The LED Optics
For a company that used to make primarily metal clock hands before moving into automotive dials and pointers, LED lighting is a brand new frontier. They’ve colonized it at a rate that would make the early settlers of the American West mighty envious.
“The LED lighting industry is taking off,” said Donahue, mentioning Phillips Lighting and Osram Sylvania as examples. “And with it, the need to manage the raw output of light emitting diodes which necessitate engineered optics and reflectors…. Essentially, anything that uses LEDs in lighting applications is where we thrive”
The company produces a dizzying amount of products in the LED field, ranging from array lighting for concerts to flashlight lenses to car components. Recently, they purchased four heavy duty plastic injection molding machines from Absolute HAITIAN, who took a tour of the facility alongside Direct Capital. We donned safety goggles and raised our voices to be heard over the steady hum of those machines, operating with whirring efficiency throughout the plant.
With incredible precision, the HAITIAN machines melt down plastic pellets, mold it and laser eject the flawless optics before Ranger robots load them onto shipping trays. The entire process takes places in minutes, which would have been unthinkably fast only a decade ago, and it allows the company to put together the thousands of components a day it must to fill worldwide demand.
“Because of the fast pace and ever advancing technologies surrounding LEDs, we need to stop and sprint on a dime,” Donahue tells us.
Yet the quality does not—cannot—suffer.
“Quality is what we’re about. That’s why companies do business with us,” Scarfo said.
To be as productive as they must be, Fraen has focused heavily on automation. In a field fraught with last second changes in demand—a car company might request 100,000 pointers three months in advance and up their request to 150,000 two weeks before the shipment is due—the ability to ramp up quickly and churn out quality product is a kingmaker.
Fraen has become a highly sought-after company chiefly due to that ability. At their Wilmington facility, run by affable Senior Vice President John Lambert, the entire squeaky-clean floor is covered with machines. Part robotics, part computer-programmed and operated assembly lines, these machines create the tiny gears and spools of copper wire that will eventually go into the instrumentation motors that cause your speedometer pointer to spin as you rev your engine.
Hundreds to thousands of these motors will be crafted in a single day. When the company strikes a deal for a new demand, they’re able to make a few quick modifications and get the new process running.
Donahue and Scarfo still seem to see the floor with fresh eyes. As they move between machines, joining Lambert in a running commentary of how each machine works, Donahue said the precision and speed of automation, maintained and assisted by highly trained technicians and laborers, is what it takes to keep a full-scale manufacturing plant alive and healthy in New England, and keeping jobs in America while bringing still more from abroad to the States.
“This is the kind of automation you need to be successful in manufacturing in Massachusetts,” he said. “We realized in the 1990’s that a traditional manufacturing company wasn’t going to cut it.”
Photo credit to iStock