WATERFORD, Conn. (AP) — Robert J. Marelli Jr., owner and president of the sheet-metal fabricator Seconn, looked five years down the road and didn't like what he saw.
The average age for welders nationwide had hit 55, and Marelli knew it was only a matter of time before these workers would hit retirement age, leaving a gaping hole in a business he had spent eight years building up.
"In five to six years, there will be a skill-set shortage of 20 million welders and fabricators in the United States," Morelli said. "We can't get enough skilled workers to keep up with the revenue stream."
So, about four months ago, Marelli decided the time was right to push his business in a new direction. He took the bold step of revving up a new engine of growth by opening a 4,000-square-foot robotics and automation facility within his newly expanded 60,000-square-foot manufacturing plant near the corner of Cross Road and Route 85, where the old Sears warehouse once stood.
The new division has led to nine new hires, about half of whom are former employees of ABCO, a previously family-run Waterford gas, welding and industrial supply company that was bought out in June by conglomerate Airgas Inc. Four ABCO employees subsequently approached Marelli about working for him in some capacity, and the talks eventually led to the idea of starting up a robotics and automation division at Seconn.
"It's really a home run," Marelli said. "The timing of it couldn't have been better."
Evidently, others agree. He already has received four major orders, and the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International got wind of what he was doing and sent a contingent over to check out the operation, impressed with what they saw.
What's more, he has forged a new alliance with Maine Oxy of Auburn, Maine, the largest independent distribution company in New England, to supply the tools and gases needed for both his fabrication and automation divisions. As part of the alliance, Maine Oxy opened a retail store last month in the front of the 25,000-square-foot former Crown Manufacturing building that Marelli purchased on Cross Road for the eventual relocation of Seconn's automation division.
Maine Oxy officials said they are impressed by Marelli's dedication to his customers.
"He's tough to beat to get the product out the door in a timely manner," said Dan Guerin, Maine Oxy's president.
Marelli's vision for the new division has been to provide customers with a one-stop shop where they can get not only finished products but engineered solutions for their own production needs. Seconn will continue to fabricate metals, and provide powdercoating, silkscreening and other manufacturing services, but it will also be able to sell customized robotic devices to other companies by writing the software codes needed to get specific industrial tasks done.
Seconn currently employs three engineers and is in the process of hiring a fourth, who will be dedicated to the new robotics and automation division.
"Brainpower is what sets us apart," said Skip Swift, vice president of business development for Seconn.
"No one else is doing this," added Marelli.
Marelli said some employees are currently cross training to be able to work in the robotics division.
"They've supported it wholeheartedly," he said.
Marelli said the company is on pace to do $30 million worth of business annually within five years, compared to the $15 million in sales Seconn expects to accomplish this year.
"We did it on our own hard work and our employees," Marelli said.
Getting into robotics - Seconn's eighth expansion in eight years - has opened up a whole new range of potential customers, from small manufacturers making precision-engineered products to multibillion-dollar defense contractors. Seconn is now seeing new interest from aerospace and shipbuilding companies as well as from the automotive and semiconductor industries.
"We can handle almost anything that comes our way in New England," Marelli said.
"We've been able to solve problems for our current clients as well," he added. "To fully design and implement an end product - anybody else would have to subcontract. But under one roof, we can do it all."
While robotic devices aren't required for every manufacturing procedure - their cost of $100,000 to $200,000 can be cost- prohibitive for smaller production loads - they begin to pay for themselves when companies churn out large quantities of products or when extremely precise outcomes are required.
A machine ensures the manufacturing process is always done in the same way, and it usually results in a faster production schedule. And the quicker production times from the use of robotic devices can pay big dividends for some companies, Marelli said, including his own.
"Four seconds is millions of dollars," he said.