Is the U.S. and by extension, the Greater Lehigh Valley, seeing a resurgence in manufacturing?
Eric Zerphy, president and CEO of Solar Technology Inc., thinks so.
“We’re very well-positioned to capitalize on that,” he said. “A lot of smaller manufacturers are gone.”
Manufacturing appears to be coming back to the U.S., Zerphy added.
Proximity to major highways, access to rail and a large labor force to draw from are proving that the Lehigh Valley also could be returning as a major manufacturing hub.
Zerphy’s company, based in Upper Macungie Township, is a small manufacturer of solar-powered traffic control equipment for industrial and commercial applications. Devices include advance warning arrow panels, message signs, touch screen controllers and trailers – all built at the manufacturing site on Cetronia Road near Route 100.
Helping Solar Tech stay profitable, gain new clients and achieve lean manufacturing techniques is the Manufacturers Resource Center of Bethlehem.
Zerphy said his company worked with MRC in 2000 to achieve ISO-9001 certification (a system of quality management standards) for its manufacturing site and to acquire consulting services. In 2008, MRC helped Solar Tech perform a market assessment to determine how the market perceived the company.
MRC also helped Solar Tech with training in lean manufacturing processes and internal auditor training, said Robert Miller, vice president of operations for Solar Tech.
“We will be working with them to help us secure other manufacturing opportunities,” Zerphy said.
Solar Tech plans to start a business development unit, which MRC will have more of a focus on, but Zerphy said the company’s market is limited.
“Our products are heavily dependent on infrastructure spending,” said Zerphy.
Since the equipment used in the United States is placed on highways and bridges, each product needs approval from each of the 50 states, he said. The company also markets products to other countries.
As an example, Solar Tech’s surveillance equipment often is used in England, which has narrower roads. Miller said there’s a lot of interest from two or three major distributors in that country for Solar Tech products.
Its Upper Macungie facility is a one-stop shop, where every product is made from start to finish.
“We do everything from mechanical engineering to heavy manufacturing to finishing and painting and small controller assembly,” said Zerphy. “We design, develop and manufacture almost everything.”
The site includes an electronics department where repairs are made, a workspace for assembling message board panels and warehouse/manufacturing space. The family-owned company, which began in the early 1990s, previously was at a nearby site on Snowdrift Road.
Despite having a limited core market, Zerphy said he believes Solar Tech can bring new products to new markets, helping the company’s future growth and ability to continue making products in the Lehigh Valley.
“The whole organization has a strong, continuous improvement mentality,” he said. “Most organizations will set up sophisticated systems to fix problems. We focus on eliminating problems; that’s really served us well.”
Zerphy said with the current U.S. administration in power, there’s no way he would consider expanding the company at this time. However, he said that currently Solar Tech could satisfy the entire domestic demand for its products from its Lehigh Valley space.
“If we’re going to expand, we could acquire a smaller facility,” Zerphy said. “We’re not going to overextend ourselves to take advantage of opportunities we think might be there.”
Zerphy said Solar Tech will continue to improve the products it manufactures, and the goal is to continue to provide customers with tools to be as efficient as possible.
“We have very high customer retention and loyalty, and we are continuing to ensure additional market share,” he said.
Note: This is the sixth of 25 stories we’ll publish this year to highlight manufacturing companies in the Greater Lehigh Valley that have been helped by Manufacturers Resource Center, a nonprofit organization celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2013.