Growing Pains In Oxford | Swissturn/USA Benefits from Growth in the Solar-Power Industry

Ken Mandile started working at Swissturn/USA, the company his father started in 1969, when he was 10 years old.

Now, he can walk by any of the 27 machines on the shop floor and know just by listening whether they’re running properly.

Swissturn machines are used to make very small, intricate, precise metal parts. The company was founded in Waltham, but has moved a couple of times. It called Whitinsville home for about 15 years and has been at its address in Oxford for about seven.

But space is getting tight. The company is growing as demand from its largest customer, the solar power industry, skyrockets. The company makes a variety of tiny brass connectors used within the electrical components of solar panels.

Accommodating Growth

At the beginning of this year, the shop had 19 machines and it’s trying to find a way to shoehorn a few more into its facility while it plans for either an addition or a move to a larger building.

Not bad for a company that, like pretty much every other company in Central Massachusetts, struggled to make it through the recession.

“We were up to 34 (employees) in the spring of 2009, but we had to lay off 20 people,” Mandile said. “But around this time last year, we started rebuilding. The industry in general is very busy, and we’re heavy into making parts for the solar industry. Last year, it really took off, and we knew it was coming.”

Today, the company has 47 employees.

In addition to serving the solar-power industry, the shop also makes components for medical devices and laboratory equipment.

But no matter what, the customer, Mandile and Swissturn/USA are dedicated to efficiency.

“If you’re making millions of parts, there’s usually a better way to make it,” Mandile said.

The entire shop is monitored by a computer system that displays the status of each machine on a sort-of digital billboard for all to see.

At a PC station on the shop floor, there’s a gauge that looks like a speedometer that shows, in very simple terms, how efficient the shop is at the moment.

Swissturn machining is a kind of screw machining.

I’ve been told by other screw machine shops that there’s some art involved in screw machining.

It’s not necessarily the fastest or easiest way to make parts.

“If you’re designing a part, you don’t necessarily want to design it for a Swiss machine,” Mandile said.

But it does make parts with a very high level of precision and uniformity.

And even though today’s screw machines are CNC-based and operators act more as programmers than old-school machinists, the artistic know-how still comes in very handy.

Tuned Ear

Mandile often hears a machine running poorly when its operator is none the wiser.

An experienced, hands-on screw machine operator knows the subtleties of the materials he’s machining and the machine itself.

In that way, Swiss machining is like being a high-tech sculptor.

Unfortunately, too few high school kids are interested in being high-tech sculptors. They’ve never seen a modern machine shop, and most important to Mandile, they’ve lost the desire and ability to work with their hands.

“We’ve gotten away from being a nation of tinkerers,” Mandile said. “If something breaks nowadays, we’re more likely to throw it away and buy a new one. If you don’t learn how to work with your hands at a young age, it’s much harder to do when you’re an adult.”

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By Mattew L. Brown, Worcester Business Journal Online

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