There is a persistent buzz in the air on the shop floors of Connecticut manufacturers, with people and machines turning out millions of dollars in products daily. 

Six of those companies welcomed a new type of buzz this fall, capitalizing on a state matching grant program to introduce state-of-the-art equipment to their operations. 

Accurate Lock and Hardware, Beacon Industries, Burke Aerospace, OKAY Industries, PTA Plastics, and Westminster Tool have different goals, but all are betting that technology and innovation will drive growth and competitiveness. 

The six were each awarded $100,000 Additive Manufacturing Adoption Program matching grants in September through the state's Manufacturing Innovation Fund.

"Connecticut is the Silicon Valley of advanced manufacturing, plain and simple," Gov. Ned Lamont said in announcing the grants, which required the companies to match or exceed the state's investment.

"These grants will help our brilliant manufacturers across the state continue to innovate, building bigger, faster, and more complex machines that drive our state, country, and world further into the 21st century."

Colin Cooper, the state's chief manufacturing officer, said it was "gratifying to see the innovative ways these Connecticut manufacturers are approaching incorporating this emerging technology."

"This program is a great example of using state funds as catalyst capital to spur significant private sector investment in advanced technologies and create opportunities for economic growth," he said.

Changing Environment

We have done quite a bit over the last 50 years and while there are a lot of changes being made in what feels like the short term, it’s a constantly changing environment,” says Accurate Lock & Hardware CEO Reed Salvatore.

The Stamford-based company has long manufactured locks and custom architectural hardware. 

One line of their business includes locks for big name buildings. State capitols, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and even the White House are home to locks manufactured here in Connecticut. 

"We have always been looking to figure out a better, more efficient way to produce this hardware."

Accurate Lock & Hardware's Reed Salvatore

But as time passes, aspects of the pieces wear. 

“One of the things we have always been looking to do is to figure out a better, more efficient way to produce this hardware that matches the originals, but works with today’s modern locking devices,” Salvatore said. 

Accurate Lock & Hardware will use the grant to purchase machinery that prints even highly decorated handles and knobs through an efficient process that maintains high quality.

'Best of Both Worlds'

“With additive manufacturing, we are able to get that kind of product, with much better detail, much better quality, and honestly in a much more economical and affordable way,” said Salvatore.

“It actually blends the best of both worlds.”

Salvatore said the grant’s benefit is the partnership between the state and the chosen company. Each company must match with an equal or greater amount than the state invested.

"We are able to get much better detail, much better quality, and in a much more economical and affordable way."

Salvatore

“I think what it does is it pushes both parties to work together to reach a common goal,” Salvatore said. 

Aside from assistance acquiring the equipment, Reed feels this grant signals the support the state has for manufacturers in the state. 

“I think it is pretty clear that the state is committed to manufacturers in Connecticut,” said Salvatore. “I think it’s nice to see that, see them put their money where their mouth is.”

Pivot

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Brittany Isherwood knew that Burke Aerospace, a provider of electric discharge machining, milling, and turning services, would emerge as a different company.

“We were primarily commercial aerospace,” Isherwood explained, “and that market has changed drastically.”

Isherwood, president of the Farmington-based family-owned manufacturer, described the shift during the Oct. 29 Made in Connecticut: 2021 Manufacturing Summit, hosted by CBIA and affiliates CONNSTEP and ReadyCT.

Brittany Isherwood from Burke Aerospace speaks at Made in Connecticut
"Super critical in the small business environment." Burke Aerospace president Brittany Isherwood.

With the commercial airline industry decimated, Burke made a quick pivot to the military aerospace and industrial gas turbine sectors to keep their company afloat.

But keeping up with both competitors and the evolving manufacturing industry meant updating technology as well. The AMAP grant was the perfect mechanism.

Burke is using the grant, administered by the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, to add a high-end 3D metal printer to their line of machinery.

'Super Critical'

Isherwood sees this purchase as the opportunity “to not only produce tooling, but segue into producing parts.”

“We want to be a major partner with our customers,” Isherwood explained, “and make sure that we’re in line with them and supporting their needs and being a supplier to them for additive manufacturing.”

