while quickly noting that a sizable portion of UTC’s current workforce lives in Greater Springfield.

“A quick drive past the huge parking at UTC’s facility across from Bradley Airport, for example, shows a lot of Massachusetts license plates,” he went on. “I personally know many constituents that work at the UTC facilities in both Windsor Locks and Farmington — engineers, electricians, accountants, salespeople, etc. — almost all very good and well-paying careers with great career paths at a variety of education levels.

“Long term, what will happen to those Western Mass. UTC jobs as a result of this merger?” Lesser asked. “If facilities are relocated to Metro Boston, what will losing those jobs mean for Western Mass.? It won’t be positive. We need good jobs at both ends of Massachusetts, and everywhere in between.”

The fact that Raytheon Technologies will be based near Boston drew a complaint from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who said he is concerned about the potential workforce impact on his state. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Blumenthal also urged the Defense Department, the Justice Department, and other agencies to examine the potential impact on costs and competition in the defense industry.

Maintaining the Flow

Then there’s the matter of protecting the flow of work to the region’s small machine shops and their 5,000-plus employees. It’s an area of concern for Kristin Carlson in both her roles — as president of Peerless Precision in Westfield and also of the Western Mass. chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Assoc.

She recently told BusinessWest that business is booming for Peerless and most other local precision manufacturers, and that the region has a reputation across the country and around the world as a precision-machining hub. The industries the sector serves — aerospace, defense, oil and gas, and some commercial sectors — are surging, and a report issued last year by the Precision Manufacturing Regional Alliance Projects suggests that the manufacturing sector statewide will need to fill up to 1,500 jobs this year, due to growth and retirement.

“Obviously, when anything changes out there, we have to evaluate that change in terms of what it’s going to mean locally. No question, the relationship of Massachusetts manufacturers with both companies is significant.”

So there’s a lot at stake when a move of this scale happens — and Carlson hopes the impact is a net positive.

“A lot of the machine shops are already suppliers to Raytheon or UTC,” she said. “From what I can see, this merger presents the opportunity for existing suppliers to those two separate companies to become suppliers to the new company, which can increase opportunities for local machine shops and other manufacturers — which means growth and more jobs.”

As for the move of UTC to Eastern Mass., where Raytheon is already based, Carlson doesn’t expect the company to move its entire workforce, although it hasn’t made those plans clear yet.

“I don’t know what the grand plan is,” she said. “My perspective is, I don’t think they’re going to be moving everyone to Eastern Mass. I anticipate some jobs might get transferred over to the new location, but I don’t think they’ll be shutting down or moving everyone over.”

Kristin Carlson says the Raytheon-UTC merger may present opportunities to increase an already-robust pipeline of work.

Raytheon Technologies intends to focus on hypersonics — vehicles and weapons that can fly faster than the speed of sound — as well as intelligence and surveillance systems, artificial intelligence for commercial aviation, and cybersecurity for connected planes.

Raytheon was founded in 1922 and makes missiles, including the Patriot system, and cybersecurity tools. United Technologies was founded in 1934 and makes products for the aerospace and building sectors, including airplane engines and spacesuits.

“Our two companies have iconic brands that share a long history of innovation, customer focus, and proven execution,” United Technologies Chairman and CEO Greg Hayes noted in a statement last month.

Hayes will become the CEO of Raytheon Technologies. Two years after the merger closes, he will add the title of chairman. Raytheon Chairman and CEO Tom Kennedy will be appointed executive chairman. The company’s board will include eight directors from UTC and seven from Raytheon.

Defense mergers are nothing new in recently years. In 2018 alone, there were eight mergers exceeding $1 billion in value, including an all-stock deal between L3 Technologies and Harris and General Dynamics’ acquisition of CSRA Inc., according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Building on Relationships

Still, in Western Mass., much of the focus has come down to jobs, and preserving the working relationships that exist between small machine shops and large players like Raytheon and UTC.

“Those relationships as subcontractors are vital to us,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “I do think, moving forward, those connections can even be strengthened. In Western Mass., we recognize that we have an economy that goes east-west, but as importantly, and maybe even more importantly, it goes north-south also. We obviously will be watching closely.

“Raytheon is obviously a big player regionally in Western Mass.,” he added. “We need to grow those relationships, and I do think there are opportunities for growth.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Manufacturing

Leading Lights

Two Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) students are working as interns this summer at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Defense research and development center in Lexington.

MIT Lincoln Laboratory selected Douglas Bednarczyk and Shane Richardson, students from the Optics and Photonics Technology program at STCC. They are interning at the Lexington facility through August.

Richardson earned his associate degree from STCC in May, but will return this fall to take additional classes. Bednarcyzk finished his first year in the two-year Optics and Photonics Technology program and hopes to earn his associate degree in spring 2020.

Students in the Optics and Photonics Technology program learn about the practical applications of light, optics, and electronics. High-tech applications include lasers, fiber optics, holography, laser materials processing, optical systems, and more.

“Students in the Optics and Photonics Technology program at STCC train on state-of-the-art equipment used in many commercial laboratories,” said Nicholas Massa, department chair for Optics and Photonics Technology. “There aren’t any other associate-degree programs like ours in the region. That’s why companies approach us. They discover our students know how to use the laser equipment and know the theory. They’re ready to go to work.”

Massa said there are not enough trained candidates to meet the demand for jobs in the optics and photonics industry.

“I get calls every day from companies asking about candidates for internships and full-time positions. Nearly all of my students who graduate from the program get hired, and they often get multiple job offers,” he said. “After you get a degree in Optics and Photonics Technology, you can land a job that pays between $40,000 and $60,000 a year to start, and you go up from there.”

Bednarczyk is a third-generation STCC student. His grandfather studied electrical engineering technology, and his father graduated from a biomedical technology program. He looked into the optics and photonics technology after reading an article about STCC’s program.

“I enjoy the program,” he said. “It’s really engaging and hands-on. I’m not the type of kid that was meant to sit behind a computer all day. To use the laser-etching and marking systems we have, I think that’s a blast.”

Meanwhile, Richardson came to the Optics and Photonics Technology program with a bachelor’s degree in theater from a university in California. At STCC, Richardson had the opportunity to study with a mentor, Eric Lim, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University.

“As a hiring manager, I’ve been impressed with the quality of students who came out of this program,” said Lim, who worked at a laser-technology company. “It was exciting to find a student who was hands-on and interested in laser physics, something I had trained for in my graduate days. So I was very happy to mentor Shane.”

For his class project at STCC, Richardson experimented with converting invisible infrared light into visible green light.

“In order to change light to interact with anything, we have to change the wavelength, and that is what this whole experiment was about,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much I was going to enjoy the program or how beneficial it was going to be. It was a nice fit. I like the people here, and I like the atmosphere. Not many people know about optics and photonics technology.”

Manufacturing

Scaling Up

CEO Bill Bither

CEO Bill Bither

Over the past five years, Machine Metrics, a company that specializes in predictive analytics for manufacturers, has been scaling up its operation. But with an infusion of $11.3 million in venture capital last fall, this process enters a new and dynamic phase. The company has nearly doubled its workforce, expanded with a new office in Boston, and become much more aggressive in efforts to educate potential clients about its game-changing software.

Bill Bither was asked where he wanted to take Machine Metrics, the five-year-old startup he co-founded that specializes in predictive analytics for manufacturers.

He paused for a second or two, and then, in a voice that brimmed with confidence and conveyed the sentiment that he’d been asked this question — and given this answer — before, said simply and almost matter-of-factly, “we’re really looking to build a billion-dollar company.”

That’s not a phrase you hear often from entrepreneurs based in the 413, but Bither, who launched this venture with Eric Fogg and Jacob Lazier and serves as its CEO, believes that stated goal is certainly attainable. And those who have watched this company grow quickly and profoundly since it first gained attention as a member of one of Valley Venture Mentors’ first accelerator classes would certainly agree.

The company develops software systems that measure manufacturing productivity. To be more specific, these systems analyze performance in real time and send out alerts to clients when production falls behind.

Clients generally see a 20% improvement in efficiency, and the phrase most often used in relation to the software and its overall impact within a given shop is ‘game changer.’

There are now more than 100 manufacturers around the world using the company’s products, and Bither expects that number to climb steadily as awareness of the software, its capabilities, and the results it has generated for customers grows.

Bill Bither, left, seen here with co-founder and CTO Jacob Lazier

Bill Bither, left, seen here with co-founder and CTO Jacob Lazier, says Machine Metrics is adding clients across the country and overseas.

“What we’ve discovered since 2015 is that the market that we’re in is really large, and that industrial technologies are moving very quickly,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a really high demand for companies to digitize their factories, and the key missing component to doing that is getting data from the factory floor; that’s the first step in digitizing a factory, and that’s what we do very well.”

To continue to do this well on a much larger scale, the company needed to move quickly on a number of fronts — from expanding its customer base beyond this region and this country to greatly expanding its team of engineers, salespeople, and marketers, to being far more aggressive when it comes to getting the word out.

And it has moved forward on all those fronts thanks in large part to an an infusion of $11.3 million in capital late last year.

The company has put that money to work to expand its data-science and product-development teams while accelerating global sales, said Bither, adding that, while the company has been scaling up on an ongoing basis over the past five years, that process has essentially entered a new, more dynamic phase.

“Last year, we grew about 200%, and this year we’ll probably be around that same number,” he explained, adding that this is now a truly global company that continues to expand geographically and in all other ways.

Now headquartered on Pleasant Street in Northampton — a move necessitated by the growth of its workforce — Machine Metrics has also opened an office in Cambridge, and now employs roughly 50 people, a number that has almost doubled since the company announced that infusion of capital.

“What we’re doing now is going even faster, looking at international expansion; having more engineers on the team helps us fulfill our vision quicker. We’ve shown that we’re leading the space that we’re in, and we need to keep leading the industry toward digitizing their factories.”

“We’ve doubled the size of our executive team, we’ve almost doubled the size of the workforce, and our customer count is now over 100,” said Bither. “What we’re doing now is going even faster, looking at international expansion; having more engineers on the team helps us fulfill our vision quicker. We’ve shown that we’re leading the space that we’re in, and we need to keep leading the industry toward digitizing their factories.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Bither about the process of scaling up one of the most-watched startups in this region — and about the roadmap to becoming a billion-dollar company.

The Light Is Green

When he talked with BusinessWest earlier this month, Bither was in Toronto on vacation visiting family. Well, sort of.

“I have back-to-back meetings with clients today, which is what usually happens,” he explained. “A vacation trip turns into a work trip.”

There have been a number of work trips and vacations doubling as work trips for Bither and his partners over the past years, as they continue to bring awareness to a product that represents pioneering on a number of levels.

Indeed, while there have been production-monitoring software products on the market for some time, the software systems the company is now offering represent a huge step forward in what’s known as industrial IoT (Internet of Things) technology.

For clients, it has meant adding the phrase ‘being in the green’ to their lexicon. That’s the color that shows up on the dashboards, or large display boards, when machines are operating at or above the desired performance levels. An orange color means they are operating slightly below that level, and red means there’s trouble.

But beyond letting companies know how machines — or shifts of employees — are performing, the software can also predict when errors will occur and machines will fail, thus enabling manufacturers to avoid costly breakdowns that greatly impact overall productivity.

And as productivity improves, companies are better able to navigate what has long been the manufacturing sector’s most pressing — and perplexing — problem: a deep talent shortage that shows no signs of letting up any time soon.

All this explains why that phrase ‘game changer’ is being used so often by those who now have these systems operating in their plants. And it’s being heard both in this region — VSS CNC Inc. in Greenfield, Marox Corp. in Holyoke, and others are on the client list — and well outside it.

“We’re spread out across North America — I think we’re in roughly 40 states now,” he said. “And we’re starting to see some growth in Europe and South America. There’s still so much opportunity in this country, though, and that’s where we’re focusing most of our efforts.”

Bither, when pushed to guesstimate just how big the market is for industrial IoT technology, put the number at $85 billion, and said the mission moving forward, obviously, is to garner as large a share of that market as possible.

To do that, the company knew it had to expand its workforce, adding people in a number in a number of areas, but especially engineers in the field working with customers to digitize their factory floors.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Bither admitted he’d actually lost track of just how big the workforce was at that moment, a clear indication of how fast things are changing and how many people have joined the team.

“We’ve hired software developers, and we’ve added to our marketing team, our sales team, and our customer-success team,” he said, adding that the company has also brought on a chief financial officer, a vice president of Product, a vice president of Business Development, and a vice president of Sales, taking Machine Metrics and its leadership team to a much higher plane.

Meanwhile, the company has also opened an office in Boston, a step taken to not only better serve customers in that area, but also take advantage of the extremely deep pool of IT talent inside the 128 corridor.

“At the rate that we’re growing, it’s difficult to hire enough really skilled people in Western Mass. quickly enough,” he explained. “We’re combining the best manufacturing talent with the best software talent, and Boston really has a heavy concentration of software executives.”

Bither, who has been through the scaling-up process before — he grew the software company Atalasoft to 25 people before he sold it — said this experience at Machine Metrics is different in many ways, primarily because the company is a venture capital (VC)-backed enterprise.

“Therefore, the focus is on growing fast, not about being profitable — that’s the life of a VC-backed technology company,” he explained. “You’re really measured in growth and cash, more so than profits, and that’s different from what I’m used to.”

Moving forward, he said one key to continued growth and effective scaling of this venture is effective website content marketing, an approach designed to help educate and hopefully inspire movement within a sector, manufacturing, that has traditionally been slow to embrace new technologies and different ways of doing things.

Profound growth of its workforce forced Machine Metrics to seek larger quarters

Profound growth of its workforce forced Machine Metrics to seek larger quarters, and it found them in the old Post Office building on Pleasant Street in Northampton.

“We’ve been able to build quite a presence in this space without spending too much money because we’ve been able to build out content on our website and write a number of articles and blogs,” he explained. “And because of that, we’ve been able to bring in a lot of interested buyers that come through our website; our sales team will then talk to them, and a certain percentage of them will actually close.”

Another important marketing vehicle has been industry trade shows, such as the EASTEC show slated for next month at the Big E, but also the recent event in Hanover, Germany (the company’s first international show), where Machine Metrics had a large presence and was able to introduce itself and its software to new audiences.

