Bent over a digital micrometer, Jose Velez wasn’t making an airplane, a cockpit, or even an in-flight computer. He was making one tiny, complicated part of a plane—and a part of the future of New Haven manufacturing.
That future lies in specialization, in the rapid turnaround of high-tech niche parts.
That’s the prognosis of Bill Neale, head of the New Haven Manufacturers Association and vice-president of operations at Radiall manufacturing on John Murphy Drive in Fair Haven. Scroll down for a video to see him describe some of the action on the factory floor.
In a tour of the factory this week, Neale showed off the elements of a successful New Haven factory circa 2013: specialization, speed, skill, and employees who “show up and care.”
During the tour of the factory floor, Neale pointed out one feature after another that increase speed and precision of manufacturing. First was a poster set up on a tripod, showing the day’s work orders and priorities. The factory works in small batches, sometimes filling orders of as few as 35 units of a single part.
The factory isn’t trying to compete with massive operations in places like China and India, Neale said. The New Haven factory’s advantage lies not in productivity, but in speed and specificity.
It’s a kind of “just in time” or “lean” manufacturing that borrows some concepts from Japanese manufacturing. Next to the poster showing the day’s production schedule was a “problem board,” listing known issues with the day’s work. Supervisors can look at the board and quickly “go to the gemba,” Neale said, using the Japanese phrase for physically going to the source of the problem, rather than making decisions in an office, via email.
In the rear of the factory, Neale showed another feature borrowed from Japan: a “kanban” system for efficient tracking of inventory needs, so the factory doesn’t end up with and excess or shortage of supplies.
Nearby, 12-foot lengths of copper and brass lay in bins, ready to be milled into parts by a set of Swiss computer numerical control (CNC) machines. Neale said Radiall ended up in New Haven because of the copper and brass industry in the Naugatuck Valley. The company started in 1974 as Applied Engineering Products, making connectors out of the metals produced nearby. In 2005, Radiall, a French company, bought the factory.
Back on the main shop floor, Velez was putting the finishing touches on a set of “sixes,” a connector shaped like the number six. He was performing the final “low tech step in a high-tech process,” Neale said, adjusting the sixes by hand to ensure they were within the 20-thousandths-of-an-inch margin of error allowed.
The way to thrive in the modern manufacturing landscape is by staking a claim on some niche category of parts, and making them better and faster than anyone else. That’s what Neale has been trying to do at Radiall, which manufactures coaxial connectors—“like in the back of your TV”—as well as fiber optic devices and antennas. The factory makes parts that go into, for example, traffic collision avoidance systems for airplanes, the computers that help prevent mid-air crashes.
Radiall is one of a number of under-the-radar New Haven factories clustered around the Mill River, an area the city is primed for revival.
Manufacturing in today’s New Haven is not what it was in the days of “trolleys and [the] New Haven Clock” factory, Neale (pictured) said. Gone are the days when a delivery of metal and wood would arrive at one end of a New Haven factory and come out the other end as, say, Winchester rifles. Most manufacturing today is no longer about making a complete product from scratch. It’s about making parts of a product, or parts of parts.
“It’s all broken up now,” he said. “Specialization is the biggest thing.”
“Most of the brand names that you know really just assemble stuff,” Neale said. He was sitting in his immaculate office just off the factory floor, wearing khakis and a red polo shirt. Those brand name companies need to be supplied with parts from highly specialized manufacturers, he said.
The key to the business, to winning the contract to supply a part, is speed, Neale said. “We have charts up about time all over the place,” he said, pointing to a set of bar graphs on the wall, showing how often Radiall is hitting its shipping deadlines.
The challenge is to be “a penny less and a day sooner” than the competitor, he said. If someone calls up and wants a coaxial connector for a new product, with highly specific technical requirements, Radiall needs to be able to create a prototype and send it out in a matter of days.
In order to compete, New Haven manufacturers need not only to be fast, but “higher tech,” Neal said. “To do something that others can’t has to be our competitive advantage.”
Neale said it can be a challenge to find employees with the necessary skills. “The guys in the shop do trigonometry all the time,” Neale said. “The guys do it in their sleep.”
In order for New Haven to compete, he said, schools need a different teaching approach to so-called “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses. Lessons should have a practical, tangible component, so that students can see: “If you an do this equation, you can make this thing.”
As it is, the state is facing a shortage of machinists and other skilled workers, Neale said. “Connecticut really let a generation of people not be trained.” As the older machinists retire, no one is rising to take their place, he said. “People just forgot.”
But even more than math and science skills, Neale said, employees needs to have soft skills: Showing up on time, being reliable and self-disciplined.
“It’s not education, or even speaking English,” he said. “It’s: Show up and care.”
Neale said the “classic thing” for new employees is not showing up on the third Monday, after spending the weekend enjoying their first paycheck.
Click here to read about another New Haven factory’s problems finding workers who will show up consistently.
On the factory floor, a revolving light was flashing in a corner, indicating another order was complete and ready to be shipped out, as soon as possible.