Making a Name for Itself
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.
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.
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.
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]