“It was interesting because we were able to see what the landscape looks like in Europe,” he explained, adding that the company partnered with Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of Amazon that provides on-demand cloud-computing platforms to individuals, companies, and governments, and thus gained considerable attention at the show.

The company also takes part in the International Manufacturing Technology Show, staged every other year in Chicago, and will be in Las Vegas in a few weeks for another large industry event, said Bither, adding that this exposure is critical to those scaling-up efforts.

Getting Things in Gear

Bither did not want to disclose current revenue figures for Machine Metrics, but he hinted strongly, not that he had to, that this venture is a long way from being a billion-dollar company.

But it seems to be on a path that would make that number more than a fantasy or pipe dream. This is a fast track greased by obvious need among manufacturers large and small to be able to track their performance in real-time analytics, and not rely on guesswork.

Whether the company can get to that magical milestone — or when, obviously — remains to be seen, but the scaling-up process continues, and like those clients it serves, this intriguing startup is certainly operating in the green — figuratively, if not literally.

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

Manufacturing

Layer by Layer

ADDFab Director Dave Follette with samples of 3D-printed objects.

ADDFab Director Dave Follette with samples of 3D-printed objects.

The Advanced Digital Design & Fabrication Lab, or ADDFab for short — one of 31 ‘core facilities’ in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst — is creating something significant in the manufacturing world, and not just the products it forms from metal and polymer powders. No, it’s also building connections between young talent and companies that will increasingly need it as 3D printing becomes more mainstream. And it does so with a focus — no, an insistence — on hands-on learning.

It’s hard to learn about 3D printing, Dave Follette said, if you don’t have access to a 3D printer.

ADDFab has five. And it likes to share them. In fact, that’s its mission.

“We have all these high-end machines, and it’s hard to get access to these in the real world,” said Follette, director of ADDFab, which stands for Advanced Digital Design & Fabrication Lab, one of 31 ‘core facilities’ in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst. “Who’s going to let you touch their quarter-million-dollar machine and learn the ins and outs of it — how do you set it up? What happens if it fails? What do I do?”

ADDFab, like the other core facilities, seeks to eliminate skills gaps between students and the work world with hands-on opportunities to use some truly cutting-edge and, yes, expensive equipment.

“Here, the student interns aren’t just going on the computer and doing some research. They come to the lab, suit up, play with some parts, take them out of the printer, clean it — they get real experience actually touching the machines.”

ADDFab takes a similar tack with local businesses seeking to learn more about 3D printing, Follette added.

“The workshops we do are less sitting in a classroom talking about 3D printing and more, ‘let’s do some 3D printing.’”

“The workshops we do are less sitting in a classroom talking about 3D printing and more, ‘let’s do some 3D printing.’ You actually come in, design a part on the software, print the part, and go home with something you created. You see the process. That’s what’s valuable about being on site. You can go on the Internet and watch YouTube videos, but something about doing it yourself gives you an understanding of how it works and why it works, and what works and what doesn’t. That’s what we’re trying to teach.”

Sundar Krishnamurty, ADDFab’s co-director, explained that the facility has three distinct but interwoven goals.

“We’re a research university, so we want our researchers to develop new knowledge, and we hope this will be a medium for that,” he told BusinessWest. “Second, there’s a lot of experiential learning for our students. Third, we have good engagement with our industries, especially small and medium-sized companies in the area.”

The equipment itself is impressive — two metal printers and three polymer printers, each using different raw materials and different technologies to produce an endless array of products. The facility supports UMass itself in several ways, as students and faculty can be trained to use the equipment to conduct their own research on additive manufacturing, while ADDFab also provides printing services and engineering support for faculty in all academic departments.

But it’s the outreach to industry that may be most intriguing element, not just through those aforementioned workshops, which are intended to broaden understanding of how 3D printing will affect the manufacturing industry and to provide hands-on skills, but through a state-funded voucher program that gives businesses with fewer than 50 employees a 50% subsidy to access the core facilities, and 75% to businesses with fewer than 10.

“You can do $100,000 of work for $25,000,” Follette said. “For a new technology, it makes it easy to get your feet wet and test it out. A lot of companies we’re working with haven’t used 3D printing before and are figuring out how it fits into their business.”

Krishnamurty agreed. “We really want to be partnering with local industries in helping us identify the gaps and where we can provide leadership, expertise, and resources to help them achieve their goals.”

What happens when students are well-trained on cutting-edge 3D-printing technology, and when area manufacturers learn more about its potential, is clear, they both noted: Positive workforce development that helps businesses grow while keeping talent in Western Mass.

Student Stories

Jeremy Hall, now a senior at UMass, has been interning at ADDFab, and said the opportunities are positive on a number of levels, including setting students up for interesting careers in a fast-growing, but still largely undertapped, field.

“It’s an up-and-coming field, and a lot of jobs are opening up in it because a lot of companies see the benefit of it,” Hall told BusinessWest. “Look at rapid prototyping — instead of making a mistake and spending five figures on a mold only to discover that part’s not usable, you can do several iterations and save a lot of money doing so.”

Jack Ford (left) and Jeremy Hall are two of the current student interns at ADDFab.

Jack Ford (left) and Jeremy Hall are two of the current student interns at ADDFab.

He thinks he’s putting himself in good position for the workforce by learning the various processes by actually doing them. His initial career interests were in research and design and rapid prototyping, but the more he’s delved into additive manufacturing, the more interested he has become in material properties, and exploring what other raw materials can used to create stronger products. “The application is here; it’s just, how much can you improve it from here?”

“Look at rapid prototyping — instead of making a mistake and spending five figures on a mold only to discover that part’s not usable, you can do several iterations and save a lot of money doing so.”

Another intern, Jack Ford, is a sophomore whose interest in 3D printing began when he used similar — but not nearly as advanced — technology to create a tool in a high-school drafting class.

“It was interesting to see that whole process, and it grew my interest in the manufacturing aspects of it,” he noted. “And look at how 3D printing has grown over the years — it’s crazy to see where it is now. The laser technology is incredible, how it’s so precise and manages to get such a fine level of detail despite seeming like such a strange process. We put the powder down, bam, there’s a layer. It blows my mind.”

There’s an energy-absorbing lattice piece on a table at ADDFab inscribed with the name of its creator, Adam Rice, who recently became one of the facility’s success stories, and an example of how it seeks to connect talent with need.

“In my 10 weeks here, I’ve worked one-on-one with companies, toured facilities, and even given a presentation at FLIR Systems,” Rice explained last year, in an interview snippet used in an ADDFab promotional brochure. “It’s been building my confidence. I’ve had no real engineering experience before this, and this is my first time really applying it and seeing how people do this as a career.”

After graduating in December, he now has a career of his own, at Lytron, a designer and manufacturer of thermal-management and liquid-cooling products based in Woburn.

“They use a metal printer exactly the same as ours and needed someone with additive-manufacturing experience to help them run their printer,” Follette said. “The VP of Engineering contacted me and asked, ‘do you have any students who know additive?’ I said, ‘yes.’ He came by and met the students, and we had a good fit.”

The brochure Rice appears in promotes the UMass Summer Undergraduate Core Internship Program, which allows students from the STEM fields to access hands-on training and experience in the core facilities, including ADDFab, over the summer.

“We’ve been doing learning by trying,” he said. “It’s been really cool to get to do more hands-on engineering.”

And even cooler to spin it into a well-paying job.

Into the Future

Meanwhile, area companies — including, of late, Peerless Precision, Volo Aero, FTL Labs, Cofab Design, and MultiSensor Scientific — continue to take advantage of ADDFab’s resources, often through the voucher program, either to make 3D products or learn more about how to incorporate the technology. Responding to a commonly raised concern, Krishnamurty stressed that all intellectual property stays with the companies.

Sundar Krishnamurty says ADDFab wants to partner with local industries

Sundar Krishnamurty says ADDFab wants to partner with local industries to identify and fill workforce and training gaps.

“A lot of times, people see UMass and think, ‘how do I work with them? They’re big, and I’m not,’ Follette said. “But the message we want to put out is that we’re doing 3D printing, and we’re here to help industries. There are many ways to get involved, whether you just have an idea on a napkin or you have computer files and want to print them on our advanced printer.”

Indeed, he noted, ADDFab’s large-scale 3D printers are performing industrial-grade production of “real parts you can use for real things. A lot of engineering companies we’re working with are doing prototyping of parts, design iterations — they want to print something and feel it, then make another change and another change, and it’s great they can turn this around fast and get a part that’s usable also at a great price.”

Using ADDFab is ideal for small runs, he added. “If you need five today, that’s fine. If you need 20 tomorrow, fine. If you need five more the next day, that’s fine, too.”

“A lot of times, people see UMass and think, ‘how do I work with them? They’re big, and I’m not. But the message we want to put out is that we’re doing 3D printing, and we’re here to help industries.”

And if the facility can perform such services while training the next generation of engineers and boosting workforce development for the region’s manufacturing sector, Krishnamurty said, well, that’s a clear win-win-win.

“These are truly one-of-a-kind facilities,” he said, speaking not just of ADDFab, but all the core facilities at UMass Amherst. “I think the future is endless.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing

On a Roll

Between 200,000 and 250,000 golf balls roll out of Callaway’s Chicopee plant every day.

Between 200,000 and 250,000 golf balls roll out of Callaway’s Chicopee plant every day.

The Callaway golf-ball-manufacturing facility in Chicopee has borrowed a famous page from the Chicago Cubs’ playbook.

When the Cubs win, a white flag with a large blue ‘W’ is flown atop the legendary hand-operated scoreboard in center field. (Of course, if they lose, a blue flag with a white ‘L’ goes up, but that’s another story.)

Back to Callaway. When a member of its team — comprised of players on the various professional tours who play Callaway balls and clubs — posts a win, a flag with a large script ‘C’ (the same one used for the Callaway brand) flies underneath the American flag on the pole outside on the facility on Meadow Street.

“The flag goes up the Monday morning after a win, and it flies until Friday that week,” said Vince Simonds, director of Global Golf Ball Operations for Callaway, adding that it’s been flying quite a bit recently.

Indeed, it was up just last week after the best-known member of the team, Phil Mickelson, prevailed at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Meanwhile, Xander Schauffele, a rising star on the PGA tour, has won twice over the past several months; Australian Marc Leishman won last fall, as did Spaniard Sergio Garcia; and Belgians Thomas Peters and Thomas Detry won the ISPS Handa Melbourne World Cup of Golf in late November.

Simonds told BusinessWest that the flag is one of many initiatives designed to raise awareness among those inside the plant about how the products they’re making are generating results at the very highest levels — and generating pride within that workforce as well.

“It’s part of something we call the ‘21 Initiative,’ a multi-year evolution to transform and re-engage as we bring on new machinery and new capacity capabilities,” he said, noting that ‘21’ is short for 2021. “We started putting the flag up because we’ve grown so fast that we need to re-engage with our employees and share our success with them.”

But Callaway also wants to bring attention to what’s going on inside the plant, which is on a winning streak itself.

Indeed, as the Callaway brand has risen to number two in overall sales within the golf-ball market behind Titleist, the Chicopee plant has doubled its workforce over just the past 18 months, from roughly 180 to more than 363 (the highest number in more than a decade), and is expected to surpass 400 later this year, making this one of the better manufacturing success stories to be written locally in recent years.

“We’re very bullish on 2019,” said Simonds, adding that this optimism is grounded in the company’s recent surge within the golf-ball market, fueled by the introduction of several new and somewhat groundbreaking products. These include the Tour Soft ball, which has become popular with professionals and amateurs alike. There’s also a version of that ball known as the Truvis, stamped with pentagonal images — and now a host of other options, from shamrocks to butterflies to other custom logos — that give the product a soccer-ball look.

“We started putting the flag up because we’ve grown so fast that we need to re-engage with our employees and share out success with them.”

The ‘win flag’ flies on the pole outside the Callaway plant

The ‘win flag’ flies on the pole outside the Callaway plant. It’s been flying quite regularly these days.

“The Truvis has really taken off; sales are very strong, and we’re booking a lot of business on the custom side of things,” said Simonds, adding that the portfolio of products is poised to grow with the addition of the ERC Soft, with those letters short for Ely Reeves Callaway, founder of the company.

Overall, somewhere between 200,000 to 250,000 balls, including the new ERCs, are rolling off the lines at the Chicopee plant each day, a slight increase from a year ago. More importantly, the mix has changed, said Simonds, noting that, while the plant supplemented its capacity with non-tour, lower-end products in the past, it no longer does that due to demand for the higher-end balls.

And as those numbers continue to increase, so too does the number of people clocking in at a plant that now runs 24/7.

These workers cover a broad spectrum, said Simonds, from engineers who have brought the new products to the assembly line to those on the shop floor to those in working in the warehouse.

Findng and retaining talent has become an issue, as it has for just about every manufacturer in the region, said Simonds, adding that the company is working with Springfield Technical Community College and area vocational high schools to create an adequate pipeline of workers.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest returns to the Callaway plant and a company that has been, as they in this sport, flag hunting, and has had a great deal of luck in those endeavors.

Core Products

As he offered BusinessWest a quick tour of the Callaway plant and showed off the latest of the new Truvis machines to be added over the past two years, Simonds introduced Les McCray, who’s been working at the Chicopee facility since Gerald Ford was in the White House.

“We try to find people who have the education and technical background, obviously, but also a passion for the game of golf.”

There are still a number of employees with considerable longevity still working at this sprawling plant, but a growing number have been there for months, not years. And while employment has spiked in recent months, it’s been trending upward for several years now, said Simonds.

There have been several milestones along the way that have brought us to this moment, including the introduction of the Chrome Soft, which dramatically altered the trajectory of Callaway’s ball division, and the emergence of the Truvis, which has added a new dimension — metaphorically if not quite literally — to golf-ball design.

Vince Simonds, left, with Les McCray

Vince Simonds, left, with Les McCray, who’s been working at the Callaway plant for more than 40 years.

“There is a functional aspect to this,” he said in reference to the alignment of the pentagons or logos and how it helps people improve their chipping and putting. “But mostly, it’s just a fun and unique way to mark a golf ball. The feedback we get from consumers is that they enjoy it because they can instantly recognize their ball in the foursome.”

