Hanging in the lobby of Southern Manufacturing Technologies Inc. is a large picture of a soldier holding a javelin missile. The picture is of Cpl. Steven Hollahan, whose troop was under attack from the Taliban when he set a record for the longest javelin missile shot ever recorded to take the enemy down almost a mile away.
Though some may be aware the javelin missile was produced by Lockheed Martin Corp., what many may not be aware of is that some of the parts in that missile came from Tampa — from Southern Manufacturing Technologies Inc.
SMT is not a new name on the block. The company was founded in 1953. Sweatman came from Ohio and bought the company in 1983. Since then, he's grown the five-employee company to 110 employees and $13.5 million in revenue.
Walking through the manufacturing facility, you see hundreds of metal parts. Learning what they are used for is what's really impressive. The parts include a piece used in a fuel pump for Blackhawk helicopters and a turbo valve that can be used in a breathing apparatus or to control an IV drip. The company's list of customers include Woodward, Honeywell International and Cobham. For each of its two largest customers, SMT produces more than 300 parts at its Tampa facility.
Now the company is taking an interest in OneWeb Ltd., a company that is hoping to supply global internet coverage through 900 satellites.
Though the company has been holding steady for the past several years at $12.5 million to $13.5 million in revenue, SMT is looking to spur growth. Up until four years ago, the company was growing 15% a year. Lately, it has struggled to continue the growth due to a big challenge — finding quality people to keep up with the demand.
Finding new talent
One of the biggest problems is the lack of young talent entering manufacturing. When schools ended vocational-training programs and college became a more popular path for high school graduates, manufacturing fell off the radar.
So Sweatman is doing what he can to get involved in the community, get the company's name out, and share with schools that a company looking for quality engineers does in fact exist.
He's joined the advisory councils at several schools, and opens the doors to his facility to provide tours for local high schools and middle schools to show them the factory. He's even hosted a girls summer robotic camp.
Sweatman has also funded equipment and donated old machines to local schools, to make sure schools continue offering classes like “shop” in course offerings.
But it's not just an educational campaign for students. Sweatman is also trying to let others know about the company. “Florida is not as well-known for manufacturing” as a Cleveland or Chicago, Sweatman says. The benefits of nice weather doesn't seem to attract talent as easily as people would expect, he adds.
Sweatman is working with the Hillsborough County Manufacturing Alliance to educate the community about its needs because it creates jobs. SMT alone spends around $35,000 a month in tools, according to Sweatman. As part of this campaign, SMT is putting together videos with the alliance on what it means to be in manufacturing. The company is also investing in ads on buses as part of the publicity campaign.
Apprenticeships and Training
In addition to education, Sweatman has ramped up the company's apprentice programs. The company has six apprentices, with five participating through AmSkills, a Tampa initiative to provide hands-on technical skills training for high school students, adults and veterans. “That's how we train people,” Sweatman says. “The last few years it has gotten so bad that we decided to ramp up our training dramatically.”
Sweatman is no stranger to apprenticeships. It's how he got started in the industry with a machinist apprentice course at General Electric in Erie, Pa. From there, he worked his way up from production control to mid-management, to general manager of GE's facility in Cleveland.
But Sweatman knows his apprenticeship program and other efforts in the community won't totally solve his predicament. His workforce is getting older and though they have a many years of experience under their belts, “machinists are not good teachers,” he says.
So he invested in sending 29 of his employees to become certified on-the-job trainers through the National Institute of Metal Working Skills, where Sweatman is a board member. The team just finished its certification a little more than a month ago, and is now working on practice training and developing a database for different skills.
Many may assume that with technology advances, manufacturing companies shouldn't be at a loss for finding people. But Sweatman says it's the opposite. Though technology has allowed the company to “make more parts with fewer people, the skill level of the people has to be higher to understand how to operate the technology,” Sweatman says.
The technology in his line of business is becoming more and more complex, he adds. One machine SMT uses for quality control is a technology that can measure the specifications of a product to a tenth of the thickness of a single strand of hair.
The company's investment in training and technology, along with its focus on strategic planning, is most likely what helped SMT earn the recognition as a 2017 Florida Sterling Manufacturing Business Excellence Award winner, according to Sweatman.
But investment in technology can also be scary because of the high cost. Sweatman says his best business decision was also his scariest — investing in an automated pallet system. He learned about the machine from a contact in Colorado. He started with a single horizontal machine, but added a second a year and a half later, and eventually a third. The total investment was around $3 million.
With the new technology, the company can tool up dozens of jobs, run 24/7 and operate on its own for a few hours without relying on manpower, Sweatman says. “That kind of productivity is what we need to compete globally.”