High-End Manufacturer Symmetry Medical Inc. Thrives in Low-End Economy

Jack Spillane
New Bedford Standard Times

Vickie Mare, runs the laser etch station. Symmetry Medical, in the New Bedford Industrial Park, has hired 50 more employees to keep up with the demand for the medical devices they make.Peter Pereira/The Standard-Times

Low-skill manufacturing may be on life support in New Bedford, but high-skill manufacturing seems to be pumping more iron every day.
One of the big success stories in 2008 was at the New Bedford Business Park. As usual.
The business park is where Symmetry Medical Inc., a manufacturer of metal parts used in the creation of orthopedic devices, added 59 jobs. It grew from 220 workers to 279.
Symmetry’s 85,000-square-foot plant (it purchased the DePuy Johnson & Johnson operation a year ago January) saw its sales increase from $291 million to $420 million.
“We’re actually forecasting about 14 to 15 percent growth this year, on the heels of record growth last year,” said William Frey, a company senior vice president.
All types of orthopedic surgery are growing, given the exploding numbers of baby boomers who need things like artificial hips and knees.
“Hip and knee replacement is a big, growing surgery, the procedures are growing and we’re kind of following in the tail wind of that,” he said.
Symmetry has the ability to expand as much as the orthopedic equipment market expands, said Jay J. Nunes, the plant’s general manager.
“Whatever is out there we can pretty much accommodate,” he said.
But the manufacture of the intricately cut metal parts used in the production of artificial body parts is not like working on an assembly line making clothing or even auto parts.
It’s complex stuff.
Symmetry’s products require its engineers to work with customers about highly detailed designs before the manufacturing even starts.
“Which is why it’s critical for us to find those people that are capable of existing in that kind of environment,” said Nunes.
The engineers communicate the type of product the customers want to advance-skills machinists who are capable of putting together an intricate, computer-reliant, “first-run” production process.
In other words, before the plant can produce a complex product repetitively, it has to figure out a way to produce it once in its precise level of detail.
Machinists with a high level of production capability are hard to find but there are candidates out there, some of whom probably hold current jobs with less successful manufacturers.
“What we’re really looking for now is people on the high end, set-up, lead machinists who really understand how to interface between engineering and production on the floor,” said Nunes.
Symmetry, however, believes it has already tapped most of the high-end machinist talent in SouthCoast and the surrounding regions. So it has begun to work with the vocational high schools, Bristol Community College and UMass Dartmouth in identifying future talent for its co-op and summer internship programs.
Symmetry is also developing internal training programs for candidates capable of becoming high-level machinists. The company wants to bring its in-house training programs to a level where it can teach complex skills to people who have the problem-solving abilities to attain them.
“We’re finding that we have a lot of people that have the ability to learn but don’t have the specific skills required to be a machinist,” said Nunes.
Symmetry is a contemporary company and its salaries and benefits are higher end than traditional SouthCoast manufacturing.
Average non-management wages are $45,000 a year, and the plant has an in-house cafeteria and fitness room.
And there are 19 Symmetry plants worldwide for employees interested in traveling.
Nunes said the company is a great place for advancement, noting that even though he is the general manager now, he started as a shop supervisor.
“They can become a machinist but that’s just the beginning,” he said. “They can go on to an engineering degree, they can become operations managers, supervisors, depending on what type of education they want to further themselves with.”
When Symmetry took over the DePuy plant, it kept all of its workers on its payroll and offered them chances for advancement.
“It’s a place where if there’s a drive, if there’s a will, we can afford people any opportunity to better themselves,” said Nunes.
Contact Jack Spillane at jspillane@s-t.com
February 17, 2009 6:00 AM
Source URL: http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090217/NEWS/902170346/1001

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