The ERC Soft has something approaching that same quality because of a feature called Triple Track Technology — three lines engraved on the ball to help with putting alignment (Mickelson was using a dfferent Callaway ball with the same technology when he won at Pebble Beach). That’s just one innovative aspect to this latest addition to the portfolio, said Simonds, adding that this long but soft ball has a new ‘hybrid’ cover and graphene core and is designed for players with less than tour-level swing speeds.

It’s the latest in a string of advances and new products that have led to a surge in market share, said Simonds, adding that, according to Golf Datatech, which measures sales in pro shops and related outlets, Callaway has a 16% share of the market compared to 7% in 2012. But National Golf Foundation data, which also includes sales at large retail outlets like Dick’s Sporting Goods, gives Callaway a 23% market share based on dollar amount sold.

The Callaway Plant in Chicopee

The Callaway Plant in Chicopee is engaged in what it’s calling the ’21 Initiative,’ (short for 2021) a multi-year process of evolution and transformation as it brings on new machinery and scores of new employees.

This growth has led to more ‘C’ flag-raising ceremonies outside the Callaway plant, and more people working inside it, said Simonds, adding that the company has been adding employees on a regular basis over the past few years.

That’s due in part to a leveling off of production, meaning it’s more steady throughout the year as opposed to being more seasonal as it was years ago, geared toward peak sales at Christmas and especially Father’s Day.

“Our real production season is September to June, with maintenance in July, and then we begin to ramp up for new products in August and begin manufacturing in September and October,” he said. “We support the globe around here.”

And, as he noted, the new arrivals to the plant cross a broad spectrum, from process engineers who design the breakthroughs to skilled, unskilled, and semi-skilled positions on the plant floor. Finding them is, indeed, challenging, said Simonds, adding that, with the engineers and management personnel, the company recruits from where it can.

“We try to find people who have the education and technical background, obviously, but also a passion for the game of golf,” he explained, adding that the last ingredient is a key part of the mix. “We have an R&D team in Carlsbad, California that we work very closely with, but the scale-up and commercialization happens here; we have a team of 12 process engineers and technicians that work hard every day designing systems to make golf balls so people can play better golf. That’s not a bad way to make a living.”

“There is a functional aspect to this. But mostly, it’s just a fun and unique way to mark a golf ball. The feedback we get from consumers is that they enjoy it because they can instantly recognize their ball in the foursome.”

With machinists, Callaway, like most other manufacturers in the region, must compete for a limited number of qualified workers while also dealing with the retirement of Baby Boomers.

“We’re continuing to have dialogue with STCC, and we’re working closely with the trade schools in the area,” he said. “We’ve gotten some really good young people out of Putnam [Vocational-Technical High School] in Springfield — it’s been a really good pipleline for us. But they’re young, and they need training and development, so we’re doing that.”

With so many people coming in recent months, Simonds and his team are grinding, as they say in golf, to keep the growing workforce focused on the mission and the basic tenets, such as safety, quality, and continuous improvement.

“We’ve brought so many people on so fast that the connection with the employee is super important,” he said, referring to the broad 21 Initiative. “So we’re doubling down on our efforts in that regard.”

Banner Year

As noted, the Callaway flag flying after wins on the pro tours is a page taken from the Chicago Cubs’ script.

But in just about every other way, the story being written on Meadow Street in Chicopee is an original. The plot lines are engaging — new products and advances with intriguing names, like Triple Track Technology. And there are a host of stars, from Xander Schauffele and Phil Mickelson to Les McCray.

No one’s quite sure how this story will end, but right now, Callaway and its Chicopee plant are both on a roll, and, like the players on tour who have promoted the flag to fly, they’re winning big.

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

Manufacturing Sections

Doors to Opportunity

Amy Royal

When she started her law career with a firm in Springfield, Amy Royal didn’t consider herself an entrepreneur. But that quality emerged quickly, and she would go on to start her own firm. She soon realized, though, that she was a actually a serial entrepreneur with an appetite for developing and growing companies, the latest of which is a door manufacturer in Ludlow.

Amy Royal says she was given the small ‘Lenox’ sign, complete with that recognizable wolf logo, by officials at that East Longmeadow-based manufacturer soon after it became the first official client of the law firm that bore her last name.

And for years, it was prominently displayed on a wall in her office in Northampton, much like that ceremonial ‘first dollar’ you see under glass or in a frame at small businesses across the region.

Today, it has a new home, and that’s because Royal has one as well, professionally speaking, anyway. That would be 190 Moody St. in Ludlow, the address for West Side Metal Door Corp., a 60-year-old enterprise Royal acquired several months ago, because…

Well, there are many elements that go into that answer, and one of them is that Lenox sign. Sort of. That iconic Western Mass. company is just one of many manufacturers that have become clients of Royal, P.C., an employment-law firm. And over time, while representing many of them, Royal developed more than insight into that sector and much more than a passing interest in someday working within it.

Indeed, when she began a search for a small company to buy a few years ago, manufacturing morphed from one of several sectors being considered to the preferred sector.

“Because of the relationships I’ve had with manufacturers through my law firm, I felt that I had at least a basic understanding of workflow, operations … what it takes to run a manufacturing company,” she explained. “While I certainly explored a number of options, I really wanted to be in manufacturing.”

As she carried out her search, Royal told BusinessWest, the focus was on acquiring an established company, but one with considerable upside potential. And WSMD, as it’s called, certainly fits that description.

Launched in Holyoke in 1958, it has a diverse portfolio of products for commercial customers — diverse enough for Royal to make rebranding a top priority because the ‘MD’ in WSMD doesn’t really work anymore and hasn’t for a while now — and a lengthy list of clients as well.

Indeed, recent deliveries have been made to the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office — the county correctional facility is only a few blocks away — as well as Holyoke Medical Center, the Ludlow Police Department, a casino in Las Vegas, and Wrigley Field in Chicago, among many others.

“We make a lot more than metal doors,” said Royal, also listing custom wooden doors, door frames, distribution of door hardware, and other products, especially tin-clad doors, typically seen in warehouses but now gaining traction in a variety of locations as a retro look.

As evidence, Royal gathered up her phone and scrolled to pictures of tin-clad doors the company recently supplied to an art studio in Hollywood and a condominium tower in Boston. “They look really cool and have a lot of ‘wow’ to them,” she pointed out.

Getting back to that upside potential she saw, Royal said that, unlike her predecessor, an owner who did a little bit of everything for this company, she will focus her efforts on business development, relationship building, and, overall, positioning WSMD (for however long that acronym’s still in use) for continued growth and that proverbial next level.

Amy Royal, seen here with many of the team members at WSMD, says she was drawn by the company’s rich history and strong growth potential.

Amy Royal, seen here with many of the team members at WSMD, says she was drawn by the company’s rich history and strong growth potential.

Borrowing that increasingly popular phrase, she said she’s focused on working on the company, not in it.

“I saw a lot of areas we could build upon, including business development, marketing, and sales,” she explained. “There is brand awareness with this company, but I think we can take that to a higher level.”

As she goes about that assignment, she will borrow at least few pages from the script she wrote with Royal, P.C., which she is still a big part of, even if she and her Lenox sign now consider Ludlow home.

One page in particular involves becoming a certified woman-owned company, a designation that has opened a number of doors (no pun intended) for the law firm, and one she believes can do the same for WSMD.

Elaborating, she said Royal, P.C. is a member of the National Society of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, an organization that forges relationships with large corporations that want to do business with such firms. Corporations like the Macy’s department-store chain, which became a client of the Royal firm just last month.

Institutional clients of that ilk also need metal doors — and wooden doors and tin-clad doors — and Royal’s goal moving forward is to forge such relationships and take the WSMD brand to new heights.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest talked with Royal about her new venture and how and why she walked through that particular door.

Open to Suggestions

Getting back to that question of why Royal acquired WSMD, as noted there are many components to that answer.

Perhaps the main one is Royal’s realization that she is not merely an entrepreneur — something she really didn’t believe she was when she started practicing law with the Springfield-based firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser in the 1990s — but a serial entrepreneur.

“I sort of caught the bug of developing and building businesses after starting the law firm,” she told BusinessWest. “I knew that, even though I’ve had a lot of different business ideas over the years, I was looking for a company that had an existing structure and wouldn’t have to be built entirely from the ground up, like I did with the law firm.

“I wanted to branch out, diversify, and own another business,” she went on, “and really focus my energies and efforts on strategic planning and growing a company.”

Royal said she started her search for a company to buy probably two years ago, and approached that exercise with patience, an open mind, and a determination to find the proper fit.

She looked at everything from a spice-making outfit in Western Mass. (she didn’t identify which one) to a small cruise-ship line operating out of Boston (again, no specifics). But mostly, she looked at manufacturers, again because she liked that environment and understood a good deal about how such ventures operate.

WSMD came onto her radar screen because it was listed for sale. She was working with an area broker on her search, but essentially found WSMD on her own.

And what she found was a solid enterprise and brand with its owner looking to retire — a scenario being played out all across the region within companies in every sector as business-owning Baby Boomers become sexagenarians and septuagenarians.

She started looking at WSMD in late 2015, and kept on looking, undertaking that proverbial deep dive to determine if the company had the growth potential she desired.

And she goes about taking WSMD to a higher level, Royal said she will borrow lessons from her first experience with developing a growing a company, something she did without any formal training (like most all entrepreneurs) and in a fashion that could be described as ‘learning while doing.’

“When I decided I wanted to grow the law firm, I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she conceded. “I went out on my own and built the firm, and figured out how to network, market, develop, and grow the brand. And that’s when I realized that that’s really my passion — growing a business, creating jobs, creating opportunities.”

There will be many aspects to doing all that at WSMD, including that aforementioned rebranding effort.

“We have a really established presence within our customer base, and they know that we do more than metal doors,” she explained. “But the name doesn’t really capture what we do, so we need to change it.”

Also on her to-do list is obtaining status as a woman-owned manufacturing business, a process already underway.

“That will be a huge lift for us,” she said, adding that the company’s application is currently being reviewed, and certification may come in the next few months. “There is a lot of competition in this field, so I do think the certification will help.

“One of the things that made me interested in this company is that it’s been very successful,” she went on. “But I think, I hope, I can take it to the next level.”

And by ‘next level,’ she meant more partnerships and opportunities with institutional clients, again similar to what’s she done at the law firm — opportunities that will hopefully enable her to grow sales and the workforce, currently at nine.

Closing the Deal

Royal told BusinessWest that she’s still involved with her law firm, obviously, and on a number of levels.

But when she leaves her home in Deerfield now, she keeps going past that exit off I-91 that spills onto downtown Northampton and goes another 20 miles down the interstate.

Like her Lenox sign, she’s taken up residence in a new office, this one just off a manufacturing floor, not a conference room filled lined with law books.

But as disparate as those settings may be, they have many things in common, said Royal, adding that, instead of building a strong case for her clients, she’ll now be building one for her doors.

And to borrow a phrase sometimes used in law, this will be — wait for it — an open-and-shut case.

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

Manufacturing Sections

Showing Their Metal

Bob LeDuc, seen here with sons Kurt, left, and Eric, started in a chicken coop and has recorded steady growth ever since.

Bob LeDuc, seen here with sons Kurt, left, and Eric, started in a chicken coop and has recorded steady growth ever since.

Bob Leduc says that, in many respects, there’s been a world of change since he affixed his last name to a sheet-metal fabrication company a half-century or so ago.

After all, he got his start in a 20-by-40-foot chicken coop in his backyard, taking some odd jobs and essentially moonlighting to help feed his growing family. Today, the venture he launched, RR LeDuc Corp., is in a state-of-the-art facility on Bobala Road in Holyoke near the West Springfield, and he has established clients ranging from Lockheed Martin to IBM to Whalley Computer Associates. He also has about 50 people working for him, including two of his sons, Eric and Kurt, both serving in vice presidents’ roles.

But looking at things another way, things really haven’t changed a whole lot since the photo on display in the company’s conference room was taken, the one with Bob sporting decidedly early ’70s clothing and a hairstyle to match, an image he finds almost cringeworthy today.

For starters, the 81-year-old not only comes to work every day, he is remarkably hands-on and involved in seemingly everything taking place at the plant — just as he did when he was by himself in the chicken coop, when that assignment was much easier.

More importantly, he noted, business is still being done just like it was back then, with a laser focus on the customer, on being flexible and responsive, and on not only meeting but exceeding expectations, an operating mindset that has created a steady growth curve over five decades.

“One of the keys to staying in business this long is really knowing your customer and partnering with them to meet their needs,” he said while summing up what amounts to his success formula.

Overall, the past 50 years have been marked by evolution and expansion. Indeed, the company that started by fabricating and installing HVAC ductwork and catwalks in Holyoke’s paper and textile mills — usually on weekends when the machines were quiet — now produces a wide range of metal enclosures and other products from a host of business sectors, including defense, communications, medical, electronics, and many others.

“All the cool stuff is on the inside, but we make the skin,” said Eric LeDuc, adding that the company fabricates this skin (enclosures) for everything from computers to ATM machines to portable generators.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest talked with the LeDucs on the occasion of their silver anniversary about where this company’s been, and where these two generations of leaders want it to go.

Manufacturing Milestone

The LeDuc company celebrated 50 years in style late last fall.

There was a party on the front lawn featuring a jazz band and catering by the Log Cabin. The invitation list included customers, vendors, a few elected officials, and employees past and present.

Those gathered were marking a half-century in business, a considerable feat in its own right, but they were really celebrating all it took to reach that milestone — entrepreneurship, evolution, persistence, innovation, and teamwork.

Those qualities came through clearly as the LeDucs collectively — one would often pick up where the other left off and fill in needed information — related the story of their first half-century in business.

The chicken coop gets brought up often, because it provides a colorful, down-to-earth start to the story. But it is only the first chapter.

Actually, we probably need to go back a little further, to the Holyoke Trade School, where LeDuc, concentrating on sheet metal, graduated in 1954. He served a four-year apprenticeship with the E.H. Friedrich Co., worked there for a few years, and then worked for a few other firms, including one in New Haven, which he served as supervisor, that specialized in HVAC ductwork.

