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Can manufacturing save the state's economy?

Making It in Rhode Island
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  March 22, 2012

Fredette_main
THE ROBOT Fredette loads the Samsung SM421; greater efficiency means fewer jobs.

As the economy coughs its way toward something resembling recovery, politicians and economists are pointing to a surprising elixir: manufacturing.

Rising Chinese wages, high fuel costs, and mounting concerns about the quality of overseas work have contributed to a phenomenon that seemed unthinkable not long ago.

"For the first time since 1990," President Obama crowed during a recent appearance at a Master Lock factory in Milwaukee, "American manufacturers are creating new jobs."

The talk of resurgence has a particular appeal in Rhode Island, where factories once churned out steam engines and textiles and jewelry in breathtaking volumes.

As late as the 1950s, manufacturing employed six in 10 private-sector workers in the state — the triple deckers of Providence and Central Falls teeming with immigrants ticketed for the middle class.

By 2010, that figure had plummeted to one in 10. "The kind of workers who used to work in those factories," says Stanley Lemons, professor emeritus of history at Rhode Island College, "now push around trays at Rhode Island Hospital."

But after a brutal encounter with the Great Recession, Rhode Island's manufacturing sector is stabilizing. There are new jobs on the factory floor and they're good ones; as of 2010, manufacturing paid an average annual wage of $49,217, almost $7000 better than the state's average private-sector wage.

And while no one is predicting a return to the glory days, there is hope — in some quarters — that the state's rusted industrial core will come to life again; that it will play a central role in pulling the state out of its deep and cruel rut.

So, can manufacturing really save Rhode Island? To answer that question, you have to understand, first, what the American factory looks like circa 2012.


'OH, NOBODY COULD'

Astro-Med's headquarters and manufacturing hub, nestled behind a car dealership in West Warwick, appear more like a suburban office park than an industrial center.

American and Rhode Island flags preside over a tidy parking lot and a pair of white, low-slung buildings. In the main lobby, visitors are greeted with modern, gray, curving furniture.

The company was founded in 1971 by the late Albert W. Ondis, who worked in a mill while attending Woonsocket High School and, after college, drove to Washington and called the CIA from a payphone to ask for a job.

He worked at the agency for a time. But believing it moved too slowly, Ondis left to pursue a career in business — first as a sales manager at Brush Instruments and then as an entrepreneur.

Astro-Med started in the business of data recorders. And the devices, handheld or mounted, are still central to the business; they've been used to monitor the performance of the Space Shuttle and the g-force of Disney World rides.

Later, the company added two more product lines. Its QuickLabel division sells in-house, color labeling systems used by breweries and cosmetics companies, among others. And its Grass Technologies group sells machines that monitor the brain activity of the epileptic and sleep-deprived.

On the day I visit, Steve Petrarca, Astro-Med's amiable vice president of instrument manufacturing, walks me onto the sprawling factory floor and I'm immediately struck by the quiet and cleanliness of the place.

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  Topics: News Features , Business, Rhode Island, Money,  More more >
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