Local manufacturers look for edge

  • Jay Sandoval, vice president of operations at ASM Precision, Inc., prepares the punch laser combo machine in Rohnert Park, on Thursday, May 9, 2013. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

In 48 seconds, the sheet metal was perforated and sliced into eight identical pieces in the shape of fat crosses.

The metal pieces next will be folded, welded and painted in separate steps to create control box housings for contaminant-free clean rooms, which are used to manufacture electronics and other sensitive components.

The housing parts were cut in Rohnert Park by a new $800,000 punch/laser machine, a large rectangular device that is 30 percent more efficient than its predecessor. The automated machine represents a major investment by ASM Precision, one that the company's owners predict will result in greater productivity, more business and eventually more workers.

"Any time you can get it through the shop quicker and easier, it's better for everybody," said Mario Felciano, president of ASM Precision.

In the last decade, Sonoma County's manufacturing sector faced outsourcing, the dot-com bust and a global recession. More than half of the people who worked in local manufacturing companies lost their jobs, putting the brakes on the Sonoma County economy.

Those manufacturers have long been served by small machining companies that help provide components for the finished products. The owners of such businesses said they survived tough economic times by seeking new markets, investing in high-tech machinery and hiring highly skilled workers who can troubleshoot problems and deliver quality components.

"The only way we can compete in a world market is to automate as much as possible," said Jim Judd, president and co-owner of J&M Manufacturing in Cotati. The company, which has 28 workers, spent more than $1.5 million late last year on a high-speed laser cutter because "we wanted to be ahead of the curve."

The main trade group for local manufacturers says the companies have the potential to offer large numbers of high-paying jobs to a new generation of workers. Durable goods manufacturers in Sonoma, Solano, Marin and Napa counties could need an estimated 3,000 new workers between 2012 and 2016, according to a survey last year by 101 MFG, an alliance of about 200 manufacturing company executives in Northern California.

"We have an industry that is vibrant and growing here and we want to keep it that way," said Dick Herman, the group's president. One challenge, he said, is attracting and training young workers.

The county's manufacturing sector includes everything from the makers of high-tech measurement equipment and medical devices to food processors and wineries. The sector employed slightly more than one in every 10 county workers in 2010 — a higher percentage than for the state or the nation, according to a 2011 report by the county's Economic Development Board.

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