He built a house in Chicopee, and on the lot was a World War II chicken coop, he told BusinessWest, adding that soon thereafter he began that aforementioned moonlighting.

“I bought some sheet-metal-bending equipment and shearing and welding equipment as well,” he recalled. “After eight hours of work, I’d come home, eat supper, and work until Jack Parr came on.” (That would be 11:30 p.m., for those too young to know that Parr preceded Johnny Carson as host of the Tonight Show).

In that chicken coop, the elder LeDuc mostly handled the HVAC ductwork he had become versed in, and as his workload became more steady, he eventually quit his day job — and soon flew the chicken coop — and moved into a sub-basement in a building on Sargeant Street.

His client list was dominated by the paper and textile mills surrounding him, and for those companies, LeDuc fabricated ductwork and also handled so-called trim work on the paper machines. He soon gained a reputation for quality work and flexibility that enabled him to stay busy.

“I would work for a couple of hours, change clothes, and go out and make sales calls,” he told BusinessWest. “I remember one customer saying, ‘what can you do for us that the people working for us now can’t do?’ I said ‘I can work for straight time on Saturdays and Sundays.’ That raised some eyebrows, but most of their machines were down on the weekend, so that’s when they needed someone.”

The work would evolve over time, involving a shift to working with stainless steel, which required investments in new equipment, and new assignments such as catwalks, guards for machinery, and exhaust hoods.

As the mills closed down or moved south in the ’70s and ’80s, the LeDuc company had to reinvent itself, said Eric, who, like Kurt, essentially grew up in the company, starting on the shop floor and working his way up. And it did, becoming a precision sheet-metal fabricator, essentially a contract manufacturer serving a wide range of clients.

There would be a move from Sargeant Street to Samosett Street in the Flats area, several expansions of the location there, and then a major investment in a new, 60,000-square-foot building on Bobala Road.

In the early ’90s, the company was approached by Atlas Copco about adding powder coating of the casings (skin) LeDuc was manufacturing for its portable generators to its roster of services.

“There was no one in this country that was doing it at that time,” Bob LeDuc recalled, adding that powder coating has become a strong component of the company’s overall roster of services.

Today, the company has a diverse portfolio of clients and an equally diverse portfolio of products it produces for them. And one of the keys to both is a tradition of continually investing in state-of-the-art technology, said Eric, noting that the company has made great strides in automated, or lights-out, manufacturing, as it’s called, because it can be done 24/7, or when the lights are out, at least for employees.

Recent additions to the shop floor, complete with many letters and numbers in their names, include:

• An EMK3610NT CNC punch press with ASR multi-shelf sheet loader, which enables multiple programs to run unassisted 24/7;

• The Astro 100NT automated bending robot, which, as name suggests, is the answer for forming parts unassisted (automated tool changing allows the sequencing of multiple programs);

• The FO 3015NT 4,000-watt laser, capable of cutting steel and aluminum in a wide range of thicknesses; and

• The EM3610NT CNC punch press, which, along with lights-out manufacturing, allows mass production of high-quality parts.

There are many other pieces of equipment on the floor, said Eric, adding that all those numbers and letters add up to flexibility and responsiveness, qualities that have enabled the company to continue to grow its client list over the years.

Shining Examples

There are a few other artifacts in the company’s conference room, including the time-worn ‘RR LeDuc’ sign that hung on the property on Sargeant Street.

It stands as another indicator of just how much things have changed for this company since Bob LeDuc would come back in from the chicken coop in time to watch Jack Parr.

But equally important is what hasn’t changed in all that time — the focus on the customer and forming a partnership with it to meet goals and needs.

That focus has enabled the company to shape opportunities in the same way that it has shaped metal.

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

Cover Story Manufacturing Sections

A New Spin

Vince Simonds

Vince Simonds stands by the Truvis V machine with one of the products of the same name.

Over the past century or so, golf balls — and golf-ball history — have been made in Chicopee. Indeed, the sprawling plant on Meadow Street that once bore the name ‘Spalding’ and now ‘Callaway’ has been home to a number of innovations and new products. In recent years, though, that tradition — not to mention the number of workers at the plant — has been in decline. However, a new and exciting golf-ball design is changing the landscape, in all kinds of ways.

They’re calling it the Truvis V.

That’s the name given to a large, sophisticated piece of machinery recently installed at the sprawling Callaway plant in Chicopee. It was built to carefully place the 12 pentagons that have become the distinctive design pattern for the Truvis golf ball, as well as the Callaway name and the player number, all in accordance with USGA rules and regulations.

This machine is cutting-edge when it comes to such work, said Vince Simonds, senior director of Global Golf Ball Operations for Callaway, adding that it packs as much symbolism as it does science and technology.

Indeed, the Truvis V is perhaps the most visible evidence — except for perhaps the soccer-ball-like product the company has developed — of a compelling turnaround in the history of golf-ball manufacturing in Chicopee.

It’s a long history, to be sure, one that dates back to the late 1800s, but recent chapters have certainly not been as glorious. Decades ago, the talk about this plant was mostly reserved to the tens of millions of golf balls produced there annually. Lately, though, it’s been about the dwindling numbers of men and women working inside; decades ago, more than 1,000 people were employed at the plant, and only a few years ago that number dipped below the century mark.

It’s now at or near 200 and steadily climbing, and there were essentially two catalysts for that growth. The first was the arrival of Chip Brewer as the company’s president and CEO in 2012, a move that energized Callaway in many ways, Simonds noted. The second was the development of the Chrome Soft golf ball, or the “ball that changed the ball,” as the company says in its marketing materials.

This became the ball that essentially changed the fortunes of the Chicopee plant as well, Simonds went on, adding that the product has helped Callaway become the number-two ballmaker in the world (well behind the leader, Titleist), and it has also spurred those growing employment numbers in Chicopee.

The ‘Made in Chicopee’ banner at the Callaway plant

The ‘Made in Chicopee’ banner at the Callaway plant has new meaning these days.

And the Truvis model of the Chrome Soft is a very big part of this improved and still-changing picture.

It is still relatively new — it’s been on the market for a few years now — and no one on the PGA Tour is using it yet (more on that later), although Tom Watson is using it on the Champions Tour for players over age 50. But it is certainly catching on among amateurs.

As the name implies, the ball’s claim to fame is that is it is easier to see and enables players to focus better. The product has won some supporters among older players, said Dan Gomez, director of Golf Ball Supply Chain at the Chicopee operation, and among the younger clientele as well, who see is as a break from golf’s staid (some would say stuffy) image.

“It’s something new and different, and some would argue that’s just what’s needed in golf right now,” said Simonds.

The response has been so good that Callaway is having a hard time keeping up with demand. In fact, it isn’t keeping up.

“We’re capacity-constrained right now,”Gomez said with a laugh. “We’ve been sold out on this product for two years; everything we make goes right out — we can’t make enough of them.”

This development explains the Truvis V, but also the fact that space has cleared on the production floor for several more of these machines, and the company plans to add 30 to 40 more workers to operate them.

Indeed, Callaway is quite convinced that the strong interest in the Truvis ball does not represent a fad, like colored golf balls were when first introduced 40 years ago, but rather a business it can build on for years to come. And it is investing heavily in new equipment and plant reconfiguration.

It is also taking very necessary steps to ensure that it will have workers to staff those machines in the years to come. Like all manufacturers, Callaway is having a difficult time finding qualified help, and it is forging (that’s an industry term) relationships with area technical schools to help create a better pipeline.

Part of this relationship building involves tours — officials at Springfield Technical Community College recently visited, for example — designed to impress upon schools and the young people they educate that golf-ball making is alive and well in Chicopee.

And that’s something that really couldn’t have been said just a few years ago.

Round Numbers

Speaking of history, there is quite a bit of it on display, literally, in a row of cases in the hallway leading from the executive offices to the main production floor at the Callaway plant.

There’s more than two centuries of golf-ball technology and product developments behind the glass, including a reproduction of a ‘feathery,’ an 18th-century product that, as the name might suggest, was essentially leather-covered feathers. There’s also some gutta percha balls, or ‘gutties,’ as they were called — products used in the 1800s that were made from dried gum resin from guttiferous trees — as well as dozens of balls from the 20th and 21st centuries with the Spalding name on them, as well as those of several subsidiaries acquired over the years.

There’s even a ball that commemorates the historic moon shot, or moon golf shot, taken by Alan Shepard during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. (Simonds said there is some ambiguity as to just which brand of ball Shepard used for his famous lunar 6-iron, but he signed a promotional deal with Spalding soon after his return from that mission.)

Dan Gomez, left, and Vince Simonds show off some of the Chrome Soft products that have changed the dynamic at the Chicopee plant.

Dan Gomez, left, and Vince Simonds show off some of the Chrome Soft products that have changed the dynamic at the Chicopee plant.

Further down the hall, there is another display case. Its top rows are currently populated with a number of variations on the Truvis theme — meaning a host of color schemes and a few speciality balls, such as one produced for Australian pro Mark Leishman that has the shape of Australia printed inside the pentagons.

There are rows of empty racks waiting to be filled, as well as the confidence that they will be — something that probably didn’t exist just a few years ago.

Indeed, as he talked about Callaway’s acquisition of Spalding’s assets, including the Chicopee plant, in 2003, Simonds said the ensuing years were certainly not what the leaders at that company hoped they would be.

The company’s consistently sluggish performance in the golf-ball business was coupled with the fact that it was overcapitalized — actually, way overcapitalized — especially with regard to the sprawling Chicopee plant, which was much too big for the company’s needs.

Out of necessity, Callaway downsized and rightsized, said Simonds, adding that it sold the Chicopee plant and is currently leasing back roughly 275,000 square feet, maybe one-quarter the footprint of the original facility.

The rightsizing coincided with Brewer’s arrival as president and CEO of the company and the introduction of new products, especially the Chrome Soft, which is essentially technology that enables lower-compression golf balls to perform as well as higher-compression balls years ago.

These developments led to a dramatic increase in market share — from just over 7% in 2013 to more than 14% at present — which has in turn fueled investments in new product development, and especially the Truvis.

Today, the company is making 200,000 to 250,000 balls a day, and the workforce has steadily grown over the past few years to roughly the 200 mark, about a 50% increase, with more hiring planned, primarily in response to the strong early performance of the Truvis.

“It’s been a phenomenal success,” said Simonds, adding quickly that the company has taken steps, patent-wise (from both a manufacturing and design standpoint), in efforts to protect itself from competitors developing something similar, something he believes they’ll try to do.

At present, there are black pentagons on yellow (popular with fans of the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Steelers) and red-on-white options in this country, and a blue-on-white model sold in Japan, he went on, adding that there have been a number of custom orders as well, including green on white for Dick’s Sporting Goods, white on pink for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Mother’s Day, and red maple leaves to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Canada.

The response has been so strong — those balls shipped to Canada sold out quickly — that Callaway has mapped out an ambitious, three-year capital expansion plan to produce the balls.

The Truvis V, as noted, is merely the first of many that will be installed at the Chicopee plant.

And this is very specialized, and expensive, equipment.

“This is an involved process,” Simonds explained. “When you think about stamping such a large design on a spherical object … you have to distort the artwork so that it doesn’t look distorted on the ball. And we’ve developed some techniques to purposefully and mathematically distort the artwork so that, when it’s placed on the ball, it looks normal.”

Another challenge will be finding qualified individuals to operate these machines, he said, adding that this is why the company is reaching out to STCC and the technical high schools in the area, with the goal of establishing relationships and putting Callaway back on the radar screen for young people looking for career opportunities.

In the meantime, Callaway officials look forward to the day — and they predict it will come — when a PGA tour regular starts playing the Truvis, a development that would give the ball a huge boost in terms of both exposure and credibility.

“Most of the tour pros have them, and they use them for chipping and practicing,” Simonds explained. “But most PGA tour pros are too traditionalist to put those in play. But I think it will happen someday.”

Growth Patterns

There’s another item of interest on the shop floor to the administrative offices at the Callaway plant.

It’s a large banner hanging from a utility duct that features images of the Chrome Soft ball, with the Truvis product well-represented. Above those images, in large white letters, are the words ‘Made in Chicopee, MA.’

Such banners and such words have been seen at the plant for decades, obviously, but today, there is more meaning behind them, more optimism, and more promise, if you will.

A plant that has made a good deal of golf balls — and a great deal of golf-ball history — is entering a new era in which it will produce more of both.

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

Manufacturing Sections

Moving Experience

Company President Carol Campbell shows off new CIC’s new 40-60 Hoist.

Company President Carol Campbell shows off new CIC’s new 40-60 Hoist.

When Chicopee Industrial Contractors (CIC) officially marked a quarter-century in business a few months back, it did so with an elaborate open house at its headquarters in Chicopee.

This meant that a good number of those invited — especially a host of the company’s best customers — had to rely on their car’s navigation systems to get them to the ceremonies.

That’s because, for starters, they’d almost certainly never been there before — and also because this business is not exactly easy to find. Indeed, North Chicopee Street is a dead-end road in the northwest corner of the city, not far from Route 391. Meanwhile, the company’s facility is a somewhat non-descript building, with its claim to fame being that it housed Hampden Brewing Co., maker of Hampden Ale, decades ago.

Those customers, most all of them manufacturers — although there are some other sectors in the mix, including area municipalities — don’t come to CIC, because it comes to them, specializing, as it does, in rigging, heavy lifting, machinery moving, machine installation, millwrighting, machine repair, plant relocations, and more.

Once they found the place, open-house attendees could see that the company boasts a large inventory of equipment, space to store machinery for some customers, a training room where employees hone both technical and soft skills (more on that later), and even a large picture of the property with the Hampden Brewery sign on the roof.

Most of the guests probably won’t be back until there’s another round-number anniversary, said Carol Campbell, the company’s energetic president and CEO, who told BusinessWest that she’s marking her anniversary, in part, with steps and strategic planning to ensure that there are such occasions.

“We’ve done some looking back at where we’ve been and what we’ve accomplished,” she said of anniversary celebrations that officially began in February. “But we’re really looking ahead to what we need to do as a company. We want to be here in another 25 years.

