Mystic - You could say that Acme Wire Products is at a lacrosse road.
The custom wire fabricator, located in an 80,000-square-foot factory building near the Mystic train station, provided metal components that last year went into the new helmets of 150,000 lacrosse players nationwide. It's a growing market that has been a staple at Acme for more than two decades.
But now automation-equipment companies are clamoring for Acme's services as auto manufacturers add more gear ratios that require a machining process using wire brackets the company can provide. Acme just started a third shift this month in anticipation of ramping up production for automakers looking to increase fuel economy from their vehicles by adding more transmission speeds.
"It's a new area for us," said Michael Planeta, co-owner of Acme Wire with brother Edward Planeta Jr. and sister Mary Planeta Fitzgerald. "We see this as a major growth area for the next several years."
"We have to continually reinvent ourselves every few years," added Edward Planeta, Acme's sales director.
Acme's association with major automakers such as Ford Motor Co. is an exciting new opportunity for the Planeta family and its employees. But it continues a tradition of the company producing important products such as the metal stands upon which electronic components rest and the frame that holds air-pack canisters firefighters use as they rush into burning buildings.
"Most of what we do is not recognizable to the general public," said Edward Planeta. "It's unglamorous stuff."
"But necessary," Fitzgerald, Acme's president, added.
In a walk through of the factory, the siblings pointed out various work cells tackling a wide variety of projects, from wire forming to welding to powder coating, some of it done with robotic machines costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Many of the projects Acme tackles are ones they have done in the past, and when one production cycle has been completed it takes only about a half hour to set up the next one, company officials said.
Last year, Acme worked with about 100 companies. The manufacturer is busy enough, say Acme officials, that it generally requires a four- to eight-week lead time for production - often because of the necessity of designing and building new tools - though it can gear up for some jobs in less than a week.
"We are not a product-design company," said Fitzgerald. "We are a manufacturer."
Acme's "sweet spot" on the manufacturing side are products requiring wire between one-eighth and three-eighths of an inch in diameter. The company, which has just under 50 non-unionized employees, works with a variety of materials, including aluminum and titanium.
"We give our customers quality parts at a fair price," said Michael Planeta, in charge of the manufacturing side of the business. "We focus on specialized wire manufacturing."
The wire gene runs deep in the family.
The Planetas' grandfather, Rudolph, started Artistic Wire Products in 1930, but later sold the business. In 1970, Rudolph's son, Edward Planeta Sr., started Acme Wire Products in Norwich, moving the company to a former brownfield site in Mystic in 1979.
The majority of Acme's products are for the North American market, with only about 5 percent of their products being exported outside of the region. Its biggest market is for sporting goods, including protective face masks for players at major lacrosse schools such as Johns Hopkins and Syracuse universities, but telecommunications and electronic equipment manufacturing, medical-related uses and wireform components are other key areas.
The Planetas admit that Connecticut, with its high energy and labor costs, isn't the easiest place in the world to run a manufacturing operation.
Making it more difficult and limiting Acme's growth opportunities, they said, is the lack of a workforce skilled as tool and die makers, machinists and tool designers.
"This is a talent gap that metal fabricators throughout the country are facing as skilled personnel are retiring and aging out of the workforce and no one is coming through to fill the gaps," Acme said in a statement. "High schools are not promoting careers in manufacturing or technical skills - just college pathways. The local community colleges have not been aligned to our employment needs."
Despite the difficulties, Acme moves half a million pounds of wire through its factory annually and it has added a third shift for the first time in more than 20 years. The company also contributes regularly to a variety of charities and donates sports equipment to local schools.
And, though last year was below expectations, the family is confident that 2014 will see a turnaround, with big plans ahead to begin manufacturing protective gear for a new catcher's mask to be released in March.
Company officials admit they once considered a possible move out of state but eventually rejected the idea.
"This is where our lives are," said Edward Jr. "You plant your flag and make your stand. ... We just have to be better at what we do to make it work."