On the Road: Small Shop Has Overcome Big Challenges for 50-Plus Years

Small machine shops that have been in business for more than a half-century are rare. Nevertheless, they are vibrant examples of the hands-on skills, innovation, and work ethic that fuel the vision of entrepreneurs and manufacturing businesspeople.

One such business is in Hamden, Conn., on a tiny side street. New England CNC Inc. has been in business at this location since 1960. In the past 54 years, the company has expanded, added capabilities, brought in work on the strength of its ability to deliver high-quality products in short lead times, and successfully navigated many challenges, some of which put competitors out of business.

Paul Carrignan (left) and Ron Krutz have been running New England CNC for 26 of its 54 years in business. Credit: Pat Toensmeier Lawrence Carrignan (left) and Ron Krutz have been running New England CNC for 26 of its 54 years in business. Credit: Pat Toensmeier

Lawrence Carrignan, New England CNC's president, and business partner Ron Krutz, vice president, bought the company in 1988 from founder Tom Collopy, who wanted to retire. Both Carrignan and Krutz were shop-floor employees.

New England CNC's specialty has always been small runs and fast turnarounds. "This is how we stay competitive," Krutz said. The company operates with 12 employees in a 7,000-sq-ft plant, which on the inside seems bigger. Krutz declined to reveal the company's sales figures.

Companies like New England CNC are on the front lines of the machining industry, buffeted by changes in the business before their larger peers. They often apply their own mechanical savvy in meeting precision, speed, and repeatability requirements, owing to limits in both equipment and financial resources.

Nevertheless, they operate with a can-do attitude that is long on problem solving. As a result, these small companies are nimble, adaptable, and often acquiring niche capabilities in production, delivery speed, and other areas that set them apart from larger competitors.

New England CNC started as a specialist in secondary work - until last year, its name was, in fact, Secondary Operations. Fabricators shipped blanks and other semi-finished components to the company for milling, slotting, drilling cross-holes, and other work. The shop still does secondary work, "though it's a dying art," Krutz said.

A dozen years ago, Carrignan and Krutz decided to buy production machines and expand operations. The company installed six CNC lathes (many by Hardinge) and five single-spindle screw machines alongside the 70 pieces of secondary equipment that made up the core of finishing activities. One beneficial result of the equipment was that the shop began making its own blanks and gained control over their quality.

The equipment also meant that New England CNC could produce parts for diverse industries, among them automotive, defense, aerospace, electronics, and medical. The parts it machines are as varied as connectors for electronic devices and components for rocket launchers and hand grenades. Two years ago, the company added laser marking capabilities.

The shop typically works with brass, steel, copper alloys, stainless steel, and stainless steel alloys. Drilling is a big part of operations, with the company making holes of diameters ranging from 1/16 (0.0625) to 1-5/8 (1.625) in.

One area where New England CNC excels is machine modification. "We buy basic machines and alter them for speed, close tolerances, and repeatability," Carrignan said. According to him, a basic lathe, mill, or drill press, with repeatability of +/-0.002 in, can be modified to achieve repeatability of less than +/-0.001 in - even to +/-0.0005 in, if necessary.

For most of the work that the company does, tolerances outside of these limits are not acceptable. Although Carrignan didn't elaborate on the company's machine modifications, he remarked, "If you know the basics of machining, you know what bearings and other components to adjust or replace."

The company makes its own fixtures, giving it the ability to accept customer orders for complex parts that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to machine. A lot of this work is off-the-cuff, according to Carrignan, who remarked, "We get a new part and modify a machine to do the job. Over the years, we acquired the skills for this."

When buying equipment for the shop, the company prefers used machines. Some of this owes to the cost of buying new, but Krutz says many used machines are in excellent condition. "If they need improvement, we do that ourselves."

One challenge the business partners cite is the difficulty of getting capital to improve the business. "Capital is key," Krutz remarked. "If you don't have access to it, you can fall by the wayside."

The reliance on special programs for capital can be problematic. They once tried to get an equipment loan at a special rate through a small-business program administered by the state of Connecticut. "We got nowhere," Carrignan said. "After multiple meetings with people from the state, we gave up."

The reduced rate didn't save them much anyway, and in the end, it was easier for them to go to the bank and negotiate a loan. "These are the things you have to do yourself or kiss your butt goodbye," he concluded.

[Editor's Note: This is the first article in a periodic ThomasNet News series of on-site visits that examine first-hand how machining companies are running their businesses. Next week: A look at some of the key challenges New England CNC currently faces.] 

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