Expansion, hiring mark comeback for North Bay firms

[caption id="attachment_29501" align="alignright" width="360" caption="Shop Foreman John Bailey showing Mike Hennington new process on new HAAS VF2SS mill"][/caption]

NORTH BAY – The starting end of the manufacturing supply chain is exhibiting vigorous growth, an indication of a rebounding economy.

Metal shops in the North Bay region suffered a one-two punch over the past five years as first massive off-shoring and then recession took their tolls.

[caption id="attachment_29386" align="alignleft" width="324" caption="Helium leak test at Datum Technologies in Santa Rosa"][/caption]

For survivors things are looking up, if different from the old days. Despite a trend toward automation, workers who lost their jobs are being hired back on as companies hurry to fill orders.

“Off-shored jobs aren’t coming back,” said Jim Judd, president and CEO of J&M Manufacturing in Cotati. Yet the maker of stainless steel racks and chassis saw about 30 percent growth last year and grew staff back to its pre-off-shore level of 25.

“There’s been a shift down the supply chain. Our clients are cutting back on inventory, so we have to have the supplies and people to move fast. Also, we’ve refocused on bigger products.”

The recession, he said, was “a picnic compared to the off-shore crisis,” and although he’s still careful with capital expenditures, he hopes to do some spending on improvements this year.

The 30 percent growth number was echoed by Mike Maendl at Protofab in Petaluma, maker of medical device and orthopedic components.

“We saw 30 percent last year, we’re currently at 50 percent growth and I don’t think I’ll be tempting fate to project 110 percent-120 percent growth from this July to next July,” said Mr. Maendl.

Protofab has changed its focus recently from prototypes to volume production.

“We’re getting work that our clients are pulling from Malaysia and other Asian off-shorers, where labor prices are rising and quality and face-to-face collaboration can’t match ours,” he said.

Protofab doubled its space and grew staff from 16 to 21 to keep up with orders..

At Datum Technologies in Santa Rosa, owners Richard and Analisa Hunt have added a modified second shift and additional staff to support it. The 10-employee precision machining company supplies makers of systems for test and measurement, medical, aerospace and semiconductor industries.

“We saw an uptick starting last March and continued steady growth since then,” said Mr. Hunt, who has added three new machines and grown the company’s capacity by over 33 percent. Datum Tech has recently added 20 percent more space as well.

“We haven’t experienced this level of business since 2007 and we believe that based on forecasted economic growth it’s the right time to make the capital investments and hire staff,” he said.

Datum Tech is getting more work from Advanced Pressure Technology of Napa, which is itself enjoying a growth spurt.

“We supply gas pressure regulators and valves for semiconductor plant construction and there’s a lot of building going on right now,” said APT vice president of sales Tom Vreeland.

Wafers, solar panels and LED lighting production facilities are going up all over the world, especially in Asia, he said.

“And American companies like Intel and GlobalFoundries are building plants in the U.S. We have a very large client whom I can’t name, but it’s bringing us lots of business,” he said.

In Novato, Joe Osborn, president of OMW Corporation, is feeling optimistic.

“The year 2009 was a tough year for us, but 2010 was the best year we’ve had yet. And this last month was our best month to date.

The production machining and prototyping company has seen gross sales take a jump, with new orders from existing customers and new clients coming in.

“To me it’s a clear sign that we’re coming out the recession,” said Mr. Osborn.

He said he’s no longer pooh-poohing the buzz among manufacturing customers and fellow metal shop owners regarding an offshore reversal.

“I’m beginning to believe it’s not just wishful thinking. U.S. companies are starting to go head to head bidding against Malaysian and Taiwanese companies and sometimes they win.

“Maybe the time is coming when finance and real estate are no longer considered the pillars of the American economy,” said Mr. Osborn.