EconAlliance forum.
James Reilly, general manager for Atlas Copco Mafi-Trench, talks about the manufacturing operation in Santa Maria during an EconAlliance forum. Also pictured are Eric Melsheimer from Melfred-Borzall and Maribel Aguilera-Hernandez, an EconAlliance board member who served as moderator of the panel discussion. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

From tiny components sent into space to humongous machines delivered overseas, manufacturing in North Santa Barbara County remains a unique although quiet industry that needs workers with all types of experience and education.

The EconAlliance on Thursday hosted a forum at the Historic Santa Maria Inn on manufacturing, giving a local look at the industry operating in buildings dotting the area.

Leaders of four manufacturing businesses shared about their operations and needs during a panel discussion moderated by Maribel Aguilera-Hernandez, an EconAlliance board member, attorney and City Council member. 

“I think a lot of people think of Santa Maria as an agriculture town and hospitality, but we are sending a lot of cool stuff out to space,” said Marvin Rodriguez, vice president of operations for True Precision Machining

The firm, which is based in Buellton but is set to relocate to Santa Maria, makes parts for aerospace, medical and defense industries.

“There are some cool things going on here, not just building spacecraft components, but world-class drag race engines are getting built east of Santa Maria in the middle of strawberry fields. Baby toys, all kinds of cool things going on,” said Eric Melsheimer, president of Melfred Borzall.

The firm manufactures tools for horizontal directional drilling used to install infrastructure, including cables, pipes, ducts and more critical equipment underground.

Jim Reilly, Atlas Copco Mafi-Trench general manager, described the business as “big machines making cool things.”

“We’re the market leader for hydrocarbon turbo expanders, which means more of them are being made here in Santa Maria than anywhere else in the world,” Reilly said. 

The machines typically are used for liquified natural gas to turn it into other products. Building a machine can take 12 to 18 months and require 6,000 hours, including engineering, welding and machine work. Most of the sales have involved international customers. 

EconAlliance forum.
Marvin Rodriguez, left, vice president of operations for True Precision Machines, and Michael Slater, general manager for Helical Products, participate in a panel discussion on manufacturing. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Wages are good, he said, adding that blue-collar salaries range from $21 to $73 per hour or as much as $140,000 annually while engineers can make up between $87,000 and $187,000 a year.

“Our corporate says that we should really hire for the attitude,” Reilly said, adding that they want employees who will show up, being willing to learn and take charge for work quality. 

“It’s been a very successful policy,” he said, adding that the company has opportunities for employees to advance. “Some of the machinists move rapidly, some are happy just making simple parts. We need them both because we make a lot of different things.”

As hiring has become more challenging, Reilly said, outreach needs to occur. 

“I’m realizing, gee, we really haven’t been reaching out of the schools enough so maybe the schools don’t realize that manufacturing’s out there for them,” Reilly said. 

Michael Slater, general manager for Helical Products, said the firm’s springs, couplings and u-joints are supplied to aerospace, energy and medical sectors. Helical’s products have been used for satellites and assorted aircraft. 

For Helical, some positions don’t require formal training or certifications, with experts handling the intricate work. Employees should have a good math aptitude and ability to understand measuring devices and overall just have a good attitude. 

“It’s more important than anything that they can adapt to the company’s culture,” Slater said.

Helical has positions throughout the organizations for every level, including those with college degrees and those without them.

“We all want what’s best for our kids and the best for our children, but sometimes university is just not in the cards and it’s completely acceptable,” he said. 

Rodriguez cited himself as an example. He began his manufacturing career without a higher-education degree, starting at the bottom and advancing up the ranks.

Before the panel discussion, Peter Rupert, executive director of the UCSB Economic Forecast Project, talked about the economy. 

Manufacturing accounts for 12,500 jobs across the county, with the manufacturing gross domestic product amounting to about $3 billion or 10% for the county, he said.

“Manufacturing is a pretty large sector, bigger than many sectors you think should be more important, like information technology, for example,” Rupert said. 

Output produced by manufacturing is growing “at quite a good rate here in Santa Barbara County,” Rupert added.

The forum occurred a day before the start of National Manufacturing Week, which runs Oct. 6-13.