Product development time will be shortened by 80%. What typically took 12 to 16 weeks will only take one to two weeks with the new technology.

"Without this grant, we would not be able to purchase this equipment."

Burke Aerospace's Brittany Isherwood

Streamlining this process is “super critical in the small business environment, especially post-COVID,” Isherwood noted.

Isherwood also understands the value of a public-private partnership such as this one.

“Without this grant, we would not be able to purchase this equipment,” she said.

'Make a Difference'

“I go all over the country and the way you make a difference is with people and technology,” explained Westminster Tool president Ray Coombs.

“If you want to be competitive in the world marketplace, you have to have both. In the state of Connecticut you get both.

"People and technology." Westminster Tool's Ray Coombs on the shop floor with two employees.

"We have a current administration that understands manufacturing, the importance of what it does to an economy. It’s not just support with dollars, but also with education.”

Westminster Tool was involved in conversations with steel 3D printing designer, Mantle Inc., for a couple of years in an effort to continue the Plainfield company’s leading role in the injection mold industry.

“The ability to print steel with stability, nobody has it, so we feel that we will gain an advantage, provided we can get it accepted in the marketplace,” explained Coombs.

Prototype Testing

The company used additive manufacturing to prototype and test parts, but was wary about investing in steel and metal additive technology until they started working with Mantle. 

“What differentiates Mantle's TrueShape machine from the competitors is it was designed with mold makers in mind,” explained Westminster Tool manufacturing engineer Eddie Graff. 

Westminster Tool ordered the machine using its AMAP grant. 

"At the end of the day, we're trying to solve challenges for our customers."

Westminster Tool's Eddie Graff

“For us, we see it helping us in many ways, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to solve challenges for our customers,” explained Graff. 

“So any way that we can implement a machine to make us a little bit more dynamic and solve our customer’s challenges is something we want to heavily invest into.”

Both Graff and Coombs believe the technology will help speed up the process, increase the quality of products, reduce cycle times, and for the company as a whole, open a new marketplace. 

Obviously, we feel very strongly that this is going to be a game changer in our marketplace, period,” said Coombs. “Not just regionally, but nationally.”

'Better, Faster, Cheaper'

New Britain-based OKAY Industries, a leading medical device component and assembly manufacturer, is also exploring metal printing thanks to its AMAP grant. 

For Ron Zownir, research and development engineer at OKAY Industries, the acquisition of the high tech Rapidia Metal 3D printer was a passion project eight years in the making. 

Previous models were more expensive, difficult to use, hazardous, and “didn’t check the boxes.”

"Game changer." OKAY Industries' Ron Zownir with the newly acquired 3D printer.

“This new technology has allowed us to be better, faster, and cheaper,” said Zownir.  “I’m glad that we had the patience to wait things out.”

What makes the 3D printer unique is its water-based metal paste, which eliminates the complex and dangerous debinding process a normal 3D printer uses. Zownir said the elimination of the step, along with overall increased efficiency, expedites the printing process.

During the printing of a prototype, for example, Zownir said the typical lead time is 12 weeks. With the introduction of this 3D printer, the lead time becomes one week.

More Competitive

Zownir said this will make the return on investment more worthwhile. 

“Winning contracts for production jobs is becoming more and more competitive,” said Zownir.  “With this technology, it allows us to defend our business by being ahead of other manufacturers.”

OKAY Industries is currently focused on developing prototypes that will be used for future product development.

“I believe for prototyping, it will be a game changer,” Zownir said.

"The matching grant allowed us to mitigate whatever risks we faced."

OKAY Industries' Ron Zownir

Zownir believes without the public-private partnership, OKAY Industries may not have taken the leap to buy the machinery.

“With new technology like this, there are always risks and uncertainties involved,” said Zownir.

“With a matching grant, that allowed us to mitigate whatever risks we faced, and allowed this technology to pan out.”

Zownir sees a “runway for growth,” with the company utilizing the new technology in more ways than one, including expanding into metal binding jetting down the line.