Promoting New Manufacturing While Fostering the Old | WCAI

Promoting New Manufacturing While Fostering the Old

May 27, 2015

At Mass Automation in Bourne, a team of eight or so engineers and skilled workers custom-build machines that have never been made before. It's a business built on innovation.

"We design and build custom equipment," said company president John Fraser. "A lot of it for medical and pharmaceutical type applications. Johnson and Johnson might come to us with a new surgical sponge that they've designed, and we'll design a machine to automate making that sponge."

Fraser is standing in front of one of Mass Automation's creations — a machine that loads small plastic clips into a magazine.

"This particular machine is designed to load a clip that’s used for surgery, to seal up a wound," he said. "Instead of stitches, they use this plastic clip. It has a handle on it and a mechanism and a trigger. Basically, it goes into surgery, and they use it to seal up the incision, and then it dissolves.”

Fraser initially thought his business should be located closer to Boston, he said. He's a born and raised Cape Codder. He loves it here. But he worried about being so far from his high-tech customers. Now, after 19 years of service, he said being on Cape Cod can be a benefit.

"It’s a negative maybe on a Friday afternoon to come over the bridge for a customer, but I think customers like to come down in the summer, and you know, they can sign off on a piece of equipment and then enjoy the Cape," he said.

This type of work is often called "advanced manufacturing." They're building machines that require innovation, complex design and a lot of attention to detail.

A report released last week by the New England Council found about half of Barnstable County's manufacturing jobs are considered advanced — like the burgeoning oceanographic businesses on the Upper Cape and South Coast. Falmouth's Chamber of Commerce president Michael Kasparian said the ocean-science-related work going on in the village of Woods Hole is creating jobs.

"WHOI and Marine Biological laboratory, as well, have offshoots — folks who are working diligently on ocean-related or atmospheric related sciences that come up with products or services that they then can spin off into private businesses, get investors, and re-locate or locate them here," Kasparian said. "And it’s just a wonderful situation. So those larger institutions really act as incubators for small business."

It's the type of manufacturing that Cape Cod, the South Coast and Massachusetts as a whole is looking to attract and promote — making stuff that businesses may not want to get overseas because perhaps it would take too long. Or maybe there are concerns about quality.

"I think that the state and everyone in general can see the opportunity that’s down here, if that industry is going to prosper, it makes sense if it can prosper in its own backyard," Kasparian said. "But there’s so much more that can be done in a cooperative effort between municipalities and the state and private business to encourage businesses to grow and to incubate and create the jobs that we need. "

In total, manufacturing is only a small part of the Cape's economy. The Cape's Workforce Investment Board said there are only about 2,250 total manufacturing jobs on the Cape and Islands, at about 220 businesses. And that's a number that includes food production — things like ice cream and taffy. And of course, kettle-cooked potato chips.

"What could be better than Cape Cod Chips?" goes the Cape Cod Chips Commercial. "Maybe, if you ate them on a beach. Maybe if you at them on a beach while a flock of seagulls sings peacefully…"

Cape Cod Potato Chips is a multi-million dollar brand that has gone global. The company is legendary on Cape Cod, where businessman Stephen Bernard founded it back in 1980 in a small Hyannis storefront before selling it to Snyder's Lance in 1999.

"…Cape Cod, home of ridiculously good chips," concludes the commercial.

Just how many of those chips are genuine Cape Codders — and how many people work making them here — isn't clear. Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce statistics indicate there about one hundred employees at the Hyannis chip factory. But Cape Cod Chips won't agree to an interview or say how many people they employ on Cape. The company also won't say how many chips they make here. But they're making some. On a recent Thursday the Hyannis factory was open for self-guided tours and what appeared to be about a dozen employees were overseeing the chip-making. No recording is allowed during the tour.

Cape Cod Chips may be the best-known local food manufacturer, but it's not clear just how many jobs the brand brings to the region or how many chips are actually made here.
Credit Sean Corcoran

The food that does touch the most local jobs is something a bit more Cape-Coddy than potato chips:

"There are lots of hands touching a bag of oysters before it gets to your dinner place," said Rob Doane, chief business officer of ARC, the Aquacultural Research Corporation in Dennis.

Almost all of of the Cape's locally-grown oysters and quahogs starts out here in Dennis, inside an ARC's old, weathered building tucked among the dunes at Chapin Beach, where large, algae-filled tanks hold millions of shellfish seed and the promise of more than one thousands jobs.  

"It's estimated by the Barnstable County extension that the shellfish industry is worth 12.5 million annually on Cape Cod alone," Doane said.

ARC supplies seed to about 1,200 commercial shell fishermen and women on Cape Cod alone, and supports another 17,000 recreational fishing licenses. One of Doane's jobs is to help secure the future of shellfish seed by finding money for the construction of a new hatchery on the footprint of this 50 year old building. He's helped cobble together a mix of public and private fundraising totaling about 6 million dollars to fund a new building, and pay for a conservation restriction on the land.

"I've been threatening to close down for a couple years," said ACR president Richard Kraus. "Basically because the building needs to be replaced and our funding service has dried up."

Richard Kraus is the president of ARC. He's been working here since 1973 — growing shellfish, making algae, and studying ways to do both those things better.

"The wild fishery on Cape Cod for shellfish, that is, is mostly gone," Kraus said. "There is still a wild oyster industry in Wellfleet, but for most of the Cape, it's gone. Most of the towns now depend on us to provide them with seed that they can plant in the wild for recreational and commercial harvest."

The most important component of the shellfish seed manufacturing process is algae. The algae in these tanks will be fed to the growing shellfish seed.
Credit Heather Goldstone

ARC can grow between 10 and 15 million oysters or quahogs every two weeks, Kraus said, and it's really not that complicated a manufacturing process. The problem is ARC can't produce enough seed to meet growing demand, and its weather-battered building is falling apart.  

"What we do is what we do is we take labor, manpower or woman power, and energy and turn it into seed shellfish," he said. "That's what we do. So our costs are energy and labor. And what we need to do is be able to produce more seed and cut down on our costs. Using this facility, designed properly, we could double our production of what we do right now. Easily. Easily, Maybe more than that."

More jobs may be on the horizon in advanced manufacturing for the Cape and South Coast, but this simple manufacturing process — growing more than 110 million shellfish seeds each year — is already keeping people employed and supporting on of the Cape's most iconic industries: fishing.
 

This story is part of our reporting series "Making It Work: Manufacturing on the Cape, the South Coast, and the Islands. Hear more stories in this series.