“And what we really need to do is build on our strengths, and there any many of those,” she went on, “while also making ourselves more versatile and better-equipped to take on more kinds of jobs.”

There is much that goes into that phrase ‘better-equipped,’ including initiatives such as the company’s most recent acquisition, a 40/60 Hoist, as it’s called. The numbers reflect the fact that can handle loads of 40,000 to 60,000 pounds, and Hoist is both the name of the manufacturer and a description of what it does.

The machinery was acquired to give CIC more flexibility and the ability to work more efficiently, said Campbell, adding that it’s a solid investment in the company’s future.

As are other measures that fall into that category of being ‘better equipped,’ such as the many training programs carried out in a classroom carved out of space on the building’s second floor and other efforts to build and strengthen the CIC team.

“What makes CIC unique is that this is a group of individuals, brought together by skills, that believe in the company,” she told BusinessWest. “And they not only believe in our mission and our vision — they believe in CIC. It’s not ‘Carol Campbell’s company,’ it’s CIC, and that became apparent at our open house.”

The new piece of wall art at Chicopee Industrial Contractors tells a compelling story.

The new piece of wall art at Chicopee Industrial Contractors tells a compelling story.

But while Campbell said the 25th anniversary was a chance for her to thank customers such as Lenox, Smith & Wesson, Olympic Manufacturing, and others, as well as that team she talked about in such glowing terms, that second constituency turned the tables and thanked her with a gift.

This was a sculpture of sorts — a collection of the various tools of this trade (turnbuckles, chains, wrenches, and even a bottle opener as a nod to the building’s past as a brewery) welded into something approximating the number ‘25.’

Now holding down a prominent piece of wall space at CIC headquarters, the artwork is symbolic in that those tools, and employees’ mastery of them, made ‘25’ possible. This is a success formula that Campbell won’t be changing — but she may add some new ingredients to ensure that higher numbers can be reached.

Weighty Matters

As she talks about economic cycles, and especially downturns, both modest and severe, Campbell does so with tremendous recall and attention to detail.

Most people who have a business within the construction sector or who have a customer base dominated by manufacturers have such ability, and for good reason. Those are sectors that are among the most vulnerable to recessions, and, as noted, CIC is tied to both.

So she speaks from experience, and lots of it, when she says her business is what she calls a ‘lagger.’ That’s not a real word, but one nonetheless often used to describe a business that lags behind others when a recession hits. And that’s because there’s work to do soon after the economy turns south.

For CIC, that work translates into handling assignments for companies that are downsizing — or worse, as in closing their doors.

After work of this nature is done, then the recession hits for CIC. Which means that, while the phones stopped ringing at most businesses just a few hours after the planes struck the Twin Towers on 9/11, they didn’t really stop ringing at CIC until several months later. And it was the same later in the decade; while 2008, the height of the Great Recession, was the year of doom for most businesses, it was 2009 for CIC.

But while the declines come later, they are still profound, said Campbell, adding that one of her goals as she looks at what’s ahead for CIC is to reduce the impact of such declines, or, in other words, make the ups and downs (or at the least the downs) less dramatic.

This will be difficult, given the nature of the customer base and the general portfolio of products and services, but initiatives such as the new 40/60 Hoist will certainly help, she said.

In the meantime, the company will look to make itself more of a force when the economy is doing relatively well. And this involves sticking to the playbook first drafted in 1992, the one that enabled that sculpture to take the shape it did, and making the team carrying out those plays even stronger.

Elaborating, Campbell said one of her priorities moving forward is securing leadership for the future — at all levels.

“As we’ve brought new employees on from 10 years ago and 12 years ago, and even some of the more recent additions from the past few years, we’ve trained them to take leadership roles,” she explained. “So as we say ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ to our senior staff, leadership can be transferred to that younger generation.”

And while developing leadership abilities, the company is continually building upon the skills of its team members, one of the keys to its ongoing success, Campbell noted, adding that this was one of the matters she’s stressed to employees as the company has marked 25 years in business.

“I told them that we got here by continuing to sharpen our skills, whether it be our technical skills or our soft skills,” she said, while noting that the latter, which involves team interaction with customers, is just as important as the former. “This has certainly served us well, and we will continue on that path.”

One of the biggest challenges the company faces moving forward is securing enough talented workers to handle the various types of assignments CIC undertakes.

Campbell said she has struggled for many years now to build the workforce when expansion was possible and needed, and like almost every owner of a manufacturing company or contractor, she’s concerned about the prospect of replacing those workers who will retire in the years to come.

“It’s definitely been a challenge — for us, and for everyone,” she told BusinessWest, adding quickly that the generally frustrating search for talent is not exactly stifling the company’s growth efforts, and it’s certainly not keeping CIC from taking on work. But it is a concern moving forward, and one of the many matters to address as the company ponders what the next 25 can and should be like.

Carrying the Load

As she posed for a few pictures around and on the 40/60 Hoist, Campbell looked ready to put it through its paces.

But she’ll leave that to her talented, experienced crews.

Instead, she’ll continue to do what she’s done from the start — manage, do some selling, build relationships, be active within the community and, most important, set a tone for the company she founded.

That would be a tone of continuous improvement and performing well as a team — something her father, Vic Fusia, who coached the UMass Amherst football team in the ’60s, would certainly appreciate.

Those attributes are responsible for the sculpture now gracing the hallway of the old brewery in Chicopee, and they’re the ones that will carry the company to new milestones — and moving experiences of all kinds.

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

Manufacturing Sections

Making a Name for Itself

From left, Frank Mitchell, Chris Brucker, Jack Mitchell, and Mark Mitchell

From left, Frank Mitchell, Chris Brucker, Jack Mitchell, and Mark Mitchell show off one of the company’s custom machines — one that will slice sapphire.

Since it was launched by John Mitchell in 1920, Mitchell Machine has grown and diversified — shifting from producing parts and tools for the Springfield Armory and Indian Motocycle to designing and manufacturing complex machines for the semiconductor industry. But since day one, the company has essentially been doing the same thing — producing solutions for its clients.

 

 

It’s called a ‘sapphire wafer slicer.’

And that’s exactly what the blue-painted piece of machinery is — a device that slices sapphire substrate into razor-thin wafers for use in the production of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and other products.

As they gathered for a photo in front of this piece of equipment, which was due to be shipped out to an unnamed customer within a matter of days, those at Mitchell Machine were careful to position themselves so that they were shielding anything that might be the slightest bit proprietary in nature.

It has been this way — sort of, and in most respects — at this landmark Springfield company since it was started by Jack Mitchell’s grandfather, John Mitchell, in 1920.

Back then, said Jack, one of the third-generation owners (his brother, Frank, is the other), this was mostly a parts manufacturer, supplying several companies but especially two huge customers steeped in history and lore and located just blocks away from the Hancock Street plant — the Springfield Armory and Indian Motocycle.

Chris Brucker

Chris Brucker says Mitchell Machine has a long track record of providing solutions to its clients.

The second generation of ownership — John’s sons, Frank, John, and Richard — led the company through its first evolutionary process, into the tool and die business in the ’50s. Today, the company handles everything from production of special machinery — like the sapphire wafer slicer — to subcontract machining; from design and manufacturing of robotics equipment that can provide companies with cost-effective automation, to machine design and engineering services for companies that would prefer to outsource such important work.

The common denominator when it comes to everything that goes on in (or out of) the plant today, and what transpired decades ago, is the fact that Mitchell has always been in the business of providing solutions to many different kinds of customers.

“When people have problems in manufacturing — when they need to do something faster, they need automation, they need robotics — they require solutions, and we provide them,” he explained, adding that, as Baby Boomers retire and the task of replacing highly skilled workers becomes ever more daunting, manufacturers are increasingly looking at using technology to do (or help do) what people have traditionally done.


Chart of Largest Manufacturers in the region


Mitchell works with clients in a host of business sectors, including automotive, communications, machinery, electronics, plastics, printing, rubber, optics, and semiconductors.

Many of these solutions are one truly one-of-a-kind in nature, meaning the company won’t even make two of them, he went on, adding that such undertakings make the business unique and the work quite intriguing. But it also brings challenges, especially the need to keep a steady flow of projects in the queue.

“We rarely do the same thing twice — there’s not a lot of volume production — and this requires a lot of skill,” he said, adding that individual projects generally take anywhere from five to 18 months or more to complete. “So you need a lot of projects in the pipeline, and you need financial security, because it’s a long time between drinks.”

This need to continually bring in new work led Mitchell to become one of a handful of area companies to take part in Valley Venture Mentors’ first accelerator program for established manufacturers.

Mark Mitchell, Frank’s son, and thus a fourth-generation leader of the company, led Mitchell’s involvement in the intense, three-month accelerator program. He said it was helpful on many levels, but especially with marketing and raising the company’s profile, thus generating new clients.

“There was a lot of insightful reflection on the company, how we produce, and how can market ourselves,” he noted, adding that, while the company made some direct contacts that might lead to additional business, many of the takeaways involved operations and becoming more visible. And one of the first orders of business will be a new and improved website.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Mitchell Machine’s long history of providing solutions for customers, and how, as it approaches its centennial, it continues to find new ways to expand an already-impressive portfolio of projects.

Parts of the Whole

Jack Mitchell told BusinessWest that, when his grandfather arrived at his home in Springfield’s Hungry Hill section one afternoon in 1920, he had what amounted to good news and bad news for his wife.

“The good news was that he bought a building and was going to start a business,” he explained. “And the bad news was that he didn’t have his existing job anymore, and he had to rely strictly on himself. And he had six children; needless to say, my grandmother was quite alarmed.”

That job was as a toolmaker with Colt Industries in Hartford, he went on, adding that his grandfather’s story was typical of many machinists working for the Armory and other companies at the zenith of this region’s industrial age; individuals with an entrepreneurial bent who decided to take their assembled skills and go off on their own with a career turn (that’s an industry term) that would bring with it a whole host of risks, sacrifices, and unknowns.

To make ends meet, Mitchell noted, his grandfather would work at shops like Van Norman Machine Tool and Bosch Machine during the day, and work at the company with his own name on it at night, logging 16- to 20-hour days, usually six days a week.

What’s happened since that start, though, is far from typical.

Indeed, the company has, as noted, reached fourth-generation involvement (a rarity in any sector, but especially manufacturing) and continues to find new and different ways to grow, evolve, and, yes, manufacture solutions for clients across a wide range of business sectors.

Relaying some of the company’s rich history in Springfield, Mitchell noted that, during World War II, it made parts, gauges, and other equipment for essentially two clients — the Armory, which, by the war’s height, was employing more than 15,000 people in arms production, and Indian, which by then was producing motorcycles exclusively for the military.

“At that time, we had more than 100 people working in a very small section of our current shop,” he explained. “It was a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week operation during the war.”

After the war, the company acquired new, larger equipment, and subsequently diversified into the manufacturing of complete, custom machines, and for companies across the country, not simply across town.

Then, as now, it served a host of different sectors, many with a presence in this region, including the paper industry (many communities in the area had plants), tire making (those products were produced in both Chicopee and Springfield), and molded fiber, among others.

“To this day, Michelin is still a customer — we’ve been serving the tire industry since the ’50s,” said Mitchell, adding that many customers in the portfolio have been with the company for decades.

Mark Mitchell

Mark Mitchell says the company’s participation in the manufacturing accelerator has provided new business leads and insight into how to raise Mitchell’s profile in the marketplace.

The company’s next important step in diversification came in 1992 with the establishment of Mitchell Engineering, which took the company into the design-and-build realm when it came to custom machinery and robotics and to a new dimension in providing clients with solutions.

Today, such work represents roughly 60% of the annual revenues, with the rest coming in the form of subcontract machining.

As noted, Mitchell Engineering is in the business of providing solutions to problems, many of them workforce-related, he said, citing, as one example of the work it undertakes, an assignment involving Sanderson MacLeod, the Palmer-based manufacturer of twisted wire brushes.

“There’s an unusual brush that only one person could make,” Mitchell told BusinessWest. “And that individual was retiring. They came to us, and we designed and built a machine that could actually perform the task that this person did.”

Designs on Growth

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar stories in the portfolio, he went on, adding that the machine to slice sapphire — which is ideal for use in both LED and non-LED applications due to its high temperature resistance, high strength, and good electrical insulation — certainly falls into this category.

“Sapphire is harder than silicon, so it’s a more difficult thing to do,” Mitchell noted. “This is a prototype machine — nothing like it has ever been built before.”

Many of the products and solutions that roll out the door command similar language, said Chris Brucker, an applications engineer for the company, adding that the solutions are generated through intense collaboration, or interface, with the client concerning the problem and the best means of solving it.

“Our clients will have an application that they’re looking to automate, or generate better quality, less scrap, fewer direct labor hours … all those kinds of things to stay competitive, increase profits, all those good things companies want to do,” he explained. “I go in and talk to them, understand their process from their perspective, find out what they need to do,” he went on, “and then develop concepts for a special piece of machinery or automation.”

As noted earlier, projects of this nature generally take at least six months from start to finish, and many require much more time.

Thus, there is that heavy premium on constantly generating new work for the pipeline, said those we spoke with, adding that, as might be expected, it comes in two forms — additional work for existing clients, and attracting new clients.

And recent efforts have been focused on both, said Jack Mitchell, adding that this is a relationship business, and once one has been established, the goal is to grow it.

He said there are many examples where subcontracted machining has also led to work designing and manufacturing custom equipment or the promise of such work, including one case involving a medical-equipment manufacturer.

“It started with a small, complex part, and moved to a much more complicated assembly of parts, to creating a tool they could use,” he explained, adding that the next step could be work to design a production line for the company.

As for attracting new clients, word of mouth has always been and will always be the best form of marketing, said Mark Mitchell, and the company does take part in several large trade shows each year. Still, there are many who don’t know the Mitchell name and all that it stands for, and this nagging reality was perhaps the primary motivation behind participation in the manufacturing accelerator program, although connecting with new customers directly was also a goal.

“We’ve quoted on a number of projects as a result of the program,” said Mark, adding that the program reaffirmed the notion that original equipment manufacturers, including many in this area, are not fully aware of the resources (such as Mitchell’s expertise) that are available to them.

