While manufacturing is often associated with large-scale production, the majority of manufacturing companies have only a handful of employees.
Further, many are one-man or one-woman shops – such as iDesign Plastics of New Cumberland, a plastic components manufacturer run by one man, Shawn Whitmire.
Whitmire exited the military in 2015, and opened his shop in August of 2016 in a small warehouse in the borough.
“I had a friend who had a plastic fabrication business in Michigan, and I said ‘if you ever want to expand to the east coast, let me know,’” Whitmire said. “He sort of laughed at the idea, but then I saw him again at Christmas and he said ‘you know, we could actually do that.’”
As manufacturing technology has improved, the number of people necessary for production, and the average size of firms, has dropped – even though manufacturing GDP continues to grow.
In Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 survey, there are 12,799 manufacturing firms, of which 5,128 have between one and four employees.
For Whitmire, the key to his one-man shop is Computer Numerical Control, commonly known as CNC, which automates the fabrication of parts that used to be milled, carved, and bent by hand.
“We found a used five-by-ten foot machine in Louisiana and had it shipped up here,” Whitmire said.
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The CNC table allows Whitmire to manufacture complex parts, large and small – from tiny letters for signs, to components that take up the entire five-by-ten foot machining table surface.
Many of Whitmire’s orders, he said, are for other manufacturers, who need plastic guards and shields to go around their own manufacturing equipment.
“Think about the heavy plastic guarding that goes around a robot in a factory,” Whitmire said. “Engineering firms will come to me and say ‘we need polycarbonate panels cut to such a dimension to go in the frames around this device.’”
This also extends to other industries, such as guarding for electrical equipment used by power companies, and meat processing machinery.
The raw blocks and sheets of various types of plastics come from suppliers in Harrisburg and in Maryland, Whitmire said, although certain specialty plastics may need to be purchased directly from the chemical plant that makes them.
“I’ve also gotten materials from Texas, certain coatings that you have to get from very specific vendors who make them,” Whitmire said.
While this is currently a one-man operation, Whitmire said he could see it growing to the point where he hires additional fabricators.
“The hope is that we’ll grow to the point where we can bring some people on,” he said.