The majority of Vermont manufacturers are on the small side. With 18 employees, Moscow Mills Vibrations Solutions North in Stowe, fits that profile. What’s unusual about the company is that it often manufactures a single item for one of its customers.
“This is a hip joint for a thighbone for a bipedal robot that actually walks around like a human,” says company CEO Anderson Leveille as he takes a some bright metal pieces from a shelf near his desk.
It's just one of the unusual items that have been produced in the barn red building just off Route 100.
“This is what’s called a goniometer,” he says, holding another piece. “Its purpose is to set a 12 atom thick diamond blade to cut a one millimeter cube of brain tissue into 50,000 one nanometer slices.”
That’s a far cry from what Laveille’s business was doing in 1996 when it began. Then it bent the tubing used in Tubbs snow shoes.
“It’s not unusual for us to make a single component," he says, displaying a small metal container open at one end. “If you look at a component like this, this is for a piece of satellite instrumentation that’s going to be orbiting the sun.”
Leveille’s Moscow Mills clients are often looking for short run prototypes, but the company is increasingly focused on the growing side of its business, Vibrations Solutions North, which makes specialized tools used to balance the rotating parts of motors and engines - jet engines, turbines and pumps where tolerances are measured in the ten millionths of an inch.
The work done at Moscow Mills Vibrations Solutions North involves computer operated lathes, grinders, milling machines and some high tech testing equipment.
It also takes employees who can program and operate the machines. Moscow Mills Vibrations Solutions North may be unique in what it does, but the challenges it faces finding employees are common to manufacturers everywhere.
Joe Ostrout, the company’s operations manager, says he’d prefer to hire Vermonters, but lately he’s had a hard time finding skilled workers in state.
“I think the last few folks that we’ve hired have been out of state,” he says.
Ostrout says he looks for job applicants with some post-secondary education and software programming and machinist experience.
He says there’s a disconnect between what’s being taught about manufacturing in Vermont colleges and tech centers and the reality of a manufacturing environment. It’s evident in the graduates he sees.
“They really don’t know how a real shop works,” he explains. “Do they have the background, do they have the education, do they have the skills to figure things out? Absolutely. But some folks, you walk over and you say, ‘this is a milling machine’ and they say, huh?’.”
Like many manufacturers, Moscow Mills provides employees with training. Recently its been using a course from an online university in England.
Employees say the company is unique in the amount of responsibility they’re given for projects.
Christos Maninos, who has several decades of manufacturing experience, came to Moscow Mills three years ago. In previous jobs he was involved in just one part of production. Here he follow a project from beginning to end.
“I’m kind of doing everything,” he says. “I spend half the day at the computer programming and researching and developing strategies we need to cut the high precision work pieces that we create here. Then I set it up and run the machine.”
Dave Emerson started working at Moscow Mills this year.
Emerson came from an automotive repair background.
“You don’t get the same wages being a mechanic and it’s a lot harder on your body,” he says.
In a previous manufacturing job Emerson ran a machine turning out thousands of identical parts. He says overseeing the production of a one of a kind piece is very different.
“Step by step, working the right pace and making sure everything is right where it needs to be before you go on to the next step. It’s a difficult mindset to get into for a production guy, but I think I’m getting it,” says Emerson.
Both Emerson and Maninos, say they like the variety in the work they do and the intriguing projects they’re turning out.
Maninos says he thinks a lot about the fact that something he’s creating in Vermont will be aboard the solar orbiter scheduled to blast off in 2017.