Slices of History

The small conference room at Mitchell Machine speaks to the company’s long history, and brings the past, present, and future together efficiently.
Indeed, along with a few golf pictures (which reflect a passion for the game shared by several generations of the Mitchell family), the walls feature a few framed replicas of World War II-era posters proudly touting the contributions of defense contractors toward victory in Europe and the Pacific.

“Your Work Means Victory — Build Another One” reads one poster depicting a shipbuilder.

There’s also a 10-pound block of silicon sitting on a base in the middle of the table. It’s there as a nod to the fact that Mitchell has designed and built machinery that will shape that silicon in the production of microchips.

As the company prepares to turn 100, it is still doing what it was doing when John Mitchell came home with that mix of good news and bad news — produce solutions. And along with those, it is making (and has always made) a proud name for itself.

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

Manufacturing Sections

On the Cutting Edge

Marianne Halpern

Marianne Halpern displays the Thunderbird, one of the knives now being produced by Three Rivers Mfg., a subsidiary of Halpern Titanium.

Marianne Halpern says the company used to be called Custom Knife Supply because … well, that’s what it did — that’s all it did.

It supplied custom parts — blades, handles, hinges, and other components — to knife makers across the country, she said of the venture that she and her husband, Les, started out of their home in Monson, more as a money-making hobby than anything else.

When it became much more than that — the two eventually left their day jobs to pursue this full-time — and did much more than supply knife parts, a name change was certainly in order, Halpern told BusinessWest.

The search for something new and more accurate wasn’t exactly involved or scientific in nature, Halpern went on, adding that credit for what’s now in block letters on the business cards goes to the woman who handled that printing job.

“She asked what we did and what materials we worked with,” Halpern noted, adding that, when given a quick primer, the printer, desiring to make the principals’ name part of the equation, said, ‘how about Halpern Titanium?’

This question soon became the answer, said Halpern, because ‘Titanum,’ all by itself, says a quite a bit. “It has a definite ring to it.”

Indeed, this silver-colored, low-density, high-strength metal is practically synonymous with ‘cutting edge’ when it comes to its use in everything from artificial joints and dental implants to golf clubs; from eyeglass frames to Corvette engine parts.

Meanwhile, the metal itself is not exactly easy to fabricate into any of the above, Halpern went on, adding that, in many ways, this name connotes precision and expertise to those who read it.

Exactly how much the new name has helped the company is a matter of debate, but what isn’t is the fact that Halpern Titanium, now located in the Palmer Technology Center (the old Tambrands complex in Three Rivers) continues to grow and diversify itself into a major player within this industry.

The company, which also specializes in other materials, including carbon fiber, fiberglass, and stainless steel, now makes parts for a number of knife makers, many based in Oregon due to very liberal knife laws there (quite of the opposite of what are on the books in the Bay State), but manufacturers of other projects as well. And within the past 18 months or so, it has taken its expertise to a new and different label by introducing its own brand of knives, produced by a subsidiary named Three Rivers Manufacturing (TRM).

That venture has already produced several models, including the Nomad, the Class Action, the BT 1000, and the Thunderbird, which earned an enthusiast review from a trade publication called Knife News.

The Nomad Slipjoint

The Nomad Slipjoint, complete with titanium frames and royal blue G-10 handle, is one of several knives now bearing the Three Rivers Mfg. (TRM) name.

“Designed by company founder Les Halpern, the Thunderbird’s distinctive geometry injects some new life into familiar tactical knife attributes like a wharncliffe blade, titanium framelock, and sculpted pocket clip,” the magazine wrote. “The narrowing frame is embellished with deep milled-out grooves to create a look that harkens back to the tail fins found on the classic 1950s American-made automobiles.”

TRM, currently selling direct to consumers from its website, hopes to roll out several new models in the years to come, said Halpern, adding quickly that the parent company’s main purpose in life is to help a host of major knife makers earn similar platitudes for their products.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at a company with a sharp — as in sharp — focus on controlled growth and further expansion of each of the many components within the business plan.

Cutting to the Chase

The printer who handled the Halperns’ business cards had more to do than help come up with a new name. Her eventual assignment was to pack a ton of information on that small space, while putting it all in something approximating titanium’s color on a black background.

In short, there’s a lot to read there.

Beyond the typical name, address, phone, and e-mail, the card provides a quick education into the services provided and materials used — at least to those versed in this field and the language associated with it.

Indeed, there are phrases like ‘dynamic waterjet cutting’ and ‘swiss turning,’ and listed materials including ‘titanium sheet bar and plate’ and the related ‘6AL/4V, CP Grades 1-4’ (an alloy of that metal), as well G-10 (fiberglass) and carbon fiber sheet. One could also note that free quotes are available and that this is a certified women-owned business.

Like we said, there’s a lot to read. And it all translates into the fact that this company has come a long way from the Halperns’ basement in Monson.

That’s where things started almost 20 years ago, said Marianne, noting that she was a teacher at Tantasqua Regional Senior High School and Les was a designer in the adaptive equipment department at the Monson Developmental Center when they started to fashion parts for knife makers on the side — and got really good at it.

So good, as noted, that they started thinking about this as a career move.

“I took a leave of absence from my job in 2000, and never went back — and I never looked back, either,” she told BusinessWest. “Les retired, and he never looked back.”

Instead, they’ve been looking both outward and inward with an eye on finding new ways to do what the company has essentially done from the very beginning — serve as a solution finder for many of the nation’s most prominent knife makers.

“Companies come to us with a specific need they need to address,” she said, adding that solutions include everything from parts to whole-knife manufacturing and assembly (although not much of that) to assistance with designing new products for the market.

When asked to list some of these customers for which solutions are provided, Halpern said those names are among the many things are kept confidential within this large, tight, and highly competitive business.

To effectively convey what the company does, Halpern had to repeatedly stop in mid-sentence, get up from her chair, and find a knife with which she could show the company’s contribution rather than explain it.

She picked up an elaborate multi-tool product assembled by one of those companies she couldn’t name to explain how it makes one small carbon-fiber piece that holds the tool bit in place. She picked up another knife to show off one of the many types of handles (a good number of them produced from G-10), and on it went.

Les Halpern

Les Halpern, seen here at the prototype CNC machining center, wears many hats for the company, including knife designer.

“For many customers, we’ll make one part, like the handle, and they’ll make the rest,” she explained. “We’re a team with that company, and we have many, many relationships like that. They don’t have to worry about that part of the knife.”

Getting to the Point

There are many visible signs of growth at Halpern Titanium, starting with its facility in Palmer.

The company started with roughly 3,000 square feet, a few machines, and the Halperns handling almost all the assigned duties. The footprint has expanded to 20,000 square feet, there are now 12 employees and 25 machines, and the Halperns, while they still work long hours, don’t have to do it all.

A growing client list is another measure of success, she said, adding that the company has staked out a position as one of the clear leaders in this field.

“There’s not a lot of competition out there — it’s not easy to do what we do,” she said, noting, again, the difficulty of working with titanium, G-10, and other materials.

The new subsidiary, TRM, is still another sign of growth and progress, she said, adding that she and Les decided roughly 18 months ago to take their acquired expertise and put the company’s name on its work instead of someone else’s.

“We had been making private-label knives for other companies for 18 years, and we often thought that it would be a good idea to do some of our own,” she explained. “And we recognized that making something for someone else that they sell is very different from making something yourself that you have to market, but we wanted to give it a try.”

Working in tandem with some noted custom knife designers, TRM brought a few products to the marketplace last year, she went on, including the Nomad, complete with an array of handle colors, such as ‘blaze orange,’ ‘cranberry,’ ‘forest green,’ and ‘battleship gray.’ The Thunderbird will be available online shortly.

Results thus far have been generally positive, said Halpern, and the company is learning the new elements of business associated with this venture, especially the marketing side of the equation and its various social-media platforms.

“It’s a whole different experience trying to market a product,” she explained. “I’m very active on social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram … and I’m gradually building a following for our company.”

She and others will attempt to expand this following in June at the Blade Show in Atlanta, billed as the largest knife show in the country, sponsored by Blade magazine. Attendees will include custom knife makers, manufacturing operations, collectors, and many more constituencies.

This means those representing both TRM and Halpern Titanium can multi-task, which is essentially what those at this corporation are now doing on a daily basis.

Indeed, Halpern noted, with the many different kinds of operations, including production of its own brands, now taking place, the company must conduct what she called a “balancing act” to ensure that each has the ability to thrive and grow.

“On the private label, we want to continue with those companies that want to add new products and grow with them,” she explained. “Meanwhile, we’re adding new customers selectively, making sure it’s a good fit, and we want to continue with our own models, introducing maybe a few new ones each year. Let’s see where that all takes us.

“It’s definitely a balancing act; we keep evolving as we need to,” she went on. “You can’t just stand still — in any kind of business, but especially this one. You have to be ready to add things to your repertoire.”

Getting a Handle

Things like the Thunderbird, with its narrowing frame and deep milled-out grooves, and the Nomad, with its blaze-orange, cranberry, and battleship-gray handles.

This company that was started in a basement continues to build upon its repertoire and its track record of excellence within the knife industry.

As the name suggested by that printer a while back suggests, this company is on the cutting edge — in just about every aspect of that phrase.

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

Manufacturing Sections

Manufacturing Progress

Andrew Walmsley

Andrew Walmsley says VVM’s Manufacturing Accelerator has given him insights about how he can grow Volo Aero MRO in East Longmeadow.

Valley Venture Mentors has made a name for itself providing invaluable mentoring and technical assistance to mostly young, startup ventures. But this fall, it has taken its ‘tough-love’ approach to helping business owners become more competitive and efficient to some businesses that are anything but young. Indeed, several of the participants in VVM’s Manufacturing Accelerator are decades old. But they are learning new ways to communicate with and better serve customers — and gain new ones.

Scott Decker recently had a five-hour meeting with a long-time customer, during which they discussed business in a way they never had done before.

“Communication is key, and it helped us bridge some gaps,” said the CEO of Decker Machine Works Inc. in Ashfield. “The customer had some expectations that hadn’t been verbalized, and the meeting helped us align our thinking and fill in blanks in our relationship.”

The dialogue was initiated as a result of Decker’s participation in Valley Venture Mentors’ Manufacturing Accelerator program, which is a pilot that launched in October. It’s a new type of venture for VVM, which historically has focused on matching entrepreneurs with mentors who help them avoid pitfalls and grow their fledging businesses.

The pilot is being run by Paul Silva, president of VVM, and Scott Longley, who owns Eidolon Consulting and has served as a VVM mentor for manufacturers.

“It’s an experiment because we’re not working with startups; some of these companies have been in business for three generations and have dozens of employees,” Silva said, noting that the average age of participants is 50.

One assignment each of the so-called ‘students’ received was to ask open-ended questions of existing and potential customers and continue these queries until they get to their bottom line in terms of need, expectations, and values, which is exactly what occurred in the recent meeting Decker had with a client.

The program has also helped students hone in on what they do best, because most ‘job shops,’ which is the term these small manufacturers go by, are generalists and don’t specialize in a specific type of product or offering.

Andrew Walmsley purchased Volo Aero MRO in East Longmeadow a year ago, and although his background includes business development, he says the course has been quite beneficial.

Paul Silva, left, and Scott Longley

Paul Silva, left, and Scott Longley say VVM’s Manufacturing Accelerator is a pilot project to help local job shops define what they do best so they can focus on a specialty.

“It forced me to do outreach to a broad range of companies to understand what’s important to them,” he said, noting that he made more than 40 calls to supply-chain professionals, and if he hadn’t been accountable to the program, he would never have spent so much time defining exactly what they want, need, and value.

“The program makes you revisit beliefs. What was true 20 years ago isn’t necessarily true today, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is how important it is to focus and understand your core market,” he said, adding that there is a high cost to doing business in this region and participants have discovered they face the same challenges.

He likens running a business to tactical firefighting, and says it’s easy to get caught up in day-to day-problems. “But the program directs you back to the market and shows you where you can add value so you can be profitable,” Walmsley explained.

Longley told BusinessWest that it’s critical to ensure that manufacturing re-establishes the strong foothold it had generations ago when the Springfield Armory, Indian Motocycle, and other major companies were flourishing.

“Local job shops grew up around the Armory to support their needs as well as the needs of other large companies,” he noted, adding that hundreds of these small, local shops still exist, manufacturing components used in medical, aerospace, and other industries, and have tremendous capabilities due to expertise honed by decades of experience.

“Our goal is to help them find new customers and ways of doing business,” Longley said.

Silva noted that many small job shops were forced to close during the recession, and the focus for shops that remain open has often been simply to survive. “The world is getting more competitive, and they need to figure out how they can be the best in the world at something so they can thrive and add zeros to their bottom line.”

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest talked with Silva and Longley to find out what the accelerator program involves and how its students — job-shop owners and executives — are integrating lessons honed from the syllabus into their operations.

Matters of Perception

VVM has a storied history of success in helping entrepreneurs, and its accolades have included participation in a White House initiative last fall as well as other prestigious honors.

Silva said the agency’s success prompted Vita Clark, executive vice president at MassDevelopment, to approach him last summer with the idea of starting a pilot to help local manufacturers develop an innovative mindset and synergistic approach to doing business. Silva thought it was a viable idea, and MassDevelopment gave VVM a $200,000 grant to fund the program.

Eight companies were selected to become students, and they have devoted a tremendous amount of time to the program, which consists of 10 six-hour sessions along with a great deal of homework they are held accountable for.

Sam Decker

Sam Decker of Decker Machine Works Inc. in Ashfield says the VVM Manufacturing Accelerator has helped him gain new information about the needs of his customers.

Because it’s an experimental program, Silva noted, changes have been made along the way, and although initial sessions were scheduled on a weekly basis, they switched to every other week because the working professionals couldn’t afford to be away from their job shop for an entire day every week.

He told BusinessWest the program has been painful for students in some ways because it has exposed company weaknesses. But participants have discovered they share similar challenges that include problems such as not being able to afford a sales representative or being too small to get a good deal on health insurance.

Decker Machine has been in business for more than 30 years, and Decker admitted he was skeptical about the accelerator before he attended an audition night. But today, he feels honored that his company was selected to be part of the inaugural class.

