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At Atlas, new technologies and new business

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Photo by Brian Pedersen:  Sparks fly as Rick Spangler, an employee at Atlas Machining and Welding Inc., works on a shipping unit.
Photo by Brian Pedersen: Sparks fly as Rick Spangler, an employee at Atlas Machining and Welding Inc., works on a shipping unit.

Despite a long history of staying in one physical place, one Lehigh Valley manufacturer is quick to embrace the rapidly changing technology that allows the company to keep moving ahead.

Atlas Machining & Welding Inc. of Northampton began in 1981, and owner/founder Harold Keeney remembers the interest rate being 17 percent at that time. An automotive group rolled in as its first customer.

Now, Atlas has 60 employees, serves customers as far away as Australia and runs three shifts. Today, the company is led by Lisa Keeney, Harold’s daughter, who is president and chief operating officer.

On 17 acres, Atlas has more than 500 machine shops that it works with, and it does work for major Lehigh Valley companies such as Air Products, PPL, FLSmidth, Victaulic, Lafarge North America and more.

Some of the company’s major projects include machining parts for the entrance to the World Trade Center project under construction in New York City and building components for a buoy that survived 33-foot waves during Hurricane Sandy, Lisa Keeney said.

“They look for companies like us to make products,” she said.

She said a lot of shops cannot take on all these projects under one roof, which includes everything from welding to Computer Numerical Control machining, laser cutting and overhead crane work.

The local cement mills remain a niche market in the Lehigh Valley, she said.

With the help of Manufacturers Resource Center in Bethlehem, the company boosted its efficiency and acquired many new customers.

Atlas relied upon MRC – a federal and state-funded nonprofit that helps manufacturers – with networking, training and upgrading technology, Lisa Keeney said.

“That’s where MRC has been very helpful,” she said.

One of the areas MRC stepped in was lean manufacturing, which involves developing processes that are more efficient.

The organization helped Atlas apply for mid-Atlantic Trade Association grant money, which it received about three years ago. The total amount is $100,000; the company is responsible for repaying half of it.

In addition to training, the grant money is used to pay for upgrading technology and software.

As an example, when Atlas purchased a new robotic arm to streamline its manufacturing processes, the company received training through MRC on how to use the device. The organization paid for half of the costs of the software needed to operate it.

The biggest challenge Lisa Keeney faces is the one repeated by many manufacturers: The lack of qualified people who have the skills the company seeks.

To combat this, schools should stop promoting sports so much and start pushing the trades, Harold Keeney said, noting how jobs in the manufacturing field are available for those who want them. Not as many people are going to get a job in sports, he noted.

However, most people do not have the ability to meet basic requirements to get hired at a manufacturer such as Atlas, he said.

Staffing companies are helpful in screening applicants, but both Keeneys said more should be done to meet the skill need.

Atlas spends close to $1 million each year in new equipment, including software and computers to run everything, Lisa Keeney said. A single piece of equipment can cost as much as $300,000.

Though Atlas has been in business for quite a while, customers have adapted to the company’s use of advanced technology.

“Some of our customers started redesigning their products based on our technology,” she said.

Lasers can seamlessly cut materials to exact measurements, and computers can control what a finished product will look like faster than ever.

And technology is where it’s at in helping the company streamline processes and complete orders faster than competitors.

As a one-stop shop that also can take on emergency work 24-7 when needed, Atlas appears to be in the enviable position of not only making new products for companies but fixing existing products – particularly as many businesses are making do with what they have in a tough economy.

“They aren’t going to throw that out and get a new one if it can be fixed,” she said, particularly for large pieces of equipment.

The manufacturer can pursue heavier work, such as 40-ton overhead cranes, but also tackle smaller jobs in a facility with 60,000 square feet of manufacturing space. It’s this diversity of work that helps Atlas grow and remain active.

Revenue has been steadily increasing each year, she said. The company saw slow, steady growth, with one or two unusually good years, which can occur when a large ticket order is secured.

Part of its success comes from a willingness to try new things, including pressure vessels, which are containers that hold gases or liquids.

“That’s kind of opened up new doors for us,” she said. “We try to venture into new technologies. When one department is slow, another picks up.”

Lisa Keeney said she would like to put on an addition in the next couple of years. Regardless, Atlas will remain in the Lehigh Valley, she said.

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Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh and read his blog, “Can You Dig It,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/can-you-dig-it.

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