Muslims go to Mecca.
Jews and Christians go to the Holy Land.
Metalheads need to go to the L. S. Starrett Co.
Having heard that the Starrett company had a museum, and being headed in the direction of Athol on our extended voyage on which I have previously reported, I called the Starrett factory to verify, and the nice lady who answered the phone said yes, they did have a museum that was open every work day but closed during the lunch hour. Then she said, “Would you also like a tour of the factory?”
I thought about this offer, for about half a microsecond, and said “Yes.”
So I arrived at the appointed time and was met by a machinist who worked in the toolroom and was to be my tour guide.
What I received was a two-hour behind-the-scenes trip through all departments on site that make all the precision tools in the catalog, from rough castings and bar stock through assembly, testing and packaging. Seeing a room the size of a basketball court filled with at least thousand micrometers in various stages of manufacture, from 1-inch to 52-inch, as well as the specialized machinery necessary for the task, is more than a mind should be asked to comprehend. Supplemental oxygen should be available for visitors on every floor. Just the showcases in the lobby are enough to cause heart palpitations in otherwise healthy individuals.
No photos were allowed in the factory but I was permitted to make some shots in the museum which are up at http://zimmer.csufresno.edu/~gregl/starrett.
What follows is from my sketchy and somewhat illegible notes. Continuity may be lacking, as well as a few other writer’s stylistic obligations, as I’m balancing a laptop computer on my knees while perched in the back of our truck camper as the outside temperature moves toward freezing here in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Once past the lobby of the 120-year-old factory building, the first question to my guide was about the rumor that Starrett is making some of their tools in Asia. While they have a plant there, he said, it supplies only rough parts to the Athol facility; finishing and quality control being done in Athol. All the steel is from domestic or French suppliers; the Asian steel is to inconsistent for their needs.
While there are plants in other US areas and around the world, my guide said that items produced outside the U.S. would be marked “global.”
Starrett has no foundry in Athol; castings are supplied by many vendors. Starrett spreads the work around so a problem at one vendor does not disrupt the flow of material.
The first stop was where castings are rough-finished. The remains of sprues and parting lines are ground off.
Next was the micrometer floor. Seeing boxes upon boxes of micrometers of all sizes in various stages of completion was awe inspiring. Throughout the factory, in all departments, I saw more specialized machine tools than even someone taking extreme pharmaceuticals could imagine. Most of the machinery on the upper floors was bench-top mounted, and most appeared to date from before the advent of any sort of CNC. I don’t recall seeing a single DRO, even in the rooms filled with Bridgeport mills. Almost all the automated machines are controlled the old way with cams, solenoids, compressed air and manual controls.
One exception to the above was on the micrometer floor -- a new laser engraving machine where micrometer spindles receive their markings. This machine was new this year, replacing the old stamping process, my guide said, and they were quite happy with the machine’s performance. It takes 1 ½ minutes to engrave a mic spindle, he said.
At the checking and QC stations, I saw each mic being checked against optical flats to insure that the faces were parallel.
I was amazed at the amount of hand work being done. It seemed that every part for every tool was handled and inspected by several people at several stages of the process. All the workers seemed to like what they were doing and were eager to explain what happened in their area and how the specialized gear at their workstation worked.
We stopped on the floor where indicators were made and saw some of the machines that make the internals, which are not unlike watch parts. One machine just made screws of the size you’d find in a pocket watch, another made the tiny splined spindle that is the heart of the dial indicator, others included gear hobbing for the tiny indicator gears. At the workstations where the indicators are assembled, each one is started and finished by the same worker. It’s work that takes patience, dexterity and skill; the lady who puts together the indicators that read to 50 millionths sometimes only completes three in a whole workday.
Another stop on the tour was the special order department, which our guide said was the most profitable. We saw a huge micrometer with a span of about four feet, a pair of outside firm-joint calipers, also about four feet long, and an indicator with a special extension that allowed a user to reach into hot environments and take thickness readings without melting the indicator or the user’s hand. Yet another was an indicator used by Frito Lay to measure potato chips. It seems that if the chip is too thin, it will burn in the cooking oil; if too thick, it won’t cook all the way through.
The current staff is down to about 600 from about 1500 in the mid 1980s, and, due to the economy, some departments are working less than 40 hours. There are two vintage buildings separated by a street, totaling about 550 thousand square feet of workspace. Connecting the two is a catacomb-like tunnel not quite high enough for my 6-foot 4-inch frame and just wide enough for two people to walk side by side. The buildings are distinguished by the arched doors and windows common to late 19th century construction, and the musty smell of the stairwells and tunnel act as a time machine, bringing the visitor back to the era when lineshafts threaded throughout the facility.
Having been in machine shops elsewhere, I’ve seen the grime that tends to accumulate, but I was surprised to note that all the machines were amazingly clean. Looking under them for bits of swarf and dust bunnies revealed nothing. Many of the machines looked like they had just been cleaned for a military inspection. And you’d expect to see little piles of this and that in a factory that has been in the same buildings for over 100 years, but there was none of that either. The floors were all wood, mostly oak, darkened with years of use, but still good enough to be sanded clean and installed in any home living room.
The soft hum of the machines on the upper floors was quiet enough that conversations at one end could be heard by the careful listener at the other end. On the lower floors where the screw machines and Bridgeports were, the noise was louder, and, of course, around the punch presses chatting was not possible.
I didn’t see a single Gerstner box; the in-house carpentry department having made almost all the interior furnishings, workbenches and cabinets. These were all finished in varnished wood. This combined with the brick of the 120-year-old building gave an atmosphere of class and an historic feel to the scene.
The company has an apprenticeship program that takes 4 ½ years. During this time the apprentice works in each department before specializing in one area. The apprentice makes tools in each department and gets to keep enough of what he makes to outfit his personal toolbox when the program is complete. These are his to keep even if he later leaves the company.
The graduating room where the rules are graduated is closed to visitors. Our guide said that originally this was to protect trade secrets. Today they are using a photo etching process that requires total cleanliness, so the room is still off-limits. Workers therein wear clean-room coveralls and head gear. One of the original graduating machines is in the museum and I’ve put a photo on the website mentioned above.
A river bisects the plant, and they have used it’s force for electricity. Currently, they are putting together a more efficient gen. set, so the plant temporarily gets all its power from the utility, but when the internal system is back on line, it makes a significant difference in the company’s power bill.
They also have their own waste water treatment plant, due to the various fluids used that must be removed from the water before release.
The bottom floor, which was the size of about four basketball courts, was filled with dozens of machining centers, Acme cam-operated screw machines, punch presses, and all the other heavy stuff that would be too heavy for the upper floors. One machining center we saw was making the internal frame for dial indicators. These used to be castings, but they found that a CNC machining center could cut a better part from bar stock in less time than using castings.
Well, that’s about it. So far, we’ve been gone for four and a half weeks and have been to Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, the Old State House in Boston, historic old Deerfield (Mass.), machine tool museums in Windsor (Vt.) and Greenfield (MA), a Shaker village, and enough old buildings and museums to tilt the planet off its axes (if my wife drags me into one more old church, I’ll slit my wrists!), but the tour of the L. S. Starrett plant tops the list for me. If you are ever within 100 miles of Athol, I think it’s well worth a visit.