By Marc Silvestrini, Republican American
WATERBURY - Modern industry demands a wide array of increasingly smaller and lighter parts to produce smaller and lighter products.
Cell phones, MP3 players, cameras, DVD players, computers and GPS systems are getting smaller, cheaper, and more versatile, and thus more marketable, daily — or so it seems.
And that’s the simple answer to the question of how a small specialty metals manufacturer like Somers Thin Strip has been able to remain in business on the same plot of land off Piedmont Street for the past 100 years.
FOUNDED IN 1909
Somers Thin Strip is a precision thin metal manufacturer that employs 125 workers on a 7½-acre site in the Hopeville section of the Brass City. About 75 percent of the employees are hourly wage-earners, while the rest are salaried, said Thomas C.
Santoro Jr., the company’s general manager.
Some of those employees still walk to work every morning, echoing the company’s origins as a small local shop that employed mostly neighborhood people.
Those origins date back to 1909, when the company was founded as the Somers Brass Co. Inc. by three brothers, Robert D., Louis J. and Joseph E. Somers. The family remained in charge until 1967, when they sold the business to Olin Corp.
Forty years later, in October 2007, the company became a subsidiary of Global Brass & Copper Inc. when Olin sold off its metals division to KPS Capital Partners LP, Global Brass’ parent.
From its inception, the company’s fortunes and growth have been closely linked to its ability to roll coils of metals into incredibly thin strips. At first, the company specialized in rolling brass; later, it began working with copper and stainless steel.
“We’ve always had a heavy emphasis here on technology and science,” said Santoro, pointing to the company’s 2,000-square-foot laboratory that employs at least four people with PhDs in metallurgy and features a $1 million electron microscope. “That’s how this company originally made its mark, and I think that’s still pretty much how we’re perceived today, at least by our customers.”
Today, the company has the capability to roll copper and stainless steel coils to a thickness of 12 microns.
Those metal coils, which can weigh up to 7 tons, are rolled in a 125,000-squarefoot manufacturing area that contains three 50-foot-long mills. Each mill is operated by a separate set of electric motor- generators that can flatten and roll the coiled metal at speeds of up to 400-feet per minute.
But flattening metal to a thickness of 12 microns is hardly the limit of the company’s capabilities. Somers utilizes a plating process that can reduce copper to a thickness of 1 micron.
How thin is 1 micron? By definition, a micron is 1 millionth of a meter, but Szuchain F. Chen, the senior manager of the company’s Foil Products Development department, has a more graphic way to explain the concept.
“Take something — anything — that’s 1-inch long and cut into 1,000 pieces of equal length — each of those pieces would have a length of 1 mil,” said Chen, who is one of the Somers employees with a PhD in metallurgy. “Now take any one of those 1-mil pieces and slice it into 25 (equal) pieces. That would be a micron.”
Or, looked at another way, a typical credit card is about 30 mils thick. Something 1 micron thick is about 750 times thinner than a credit card.
The ultra-thin plated copper is part of the company’s XTF, or extra thin foil, product line, Santoro said. The XTF copper is sold mostly to companies that make high-density circuit boards, he said.
Thin copper foil is one of Somers’ three critical product lines, said James A. Schuneman, manager of marketing and product engineering.
Thin copper foil, which can be bent millions of times without breaking, is used to make hinged circuits that are vital components of electronic products that flip open or fold to close, such as cell phones or laptop computers.
Hinged circuits are also used in making solar power arrays in the aerospace industry, as well as in disc drives, iPods and other information storage devices.
Copper products, which are used to make sheathing for telecommunications cables, connectors in solar panels and conductive components inside household batteries, represent the company’s second key product line, he said. The third is stainless steel products, used to make automotive devices like gaskets and spark plug connectors; fasteners for the garment industry; probes and hypodermic needles, and computers and other electronic devices.
In all, metal products produced by Somers can be found in more than 600 products manufactured across the globe, Santoro said, adding that about 20 percent of the specialty metals the company produces is sold to foreign customers.
Those products include commercial electronics commodities such as computers, cell phones and televisions; housing materials, like the springs that enable you to open and shut your windows, and products for the defense, aerospace, transportation, medical equipment and solar panel industries.
“You’d be amazed at what a small, local company with some very forward thinking scientists and technicians and a highly skilled and extremely dedicated work force can accomplish,” he said.
“What we do here is blend a little science, a little art, and a whole lot of manufacturing skill and experience together to make very specialized and unique products that we can deliver to customers all around the world. Together, I think the people around here prove the old adage that a little Yankee Ingenuity can go a long way.”
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