“VVM is giving us the tools we need not only to survive, but to thrive,” he said. “It is really difficult today to be profitable and relevant in an ever-changing marketplace. We have lots of competition, especially overseas, and there are onerous regulations. But this program is offering us a different perspective by helping us to see different ways of looking at things. We have been doing business in the same way for so long that we are kind of myopic.”

Silva and Longley noted that many of the students were relying on 20th-century marketing tactics to generate business, included attendance at trade shows, cold calls, and word-of-mouth referrals. Most had not used social media before the accelerator began, and some didn’t have websites or only maintained very basic ones.


List of Largest Manufacturers in Western Mass.


But that is changing, and new skills are being learned. The program requires students to make presentations to the class, which has not been easy because many were not used to speaking in front of an audience. They have taken on the challenge, however, and been able to tell their peers what they learned from calls and meetings with clients as well as from other assignments.

The purpose has been to grow and develop their comfort level on stage, and the participants have learned to include slides and other visuals to enhance what they have to say.

A few weeks ago, Decker said, program administrators staged a Shark Tank-like experience during which people were brought in to critique participants’ sales pitches. He joked that he was happy to be one of the first presenters to go before the “sharks got organized,” because the feedback was not always easy to hear.

“But they have learned, if they want to get a customer 10 times larger than any they currently have, they need to develop a good sales pitch,” Silva said.

Longley noted that constructive criticism is completely honest and direct. “We tell them what’s wrong in a non-hurtful way.”

But the larger goal is to work toward identifying what sets them apart from other local job shops.

“VVM wants us to specialize; it’s a way to survive and thrive in a market full of mediocre offerings,” Decker said.

Still, it has been difficult for them to define what makes them different from their local competitors, which is critical knowledge as it can help them focus on developing a specialized niche.

“There are different ways of specializing. For example, being able to turn something around in 24 hours is a very different skill than offering the cheapest price,” Silva noted.

However, detailed phone calls and meetings have led students to the realization that buyers have different priorities; some want things produced quickly, while others don’t need a part right away but are very appreciative when a manufacturer can store it for them or delay a shipment, because it helps them manage their own inventory storage cost.

“About 80% of what we teach them is talk, listen, and ask open-ended questions about what is important to their customers,” Silva noted. “In addition to probing questions, they’ve had to ask for referrals, and they have been able to branch out and build foundations as they move out of their comfort zones.”

The students have also been inspired by speakers from companies with histories of enviable growth, including the chief strategist at Yankee Candle and the CEO of FloDesign Sonics.

As a result of their shared experiences, new alliances have been forged between these competitors who often didn’t know each other well before the class; for example, Deckers’ son recently helped Walmsley with search-engine optimization.

“The group members have come to know each other and want to help each other,” Decker said. “We all have similar issues, and if we can bond together, we’ll be stronger as a group as well as individually.”

Fruitful Lessons

The pilot program will end Jan. 30, and putting lessons to work will not be easy.

“It’s almost human nature to fall back into old habits, but we believe our students can be successful, and we truly want that to happen,” Silva said.

The course, he added, has been aimed at helping them discover how they can add jobs and increase revenue by working differently, and it will take time to digest and implement the lessons. “It’s been painful for every single one of the participants to be in the class.”

But the ultimate goal is for them to use the skills and expertise gained from decades of manufacturing in a new way that keeps pace with today’s ever-changing marketplace.

Manufacturing Sections

Turn of the Screw

Sam Everett and Almeiro Serena say managers walk through the OMG plant

Sam Everett and Almeiro Serena say managers walk through the OMG plant several times a day to talk to employees and ensure there are no problems.

Hubert McGovern says people might wonder why a company would choose to manufacture screws in Agawam when they could be made far more inexpensively overseas.

“Twenty years ago, someone asked our board of directors why we hadn’t moved to China,” McGovern, president of OMG Roofing Products, told BusinessWest. “Many manufacturers have moved jobs overseas, and it’s no different in the screw business. But that’s not our story.”

Indeed, this story is a unique and a distinctive saga of success. OMG Inc. has created a line of specialty systems and products that have set it apart from its competitors, established a global presence, and recorded sales that totaled $275 million in the past year. Its products include screws for commercial roofing, hidden-fastening systems for residential decking and trim, hot-melt adhesive systems, log home fasteners, and insulation adhesives and related products used in the commercial and residential construction business.

“We’ve had a more than 10% annual compound growth rate since 1995,” McGovern said, adding that the company is a subsidiary of Handy & Harman Ltd., which is publicly traded on the NASDAQ Capital Market under the symbol HNH. “We make more than one billion screws per year, process approximately 150 pounds of steel every day, and consume 36 million pounds of carbon steel wire every year.”

The company’s growth and culture has been painstakingly crafted. Although safety is its top priority, the company is well-aware that its employees have played an enormous role in its success, and a great deal of time and energy are focused on ensuring they have opportunities to grow personally, financially, and professionally.

“People are the most important part of our company; we want our employees to be successful,” said McGovern. “We believe if they succeed and get ahead financially, they will feel good about working here, which will help the company do well and move forward. We know that our employees are behind all of our efforts.”

He added that, since stress can hinder performance at work, OMG has put programs in place to alleviate it that address wellness, physical health, and financial matters.

These include free exercise classes conducted in a large conference room or at a local gym during lunchtime and at the end of the day, periodic fitness and wellness challenges with awards, and a plethora of program offerings that range from swimming to yoga to TRX classes to accommodate people of different fitness levels.

Each year, the company also stages an ongoing series of events ranging from holiday lunches to raffles for highly sought-after sports-related tickets. including Patriots games and even the World Series.

“We go above and beyond to give people experiences they wouldn’t normally get,” McGovern said, before borrowing the well-known phrase “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Employees at OMG Roofing Products

Employees at OMG Roofing Products show off medals they won at a recent company fitness challenge.

OMG also offers Dave Ramsey’s Smart Dollar financial-wellness program free to its employees. It consists of 17 videos focused on personal finance that can be viewed online. Each one is about a half-hour in length, and topics range from budgeting to investing.

“Several people have been able to reduce their debt because of this program,” McGovern noted.

Professional development is ongoing, takes place on site and off, and is another important element of the company’s success. “We encourage people to push themselves, learn new skills, and take their own personal development to the next level by building on their strengths,” said Director of Communications Sam Everett, adding that the company also offers tuition reimbursement.

An employee of the month is also recognized; people can nominate themselves or their peers, and the winner (sometimes there are several a month) receives a jacket and monetary award.

Open dialogue and communication at all levels of the organization are an important part of the company’s culture; there are daily gemba walks through the factory to keep managers abreast of what is taking place at the manufacturing level.

“We’re always looking for ways to help people achieve their personal goals,” said Sarah Corrigan, director of Human Resources.

For this edition and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest looks at other measures that have helped OMG become a leader in the roofing and fastener industry, as well as what it has done to sustain that success.

Through the Roof

OMG was started in 1981 by Art and Esther Jacobsen, who named their business Olympic Fasteners Inc. They bought and sold screws for the commercial roofing industry, and in 1984, after experiencing great success, they moved the firm to Agawam and began manufacturing their own line of fasteners.

In 2000, the company name was changed to OMG Inc., and since that time, it has continued to grow by expanding the product line as well as its geographic footprint.

Today, the company employs more than 500 people, operates four manufacturing plants — in Agawam; Addison, Ill.; Arden, N.C.; and Rockford, Minn. — and has warehousing and distribution centers in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Illinois, Nevada, Canada, China, and Europe. It also has a team of nearly 60 field-sales representative across the country and in China and Western Europe.

However, the majority of employees work at the company’s headquarters in five buildings that contain 445,000 square feet, including 20,000 square feet of office and warehouse space in different areas of Agawam Industrial Park.

Since its beginnings, the business has been split into two divisions. The first is roofing products; that division specializes in insulation and membrane-fastening systems, roof-insulation adhesives, retrofit roof drains, pipe supports, as well as engineered edge-metal systems, and innovative productivity tools for low-slope commercial roofing applications.

Its second division is called FastenMaster, which makes a wide range of fastening systems and tools for residential applications.

Much of the firm’s ability to continue to compete in a global market is due to its product-development teams, which have created unique offerings.

They include RhinoBond, an advanced insulation and membrane attachment system based on induction technology that uses the same fastener and plate to secure both the insulation and waterproofing cover to a roof without penetrating the roofing material.

“We took induction technology and turned it into a tool to install commercial roofs,” Everett said, explaining that screws and washer plates are used to hold down insulation on roofs. The roofing material is placed on top of the insulation, then an induction tool is used to heat up the plates, bonding them to the membrane cover layer and holding the roof in place.

“Historically, insulation had to be screwed in place through the roof membrane or the waterproofing layer. But this product eliminates the need to poke holes in the roof, and because the attachment points are spread evenly across it, each fastener has to do less work to keep it in place when the wind blows,” Everett said, noting that the system is gaining popularity, and demand for it is growing.

Another product created by the FastenMaster division is its Cortex Hidden Deck Fastening System, which is used for PVC trim and on decks made of composite materials, such as Trex, to hide fastener heads so they are virtually invisible.

“We developed a screw called Trap-Ease with an integrated bit system that sets the screw depth and allows each screw to be covered with a plug stamped out of the exact material as the decking or trim,” McGovern said. “The product is gaining a very high market share and can also be used to secure trim on a house and the corners of moulding.”

He told BusinessWest that OMG practices lean manufacturing, which is a method of continuous improvement to eliminate waste and improve processes.
“It relies on participation by the entire organization,” he explained. To that end, small groups of employees are pulled from different departments on an ongoing basis to address problems and figure out how a process can be improved, which sets OMG apart from its competitors.

“The philosophy behind lean manufacturing has to be driven over several years to see results; it’s a journey that never ends,” McGovern added, noting that company officials also meet with employees in groups of 40 or 50 several times a year to communicate goals and performance initiatives.

The company is actively recruiting for 30 positions and plans to add an additional 20 jobs over the next several months; new positions will open in part due to a $15 million expansion underway in Agawam that will allow OMG to heat-treat its products in house instead of outsourcing the work.

A building that was used for warehousing is being converted into an area where the heat-treating can take place. Everett said the warehouse has been moved into space the company rented in the industrial park.

On Top of Things

OMG owes its success to its culture and efforts to set the company apart from competitors. And it has done well; it is the largest roofing-fastener supplier for commercial roofs in the country, and more than 65% of all commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings in the U.S. have one or more of its products on their roof.

“We’re a U.S. manufacturer, which is a pretty rare entity, so we have had to do something substantially different than just making screws and selling them,” McGovern noted. “We’ve focused on innovation, operational excellence, marketing, and creating a strong sales culture.”

And, of course, developing the people behind the scenes who are, after all, the driving force that has helped OMG secure its business in a rapidly changing world, and stay on top of things, as they say in the roofing business.

Manufacturing Sections

Making a Strong Case

Joe Eckerle

Joe Eckerle, Pelican’s vice president and general manager, with one of the company’s high-end coolers.

For decades now, the names Pelican and Hardigg (which came together through a merger in 2008) have been well-known in the commercial, government, and public-safety realms, with containers used to ship everything from missile guidance systems to laboratory specimens. Now, the company — and the plant in South Deerfield that has been one of Franklin County’s largest employers for 60 years — is also making coolers, luggage, and cell-phone protectors, taking this brand places it’s never been before.

 

Joe Eckerle calls it ‘Pelican DNA.’

That’s a term — one he would use often — with roots that actually go back long before that corporate name and logo went up on the sprawling manufacturing complex in South Deerfield in 2008, and also well before Pelican products hit the market in the mid-’70s.

It refers, at least in part, to design, performance, and quality standards set more than six decades ago by James Hardigg when he started a company that would design and produce material, like foam, to protect products and, later, hard-plastic containers of all shapes and sizes.

Torrance, Calif.-based Pelican Products acquired Hardigg, its main competitor, because its standards, and culture, mirrored those set by Pelican founder Dave Parker, said Eckerle, vice president and general manager of the South Deerfield operation. And, in recent years, this international corporation has applied this collective DNA to an ever-growing roster of products that has made this brand something it really wasn’t before — a true household name.

Indeed, the name ‘Pelican,’ which was mostly known for commercial, military, and public-safety applications — its cases have protected everything from hunting rifles to missiles to parts for the Hubble telescope — is now also on cell-phone protectors, coolers, suitcases, GoPro cases, and even backpacks.

“They all have that Pelican DNA,” Eckerle said of the new products, referring not only to their hard-plastic backbones, but also to a reputation for durability — practically everything that is shipped out the door comes with a limited lifetime guarantee and is described with the adjective ‘indestructible.’

The recent efforts to expand the product line and enter new markets, such as the one for high-end coolers, is part of an ongoing effort to create more vertical integration at Pelican, said Joe Baltronis, senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing.

Joe Baltronis

Joe Baltronis says Pelican has vertically integrated its operations and entered a number of new markets in recent years.

He told BusinessWest there are now separate divisions devoted to the commercial/government, ‘BioThermal,’ and consumer components of the company’s portfolio of products, with all three (and especially the consumer side) seeing impressive growth in recent years, triggered in large part by the specific focus — and expertise — brought to those divisions.

“Pelican was very much a matrix organization … everybody worked on everything,” he explained. “We realized while getting into the consumer world, especially, when we had been so entrenched in that commercial/government world, that we needed new expertise, we needed people who understood consumer retail cycles, we needed people that understood the variances of the various markets we were going after.”

This vertical integration and penetration into new markets has spurred a roughly 10% increase in the workforce in South Deerfield, said Eckerle, to about 400 people, 300 of them in manufacturing jobs.

But innovation certainly hasn’t been limited to new-product development, said Baltronis, who took a quick break from his conversation with BusinessWest to retrieve one of six sizes of protective cases now bearing the brand name ‘Pelican Air.’

“This represents a significant breakthrough — it’s an innovation statement,” he noted, while explaining that the case he was holding was roughly 40% lighter than its predecessor of the same dimensions.

Pelican Air went on the market just a few weeks ago, he said, joking that he believes a good deal of the sales to date have been to competitors bent on reverse engineering these cases to figure out how all that weight was taken out.

