As a salesman for his family’s business Industrial Metal Supply peddling steel and brass and copper, Neil Sherman got to know the men operating the machine shops scattered about the San Fernando Valley. That was more than 20 years ago, when the Valley was flush with aviation and aerospace work for the small, one- or two-man shops. But with the Cold War won and cutbacks made in defense spending, melting away into history were the skills of these operators, many of whom came to the U.S. from Europe after World War II. “A lot of that is being lost and I don’t know if many people are picking it up,” Sherman said. The eroding away of the small job shop is among the changes the manufacturing industry faces. It has been witnessed by people like Sherman who measure their professional careers in decades. Industrial Metal started 60 years ago in Burbank and is now located in Sun Valley, with three other California locations and one in Phoenix. Frazier Aviation in San Fernando has been around for almost as long, since 1953, although Bob Frazier did not start working there until the mid 1970s, trading in his law school education to oversee the manufacturing of aircraft parts. In the same vein as Sherman, the most noticeable change Frazier has witnessed is the loss of what he calls the “true machinist;” the generalist working with sheet metal who could also be a lathe operator and maybe a welder. Modern technology did away with the manual operation of machinery, replacing it with computerized equipment using software and put in motion with the push of a button. This automation does a job in the fraction of the time of the old manual method. “It takes a whole different breed [of machinist] than it took years and years and years ago,” Frazier said. Fewer true machinists and small job shops doesn’t mean that business is bad for either Frazier or Sherman. To make it in manufacturing in the 21st century one goes where the competition isn’t. The Valley has ample sub-contractors contributing to new aircraft on the assembly line so Frazier stakes its business on the production of spare parts. The types of planes it supports and the fact they are all over the world gives the company continuous orders, Frazier said. Industrial Metal continues a policy set decades ago of not requiring a minimum order for its products. Catering to the small- and mid-size manufacturers is a double-edged sword for Industrial Metal. They lose business when companies of that size close but they receive new orders when a small shop opens because those operators cannot afford to go to larger suppliers. “We don’t turn our noses up at the little guy,” Sherman said. “That has been our bread and butter.” Blake Wire and Cable Corp. began as a distributor of wire products to aerospace and aviation customers and expanded into manufacturing as a value-added element of that business. As a distributor, the Van Nuys firm sells commodities available off the shelf and made by a variety of companies, said its president Robert Weiner, who has been with the business for 35 years. As a manufacturer, a large part of their business comes from orders of specialized and custom-made products; those where there is a demand for quantities that don’t meet certain minimums or lead times. “Our ability to produce a product faster than other companies is a necessity in our business,” Weiner said.
Technology, Customization are Keys to Firms’ Longevity