Commonwealth Laminating employee Marty Shelton changes the computer settings on one of the company’s automated machines. Commonwealth is one of several local companies that economic developers describe as “advanced manufacturers” due to their use of the latest technology and the high skill levels of their employees. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
Sunday, January 20, 2013
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Having employees with technology, science and engineering skills is crucial to Commonwealth Laminating & Coating’s success, company officials say.
The company, in the Patriot Centre at Beaver Creek industrial park in Henry County, makes window films that reduce heat, glare and ultraviolet radiation in homes, vehicles and businesses.
Commonwealth is one of several local companies that economic developers describe as “advanced manufacturers” due to their use of the latest technology and the high skill levels of their employees.
“We compete in a global marketplace,” said Chief Operating Officer Matt Phillips. “A key point to that competitiveness is having a high-skilled labor force” that turns out quality products.
Commonwealth is heavily computerized. Workers must be comfortable using computer technology to ensure that machines run efficiently, Phillips said.
Watching computer screens, Commonwealth employees constantly monitor data affecting production, such as speeds at which machines are running and levels of fluids going through the machines to make them work properly.
Some screens appear to contain dozens of different types of data.
If manufacturing processes are not adjusted quickly when needed, products may not meet specifications and have to be remade, said Commonwealth board member Richard Hall.
That means lost money.
At the company, “$10 million machines are pumping out thousands of dollars worth (of products) a minute,” Phillips said.
If a machine turns out items that are not perfect, the company could lose $15,000 to $20,000 worth of products an hour until the problem is solved, Hall said.
In manufacturing window films, large rolls of plain plastic film are unrolled and cleaned, and a coating of laminate adhesives is applied. That is easier said than done, Phillips said.
“The coating technology is very precise,” he said. Something as simple as a speck of dust sticking to a piece of film in the manufacturing process also could ruin the product, he added.
Scratch-resistant coatings — which Phillips compared to finger nail polish — must be applied to products. .
“It is a very interesting process to solve chemically” to make sure coatings are protective and do not stretch, he said.
When rolls of window films come off the production lines, they must be spliced without stopping the machines or they could be ruined, Phillips said.
All this means workers must have critical thinking skills to anticipate problems and take steps to prevent them, and if a problem arises, quickly identify and fix it, Hall said.
Commonwealth’s staff includes two chemists with doctoral degrees who work with other employees to develop new products and examine chemical formulas to see if existing products can be improved, Phillips said.
Advanced manufacturing jobs pay high salaries. At Commonwealth, full-time salaries and benefits totaling $40,000 or more a year are common, according to company officials.
The company has about 200 employees. In August, it announced a $5.45 million expansion in which it plans to create 60 jobs over three years.
Officials said Commonwealth has expanded on average every 3.5 years and they expect it will expand more in the future.
But “one of the critical constraints of growing in this area” has been finding workers with the skills needed to do jobs at Commonwealth, Phillips said.
He added that companies elsewhere are having similar problems.
The New College Institute (NCI) is working with Virginia State University to develop programs to prepare students for advanced manufacturing careers such as those at Commonwealth Laminating.
The program “will give the Martinsville area a competitive advantage” at attracting manufacturing companies in the future and helping ones already here to grow, Phillips said.
“Jobs will follow education. It’s as simple as that,” added Hall. “The more you educate your workforce, the more jobs you’ll have.”