The Sun Metro 12/18/2011,
Showing its metal - Pepperell’s Astron Inc. uses precision skill, diversified client base to remain relevant
By Hiroko Sato firstname.lastname@example.org
PEPPERELL — Astron Inc.’s 29,000-square-foot concrete building, nestled in a corner of Lomar Industrial Park, is a virtual concert hall of chaotic humming from industrial machines and the rattle of metal pieces falling into buckets.
A giant automatic press punches holes through a sheet of metal every few seconds, and the round pieces with complicated imprints on them fall off into boxes.
Across the room, a “progressive die” machine launches its pistons into inch-long copper tubes, gradually extending them to 5-inch skinny tubes used in the temperature and pressure valves of boilers.
Precision is the name of the game at Astron. Every one of millions of small metallic rings and washers produced here has subtle curves made to specifications.
That’s true even with products that come as small as a half-thousandth of an inch, said Astron President Mark Mathews.
And don’t assume the intricate parts of medical devices and automobiles require manual work, Mathews said. Some companies may use cheap labor overseas to cast, mold and manipulate the parts. Astron lets its metal-printing machines do all the steps.
“Manufacturing in the U.S. is as good as anywhere else in the world,” Mathews said.
If a company can deliver quality work and knows how to diversify its customer base, it can create jobs, said Astron CEO Albert Polmonari.
Astron, a century-old custommetal stamping business, is growing in the midst of an economic stalemate. Revenues for the company, which makes parts for a wide range of products from aerospace gadgets to appliance, has leaped 30 percent to $6 million in the past year, following a 10 percent increase the year before.
Even in 2009, when many competitors reported double-digit losses, company sales edged ahead 1 percent from 2008, said Polmonari.
Astron has 30 full-time employees after hiring six people in the past three years. The staff includes 18 production workers and some engineers.
Polmonari contributes the company’s success to its efforts in building its client base as well as the growing needs for parts among its existing customers. Because Astron caters to so many different industries, it always finds clients that are thriving, Polmonari said.
For example, demand for diesel vehicles is growing ( thanks to construction booms in India and China), while demand for plumbing supplies fell ( due to the U. S. housing slump).
Diversifying the customer base is important to business, Polmonari said. “That allowed us to make through three recessions,” he said of the company, which was founded in Lowell in 1906.
Originally called Mass Machine & Stamping, the company used to custom-make stampings for a range of products, including watches and clocks. It merged with Dies & Stampings of Lowell in 1982 to become Astron Products Corp. and was renamed Astron Inc. in 1989. The company moved to Pepperell in 1994.
Astron not only manufactures parts but also designs and builds machines to do their jobs. By automating otherwise labor- intensive manufacturing processes for its clients, the company has helped them cut costs and eliminate production errors, Mathews said.
For example, one of the electromagnetic shield parts produced at Astron comes with small notches that need to be folded in different directions. The company created a machine that first stamps the pattern for the part and folds the notches, step by step, just like folding a flat cardboard along dotted creases into a box.
Such a process allowed the company to produce some parts that normally cost $ 1 each for pennies, according to Mathews.
The company also builds machines for other manufacturers. The added revenue has helped Astron retain workers during tough times, including tool- anddie makers the company has invested up to 10,000 hours to train, Polmonari and Mathews said. Astron has its own program to train apprentices.
Mathews said it’s important to maintain good communication with employees and focus on safety. The business also recycles all its waste and sells scrap metals.
“We focus on being profitable,” rather than focusing on sale figures, Polmonari said. Mathews said surviving competition comes with a pressure.
“If you don’t say you can do it (to a potential client), somebody else will,” he said. And, you must deliver the result.
“You never get a second chance,” Mathews said.
“Manufacturing in the U.S. is as good as anywhere else in the world.”
Mark Mathews, president of Astyron Inc. in Pepperell