When a Navy pilot roars from a combat ship off the coast of Afghanistan, bound for a strafing run on an enemy firing at U.S. forces, there is a good chance that tucked away in the pilot's equipment are essential parts from Tampa Bay that could save his life.
Those parts are built into his parachute — sturdy metal housings and mechanical components. If the pilot is forced to bail out over the ocean and lands, unconscious, in the water, a sensor detects the fluid and blows his parachute away so it doesn't drag him under. In rapid sequence, his head is lifted from the water and his life jacket inflates, while a second sensor triggers a flare so rescuers can find the pilot.
The metal parts that house the sensors are manufactured at a little-known Tampa company that occupies a 20,000-square-foot building where the lights burn 24/7. At Southern Manufacturing Technologies (SMT), a private company celebrating its 30th year in business, workers churn out 20,000 highly precise components per month, for the aircraft, aerospace, and defense industries.
Although the plant's products have been used in high-profile places — the Mars rover, air-to-air missiles, communications and military satellites, and commercial aircraft — SMT President Roy Sweatman has been content to fly under the radar of public notice. But now, as his company reaches a critical turning point, the low profile is working against him.
After growing his company for three decades, Sweatman, 66, is facing the inevitable need to hand over the reins to a new chief, within five to eight years. At the same time, he anticipates receiving a major contract in 2015 to manufacture parts for a new generation of fuel-efficient aircraft engines for Boeing 737s and the Airbus A320. Sweatman and his top managers are reconfiguring space at the plant to shoehorn in the new operations. They will need to hire machinists at a time when many young people seldom consider manufacturing or skilled trades as a career. What makes it even harder to attract talented applicants is that despite SMT's achievements and high standing in the aerospace world, many Tampa families and even business leaders have never heard of it.
“Nobody knows we exist,” says Sweatman. “It's partially because we don't make the airplane, we just make some of the components.” Many Americans have the impression that most U.S. manufacturing has shifted to China, so kids see no future in it, and parents steer them toward universities, he says. “Everybody's supposed to go to college.”
Sweatman has a lot at stake. The plant owner, who grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm, has taken his machine shop from five employees when he bought it in 1983, to 110 skilled workers, and from $360,000 in revenue the first year, to $13.3 million in 2012. And even without the aircraft contract, the company is still growing, and searching for workers.
With Tampa Bay's unemployment rate dropping to 8% in December, one might conclude that plenty of willing workers could don a uniform at SMT. But along the Gulf Coast, many small and mid-size manufacturers share Sweatman's dilemma of a shortage of workers with sufficient technical backgrounds.
“It's not uncommon,” says Cliff Csulik, president of the Bay Area Manufacturers Association. Companies are having a hard time finding technicians, welders, and machinists who can operate the computer numerical control (CNC) machines programmed to make precision parts for the defense, aerospace or medical industries.
Small and mid-sized manufacturers of 25 to 100 employees supply essential parts to behemoths such as St. Petersburg-based circuit maker Jabil, which operates 60 plants in 25 countries; Raytheon, the aerospace and electronics giant; or Lockheed Martin, which builds military aircraft and defense systems.
But as young people increasingly choose more lucrative or prestigious careers, small manufacturers struggle to keep up with the demand for products. “It's not the glory type of job that some of these younger generations may want, but they're still needed,” says Csulik. “That's what made America's backbone, these middle-class type of jobs.”
Florida's 18,099 manufacturers employ 317,690 people, according to the Manufacturers Association of Florida. Based on the number of facilities, the state ranks fourth in the nation in manufacturing. Plant managers are opening their doors to student tours, and hiring promising young candidates. They work with schools and training centers to strengthen STEM curricula — science, technology, engineering and math. But even as they reach out to educators to bolster their work force, manufacturers also are advancing in another direction—toward the brave new world of automation.
Robots: more than a game
As he pencils in plant changes in anticipation of the potential 2015 growth spurt, Sweatman knows that not only will a new generation of skilled employees help his plant carry on after he retires, so will the next generation of automated machines, including robots. Already, smart machines can select tools and mill metal parts with mathematical precision. They can move multiple pallets along the plant floor, shuttling along a metal rail.
SMT uses about 20 Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines, and it employs a few basic robots. The Mars rover, after all, is a robot, and robotics are integrated not just in end-user military or space products, but also in the manufacturing process.
Sweatman and his daughter Shannon, SMT's systems administrator, work with local schools and colleges to encourage robotics programs, which make math and science fun. The students compete in robot tournaments in which their machines fight competitors.
Girls enjoy bots as much as boys. “Down in the Miami area, there's Catholic high schools with all-girl teams. In these competitions when they fight and the bots get damaged, [the girls] are back in the pits helping each other out” with pit-stop repairs, says Sweatman, laughing.
Some Tampa kids come to the plant to perfect their bots, and occasionally, get hired part-time. New workers with no training generally earn $10 an hour, while those with some training get $14 an hour and skilled workers, $20 to $25 per hour, says Sweatman. “One-third of Southern Manufacturing's workers earn more than $50,000 per year.”
As he searches for workers who are precise yet innovative, Sweatman has raised his profile, taking lead roles in professional groups and serving on the U.S. Commerce Department's Manufacturing Council, which advises the Secretary of Commerce on manufacturing issues. “Now I prefer not to be under the radar, so that people know there are good jobs and good opportunities and things other than going to college.”
Racing the clock
To see how far he has come as he nears the close of his stewardship, Sweatman has only to look into the glass case in his lobby, where metal parts — bronze, titanium, and steel — gleam like trophies. Each one tells a story.
It wasn't easy to become a key player in the complex world of satellite and aircraft production. At 17, he apprenticed at General Electric in Erie, Pa. and stayed to hone his skills before becoming general manager at a machine shop. In 1982, he brought his life savings to Tampa and bought the small machine shop. The owner provided financing, and Sweatman paid it off in two years.
The shop made parts for locomotives and medical devices as well as aircraft, but soon settled into an aerospace and defense niche. Sweatman convinced customers his shop could make the parts they needed. He developed a pivotal relationship with Conax Florida Corp. in St. Petersburg, now a subsidiary of Cobham PLC. Conax explosives technology is used with the parachutes for which Sweatman's firm provides housings.
In 1988, just five years after Sweatman bought the machine shop, it made the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies. As it grew, he reinvested in SMT to improve efficiency. The latest investment, a $750,000 machining center, holds 180 tools, and boasts six pallets. To pay its cost, it runs 24 hours a day, contributing to SMT's $17,000 monthly electric bill.
The machine's robotic arm plucks a tool from the new array, as a pallet shuttles along an enclosed rail. Amid the plant's whine and hum of machines, workers study calculations or plunge their hands into a cleansing water spout. Shiny valves wait on flat surfaces for the next step, as a faintly acrid odor of treated metals wafts through the plant.
In his office, Sweatman rolls off the names of missile defense systems to which SMT has contributed, including the Harpoon, Tomahawk and Javelin. As he hurries to meet the new deadline — the expected aircraft parts contract less than two years from now, with its influx of people, equipment, and production timetables — Sweatman is also planning for the longer term. He hopes his daughter, who has a master's in management information systems, will take a leadership role at the company. And he has groomed a management team. But he remains firmly in charge.
And highly competitive. His daughter recently gave him the gift of a Mario Andretti Racing Experience, a chance to race an Indy 500-style car around a Miami track. He sped at 154 miles per hour. Of all the day's riders, Sweatman's was the fastest lap of the day.