American Manufacturing Is a Family Affair

So you’ve got your business plan, product concepts, and maybe even final samples. Do you ever ask yourself, who is actually doing the making of your commercial goods? Are these people actually happy? Are they treated well? Machines can’t do everything, and most mass produced goods require human hands to take them from parts to finished goods.

In an effort to dig deeper and understand the people, process, and machines involved in manufacturing, I’ve spent the past year documenting the manufacturing landscape in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, located along the Rust Belt, one of America’s oldest manufacturing regions. The resulting documentation is a series called “Hands On”. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that everything around us, from our computers and phones, to our furniture and our houses, to the mug of coffee sitting on the table, was made by someone. Probably with their hands. The series is made to honor those people by documenting them and their crafts.

Family Members Work Side by Side

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Eileen Schiazza and daughter Angela Taylor have worked at the same mill for over 23 years.

When I entered Huntingdon Yarn Mill, the owner Majid Jarah shared his story of how he worked for the mill 30 years ago, bought in some time later, and that the business has been a family and friend affair ever since. With about 50 employees, most of whom live in the neighborhood, they seem to have the same set up as most of the other manufacturers in the area. They love and treat their employees like family and it’s very common to find siblings, spouses, and family members of various generations all working under the same roof.

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yarn mill philadelphia American Manufacturing Factories

This is Guy Brubaker. He works at another mill in the area. When we asked him what his job was, his answer was “Pretty much everything, but mostly I fix things.” It was pretty clear to us that that in such a facility, with so many complex machines with small parts, fixing broken things must absolutely be a specialized craft. Guy’s story gets even better. He gets to work side-by-side with his two brother’s Roland and Rodney who are also employed by the mill! It was self evident that these historical spaces of manufacturing have to care about their employees in order for their employees to care about their work.

In an Era of Low Job Stability, These Makers are Happy to be Here.

yarn mill philadelphia American Manufacturing Factories

Manufacturing can be tiring work – and so maybe that’s why I expected to interview employees and get stock answers like “Yeah the jobs fine” or “The boss is alright.” Instead, I found that most of these employees not only loved and had a great appreciation for their employers, but were happy to be working a stable job at a company that has been around for decades. Most had anecdotes or stories too – which really brought home the importance of community in these manufacturing setting. This job stability combined with a familial working environment in turn results in happy and highly skilled employees.

These Machines are Often Older Than You

yarn mill philadelphia American Manufacturing Factories

You just can’t beat the type of quality you get from machinery that was produced fifty or sixty years ago. Perhaps this is a result of a time when we had more machining experts and a generally larger manufacturing infrastructure here in the US – but one of my main observations has been that almost all of the factories I visit have at least some machines that are 30-40 years or older in age.

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The printing press at Service Die-Cut and Packaging sits on the 2nd floor of a light filled warehouse. Seeing this machine run is like watching a performance piece. From the sounds of ink sloshing in trays to the hum of a printing plate on constant rotation, it’s a magnificent experience.

yarn mill philadelphia American Manufacturing Factories

These machines require old school experts to operate and maintain them. Folks who have been using the equipment for decades. The printing press above has been operated and maintained by a fellow named Ace for almost 20 years now. When I asked the factory owner whether or not he understood the machine fully, he pretty much chuckled. It was clear that the knowledge about these machines lies in the heads and hands of the experts who’ve been operating them for years and years.

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