When pressed by BusinessWest on that subject, he was understandably shy with specifics, but did offer some generalities.

“Through our engineering efforts, we’ve been able to take a significant amount of weight out of the case, not only in the manufacturing process, the molding, but also with the components, where we’ve been able to do things like honeycombing, coring, and other processes,” he explained, adding that part of the equation is the material that goes into the mold, which is proprietary.

“It’s all top-secret,” Eckerle noted with a laugh, adding that it is certainly not a secret that the company, now with sales offices on four continents, is looking to take the Pelican and Hardigg brands to places they’ve never been — in every sense of that phrase.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest talked at length with Eckerle and Baltronis to get an in-depth look at the many forms of progress that have taken place at this Franklin County stalwart, and about all that goes into that term ‘Pelican DNA.’

A Different Mold

While the Pelican name is not always visible to moviegoers — although sometimes it stands out — there’s no debating that this company’s products have logged considerable time on the big screen (as well as the small screen) in recent years.

Indeed, its containers were omnipresent in The Martian, and made several appearances in the latest Star Wars installment. Products have appeared in some of the Iron Man movies — Tony Stark keeps his arc reactor in a case made by Pelican — and those with sharp eyes could also spot them in episodes of Alone and Dexter, among many other shows.

“Any military movie where there are cases in the background — that’s us,” said Eckerle. “We make for great background material.”

But while the company is making its presence known on Hollywood production lots, that’s not exactly one of the specific goals put down in a broad-based, constantly changing business plan — although such exposure certainly helps. Instead, the primary mission is to make that name ‘Pelican’ more and better known to a host of constituencies, including home and business owners, by putting it on more of the products they use.

It already resonates with a number of groups — from hunters and fishermen who walk the aisles at Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops, to police and fire departments in most every community in the country (the company makes everything from the flashlights officers carry to the cases used to hold materials used to train bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs), to major defense contractors and the small shops supplying them with parts.

The company has done well meeting the specific needs of these consumer groups, enough it to make the global leader in high-performance protective cases. But in recent years, it has recognized opportunities to put that Pelican DNA into a host of new products, said Eckerle, and it is seizing those opportunities and gaining new visibility in the process.

“One of the big changes seen over the past five years is that you can actually walk into a store and see our products,” he explained. “Before, you would have gone to a dealer or gone online; now, you can walk into Dick’s and see our coolers.”

Before elaborating on the present and future, though, we first need to take a look back to understand how we arrived at this point.

Our story begins with James Hardigg, an aerospace engineer noted for his work to create what’s known as the cushion curve, which, as that name suggests, involves determining how much cushioning is needed to keep a product safe during transport.

He started a company that was initially focused on manufacturing protective materials, said Baltronis, adding that the industry term ‘cushioning’ goes well beyond foam, and extends to cradling systems and what amount to shock absorbers. It was years later that the company directed much of its focus to cases.

“Mr. Hardigg used to say that the only real purpose of the case is to protect the foam; the purpose of the foam is to protect the product,” he said, adding that, nonetheless, by the late ’60s or early ’70s, the company was far better known for those cases.

Indeed, Hardigg became the industry leader in a process known as roto molding, or rotational molding, whereby a heated hollow mold is filled with a material, in this case plastic, and is then slowly rotated, causing the softened material to disperse and stick to the walls of the mold.

Pelican Air

Pelican Air makes what the company calls an “innovation statement,” and represents a key improvement to a core product.

Over the years, the Hardigg name was attached to a growing number of products, some manufactured in large quantities, but many of them custom-built for the specific customers. Cases built by the company, some as large as a room, were designed and built to protect everything from hunting rifles to cameras; from parts for the Apache helicopter to delicate medical instruments.

Meanwhile, a continent away, in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles, the next compelling chapter in this story was unfolding.

Dave Parker, an avid scuba diver, recognized the need for rugged flashlights and cases that wouldn’t leak, so he and his wife, Arlene, started a company that would manufacture one in his garage.

Named Pelican Products, this venture would soon move on from the SABRELITE flashlight to waterproof first-aid kits. Dissatisfied with the quality of the work turned out by a contract manufacturer assigned to make the cases, Parker decided to produce them himself.

The company would go on to expand its line to include a host of protective cases and other products such as industrial dive lights, said Eckerle, and become an industry leader in injection molding.

In 2004, the company was acquired by the private-equity firm Behrman Capital, and four years later, it would effectively double in size through the acquisition of chief rival Hardigg, making it the largest manufacturer of equipment-protection cases in the world.

Cold-case Files

In recent years, the company has taken the logical step of introducing consumer products imbued with the same standards of quality and durability, said Baltronis, who initiated this line of conversation by digging into his pocket, grabbing his cell phone, and proudly displaying its back side, which displayed the name ‘Pelican.’

It’s getting easier for consumers to duplicate that maneuver, he told BusinessWest, adding that the company now makes its Voyager cases for Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, as well as a host of iPhones.

“This is a rugged, high-end protector — that’s the segment we’re in; it’s built to last,” he said of the one in his pocket, adding that this same philosophy and DNA (there’s that term yet again) is being applied to a host of new products, which bodes well for the company and the South Deerfield manufacturing facility.

As Eckerle (alongside Baltronis and Les Rhodes, facilities manager for the operation) offered BusinessWest a tour of that plant, he stopped for several moments in the large area now dedicated to the production of the company’s Elite coolers.

While pausing at one of the 30-quart models being readied for shipping, he turned his body in several different directions to point out the many different sizes and shapes now being produced, all the way up to 250 quarts, a popular model with commercial fishermen.

He then pointed to the wheels on one of the models.

“That’s something we do that no one else does,” he said proudly, adding a quick ‘to the best of my knowledge’ in acknowledgment of a market where things can change quickly.

The wheels on the coolers — those products are also certified ‘bear resistant’ by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee — constitute just one example of how the company doesn’t want to simply be in a market, he explained: it wants to be a leader and an innovator in that specific market.

The South Deerfield plant

The South Deerfield plant remains a world leader in the process known as roto molding, or rotational molding.

Consider this language from the ‘cooler’ section of the company’s website: ‘We hold ourselves to a higher criteria than other cooler makers,” it states. “From the latches to the freezer-grade seal to the toughest handles in the business, every part is engineered to our extreme durability and performance standards.”

There is similar verbiage in the description of luggage, cell-phone protectors, and backpacks (which are assembled overseas and feature crushproof, watertight laptop and tablet compartments).

But while new-product development has been the primary focus within the business plan in recent years, innovation involving what would be considered the company’s traditional, or core, product lines is also a big part of the equation, especially as competitors have encroached on that territory and taken market share by cherry-picking popular models to emulate, said Baltronis.

Pelican Air is a prime example of such movement. Marketed using catchphrases such as ‘floats like a butterfly, protects like a Pelican,’ the lighter protective cases represent, as he said, an innovation statement, and an answer to perhaps the only major concern voiced about Pelican products over the years: weight.

“We’ve launched a number of new products on the consumer side in recent years, with the cases on the core side taking somewhat of a backseat,” he explained. “As we started to look at encroachment, we brought our gaze back to the core products — and it wasn’t just ‘let’s come out with a few new sizes or form factors,’ it’s ‘what can we fix?’ And that’s what we feel we’re doing here.”

Case in Point

Baltronis told BusinessWest that the Hardigg name lives on today because it resonates across many industry sectors  — although the containers sent out of the Deerfield plant are co-branded ‘Hardigg’ and ‘Pelican.’

That’s fitting because the two iconic names in this increasingly competitive industry share the same standards — the same DNA, if you will.

And that DNA is giving birth to not only new product lines, but new product innovations that will take those names from Mars (well, at least in the movies) to the kitchen closet to the cell phone in your pocket.

This would seem to herald more growth and vitality for that plant built by James Hardigg all those years ago, one that continues to break the mold in more ways than one.

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

Manufacturing Sections

On Schedule

David Cruise

David Cruise says partnerships to raise up a workforce for CRRC MA USA. will benefit the region’s entire manufacturing sector.

When a company from across the globe sets up shop in Springfield, it can’t exactly bring its workforce with it.

“We need 100% new employees,” said Bobby Doyle, senior consultant for CRRC MA USA, the Chinese rail-car manufacturer currently building a $95 million production plant at the former Westinghouse site on Page Boulevard. “We can’t transfer people from China here; it wouldn’t work.”

Among the reasons CRRC — formerly CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles — chose Springfield, however, was optimism that the city and region could supply a workforce to support what will become the company’s North American headquarters. “The capital investment we’re putting in, that’s a big commitment,” he said, “and there’s got to be a long-term labor force.”

That’s why CRRC has forged a number of interlocking partnerships — with the Regional Employment Board (REB) of Hampden County, the local sheet-metal and electrical unions, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, and the engineering departments of area colleges and universities, for starters — to build that workforce.

But local economic-development leaders see potential benefits to these partnerships beyond the CRRC jobs, said David Cruise, the REB’s president and CEO.

“We’ve been working with [Doyle] to identify very specific production positions they will need on the factory floor,” he said. “They’ll need some administrative positions and engineering positions, but at the Regional Employment Board, we’re focusing on how to help them on the factory floor, where the heart of the work is going to get done.”

At the same time, Cruise continued, “we’re also concerned with not just identifying the workforce for CRRC, but with the broader regional metal-fabrication industry as well, hoping other companies benefit from the presence of CRRC in the region. We want to be sure that any sort of workforce training we develop benefits that broader metal-fabrication industry. That’s been our strategy.”

He explained that CRRC could present some spinoff work for other manufacturers and perhaps attract new manufacturing business to the region.

“We certainly want to be a conduit and help with CRRC Massachusetts, but we also shared with them, and they understand the value of, our intent to build training programs and build a delivery system that can respond to all the needs that may develop here in the region.”

Local Flavor

In 2014, CNR Changchun received a $566 million contract to manufacture 284 new subway cars for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA — 152  for the Orange Line and 132 for the Red Line.)

Construction at the 40-acre site — including a new, 220,000-square-foot factory building and conversion of the former Westinghouse administration building into CRRC’s administrative, engineering, and research offices — is underway. When it’s fully operational in 2018, the factory will employ 150 production workers with starting salaries of at least $66,000 a year, on top of about 150 construction workers needed to build the new plant. The MBTA cars will be built over a five-year period.

To develop a worker pool with the necessary skills, the REB is working closely with Sheet Metal Workers Local 63 and Electrical Workers Local 7 to develop training programs to be hosted mainly at Putnam after school hours.

“Putnam has some of the latest technology and equipment in the area, and I felt it was really critical to build that relationship between Local 63, Local 7, and Putnam,” Cruise said.

Along with training workers currently in the field for CRRC’s immediate demand, another goal is to attract unemployed and underemployed individuals into the training programs to prepare for a surge in demand as the rail-car plant grows beyond its initial buildout.

“As this facility comes online, the majority of initial-wave workers will be individuals who have experience in sheet-metal and electrical work,” Cruise said. “But as the facility expands and grows, clearly there will be some opportunities for entry-level positions.”

Cruise believes that, indeed, CRRC will be that kind of catalyst.

“We think this assembly facility will lead to the development of contracts with other municipalities and states around the country, with hope that some, if not all, of that work finds its way back to Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re not building programs just to get to opening day, but that can grow with them — and they can have some assurances that broader training is in place to meet future demand. There will be times when their workforce will be expanding pretty dramatically.”

Doyle agreed. “We’re pursuing two other contracts right now, one in Pennsylvania and one in Los Angeles, and both would be manufactured in Springfield, so Springfield is going to be a very busy location in the next five years,” he said. “We’d like to see the workforce keep doubling if we’re successful.”

Cruise said the after-school programs at Putnam — say, 3 to 9 p.m. — will complement offerings at Local 63’s own training center during the day. “That gives us 12 hours a day, which is exciting for us. It gives us some real bandwidth in terms of not only building great programs, but having some flexibility in scheduling.”

Meanwhile, the REB is working on a similar arrangement with Local 7, developing a curriculum for training programs to meet CRRC’s specific needs. “They’re excited to partner with us. They have a training facility in Chicopee, so we can run the same kind of afternoon program at Putnam, and at the same time utilize Local 7’s training facility during the day should demand dictate.”

The REB will look to competitive state grants to fund these programs. “It’s a challenge to identify funding to do this; unions are not allowed to use their funding for apprenticeship programs.”

That issue aside, Doyle called Putnam a “tremendous resource” and noted that CRRC officials have visited several times already. “We see them as a huge long-term partner.”

Once the initial hiring process is complete, a group of 20 to 30 employees, maybe more, will relocate to China for 10 months to a year to train on light rail cars in that country, learning how to test all the systems in the trains and bringing that technology back to Springfield. A second group of employees will go to China for four months to learn the assembly process. Production of the MBTA cars will begin in Springfield early in 2018.

College Try

CRRC is starting to build other connections as well, working with Western New England University’s College of Engineering to develop talent for the design and research operations at the new plant, and examining similar opportunities with UMass Amherst and Springfield Technical Community College. Meanwhile, FutureWorks, the one-stop career center located in Springfield, will serve as a resource for the hiring process.

“For them to be able to see that these kind of partnerships can be developed quickly — that they’re coordinated, agile, flexible, and can respond to their business demands — to me is adding great value and ensuring this corporation, and the industries that will benefit from it, will have a very bright future, not only here in Massachusetts, but across the country,” Cruise said.

Doyle admitted that, during CRRC’s search for a North American home, Springfield posed some negatives, including one of the highest commercial tax rates in the Commonwealth. But other positive factors outweighed that, including the city’s proximity to two major interstates and a CSX Transportation rail line, and, yes, those aforementioned partnerships, and the enthusiasm of the municipal and economic-development leaders who forged them.

“I’m excited about where we are,” Cruise said. “We’ve worked over time with a lot of different companies and a lot of different partnership arrangements. This is especially exciting because the parties we pulled together do not have an established history of working as partners in this workforce-development space.”

Therefore, he went on, “we are excited about the opportunity this company presents to the city of Springfield and the region and job-creation efforts here in the Valley. Quite honestly, I can’t wait to get started.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections
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.