#OT# Some good machining news

With all the gloom and doom news about manufacturing in America, we can all use some good news about how some areas of the country are doing OK, if not great. This may also be of help for people looking to relocate from high-tax/high-regulation areas.

------------ Joy in Meadville: 'Tool City' Weathers Downturn By TIMOTHY AEPPEL

MEADVILLE, Pa. -- The tool-and-die shops that drive this region's economy and give this town its "Tool City USA" nickname are faring better in the current downturn than they did in past recessions.

"You're not seeing the wholesale disruptions you might expect, because they learned from hard lessons in the past," says Mark Turner, executive director of the Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County, which includes Meadville.

One of those lessons is to diversify. The region's tool-and-die industry -- some 130 small and medium-sized companies making tools and parts for everything from satellites to Segway scooters

-- was once heavily focused on serving the U.S. auto industry. Many, especially the smaller shops, also tended to rely on just one or two big customers, which increased vulnerability during economic declines.

The 2001 downturn, which coincided with a wave of fierce foreign competition, was particularly brutal. Industry analysts estimate

15% of the region's tool-and-die makers didn't survive that shakeout. But many of those that remained have grown and altered how they do business.

A decade ago, Starn Tool & Manufacturing Co. did 80% of its business with suppliers to the car industry. Today, that segment of its business is 5%. The 54-employee company now makes tools used in minimally invasive spine surgery and parts that end up in everything from Boeing Co.'s new Dreamliner jets to the Kepler space probe.

The tool-and-die industry is usually among the first to register shifts up or down in the industrial sector, because it makes the tools needed to make final goods. Meadville's shops make everything from molds for plastic components to the dies used to cut and form parts on factory assembly lines. More of them also make the parts that their tools are designed to produce, saving their customers the time and cost of running those operations themselves.

The industry exists in pockets throughout the country, but took root in Meadville in northwestern Pennsylvania because of zippers. The first commercially successful zippers were designed and manufactured here early in the last century, and it was the need for intricate tooling to make them that gave rise to the local tool-and-die sector.

Mr. Smith notes that after growing 25% a year for the past four years, his business will be flat in 2009. His company designs and builds its own tools, but has mainly grown by taking over the production of parts and sub-assemblies for large customers, mostly in aerospace. He hasn't shed any workers and still has some on his staff putting in heavy overtime.

Despite the surprising strength of its tool makers, the county that includes Meadville has seen its unemployment rate rise steadily in recent months, hitting 10% in February. That is twice the level of last April, when many companies here were struggling to find and hold onto their skilled workers.

Unlike places that have fought to shed their industrial past, Meadville embraces its heritage. One of the crown jewels of the community is a thriving technical school where students learn industrial trades. Among the plaques hanging in the entryway is one dedicated to Dr. Gideon Sundbaeck, "father of the modern zipper."


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Unka' George [George McDuffee]

------------------------------------------- He that will not apply new remedies, must expect new evils: for Time is the greatest innovator: and if Time, of course, alter things to the worse, and wisdom and counsel shall not alter them to the better, what shall be the end?

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English philosopher, essayist, statesman. Essays, "Of Innovations" (1597-1625).

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F. George McDuffee
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