T.J. Culliton: NSK finds success in Southern Vermont

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Editor's note: This commentary is one in a series published by the Banner in connection with National Manufacturing Day, Oct. 4.

On a small hill in Bennington stands a rambling automotive manufacturing plant, known as NSK. Southern Vermont, although not normally known for automotive manufacturing, has been the home of the NSK plant, formally known as Nastech, since 1988. Nastech was originally started as a joint venture between Torrington manufacturing company and NSK. The Bennington location was chosen due to its close proximity to the Torrington facilities in Connecticut. The plant in Bennington has been fully owned and operated by NSK Corporation since 2000 and exists under the name NSK Steering Systems Americas: NSSA. There are two NSSA manufacturing plants in the US: one in Bennington, and one in Dyersburg, Tennessee. Ann Arbor, Michigan, is home to our corporate office including sales, marketing, purchasing and design engineering. The Bennington location, which employs approximately 300 people, is a small but strategically important portion of the total NSSA division and the NSK Corporation.

NSK, founded in 1916 in Tokyo, celebrates its 102nd birthday this year and continues to be a global leader in the manufacture of bearings and steering systems. There are twelve steering manufacturing plants located in seven different countries. NSK has developed strong relationships with the Japanese automotive manufacturers, which continue to make up a significant portion of our customer base. NSK currently supplies steering systems to Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Subaru and others.

The Bennington location has two distinct portions of operation. One is column or intermediate shaft assembly, where we take as many as 200 individual components and assemble them step by step in an assembly line fashion to complete a finished product. The product is then functionally tested in line to ensure full compliance with all design requirements. The second is more unique in that it specializes in what is called "pre-process" operations. This is true manufacturing where we take raw material, be it a tube or cylinder of steel, and we manufacture this raw material into something usable inside the body of a steering column or intermediate shaft. Many of these pre-process operations manufacture components with extremely tight tolerances holding dimensions in the micron level. High volume production utilizing "just in time" manufacturing principles keeps NSSA quite busy.

NSSA Bennington currently has hundreds of individual pieces of machinery on the shop floor ranging from small assembly tables to CNC machining equipment to larger forming machines. The larger forming machines run at a very fast pace and can manufacture many individual components every hour, ultimately completing forming operations on multiple millions of components throughout a year.

Manufacturing is a rapidly changing environment in the world today. The integration of automation and robotic computer control is quickly changing the layout of most modern factories. This also has a significant impact on the talent that is needed to run these factories. Manufacturing is actually continuing to grow in the US. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 240,000 new jobs were created in the manufacturing sector in 2018. What continues to be a hurdle is overcoming the skills gap which exists and will only get worse within the next decade. Strengthening the links with educational institutes such as the CDC here in Bennington and the local community colleges are key to ensuring the correct talent is available to continue to support manufacturing within the community for companies like NSSA. As the next generation of workers begins to enter the workforce, concepts such as automation, wireless control and programming or coding are not so intimidating. This generation has been exposed to these types of things their entire life. Many local elementary, middle and high schools now have basic coding classes that the students will take throughout their academic career. This relates to manufacturing in that this will ultimately result in a factory that can run more efficiently and at a higher rate than the ones that exist today through the benefits of technology. This is where we will gain our competitive edge.

Manufacturing is not boring and manufacturing is not low tech; actually, it is quite the opposite. Smart factories are utilizing more technology than ever in the past. Technicians and engineers can now monitor a machines operation remotely from their desk or via a Bluetooth link to their smart phone. Programmable logic controllers allow machines to perform the same functions over and over again without failure. Fanuc robots and their trademark yellow color can be seen moving and spinning parts and components from one process to another throughout the factory. Servo monitored feedback can educate the engineers and operators as to what is going on inside a CNC process for things that cannot be seen with the human eye. Automated gaging utilizing laser and air measuring instruments have taken some of the time out of properly gaging parts. This allows for increased output and improved part quality.

As the NSSA plant in Bennington continues to operate in our 31st year, we reflect on the many things that have changed throughout our history. Automation, robotics, gaging and their electrical connectivity are all new and continue to drive us forward. We cannot, however, forget what started us off in the first place: an excellent community with a great group of people who decided that they certainly could be successful in manufacturing automotive steering components in Southern Vermont. The people who make up NSSA and their dedication and determination are the heart of what keeps us going. These hard-working people allow us to keep safety at the forefront of our minds and quality in everything we do as we continue to move forward.

T.J. Culliton is plant manager for NSK.

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