Connecticut has a long tradition of innovation: The sewing machine, the vacuum cleaner, and the color television were all invented in this state. But innovation isn’t necessarily defined as a major breakthrough; it can manifest as a new twist on a conventional product or device. Imagine the world saddled with the first version of the cell phone, that clunky L-shaped brick with the telescoping antenna that weighed more than four pounds and could run you a couple of grand. Fortunately, the wizards at Apple and Samsung continued to enhance those early models, ultimately turning phones into radios, remote controls, and watches, making the cell phone a constant work in progress.
That same spirit of ingenuity thrives here in Connecticut in some less high profile pursuits. I spent the past seven months touring factories and labs all across the state to survey what foods and pharmaceuticals, devices and defense systems are being made in Connecticut. While the products manufactured here range from tortilla chips to baseball bats to surgical instruments, the owners and operators of these businesses all share a similar philosophy on how to survive in the cutthroat climate of today’s global market.
Curtis Packaging, based in Sandy Hook since 1845, started out designing fancy combs and buttons. The trendy accessories were fashioned out of horse hoofs, antlers, and horns because the husbandry industry was booming in that corner of Connecticut and New York . The fragile items had to be shipped in what was called a “set-up” box, which the company made from rigid cardboard to ensure safe transport. After 50 years in the button business, the company’s supply chain dried up when the cattle industry moved to the Midwest. Curtis had to reinvent itself or close up shop so it morphed into a packaging company, making boxes for spaghetti, oil lamps, and ice cream cones. In the late 90s, some of its major clients started to outsource overseas to cut costs and Curtis had to adapt yet again, finding its niche in luxury and environmentally conscious packaging. The company is now an industry leader and boasts trendy, top-flight clients such as Titleist, Alex and Ani, Godiva, and Diageo – the makers of Crown Royal.
The Whitcraft Group was founded in the 60s as a manufacturer of jet engine parts. Fifty years later, the company that’s headquartered in Eastford – tucked away in Connecticut’s Quiet Corner- is one of Pratt and Whitney’s major suppliers. Orders for Pratt’s revolutionary PurePower Jet Engine have taken off, with 6000 new engines set for production early next year. This means that suppliers must also ramp up their operations to meet this unprecedented demand. While Whitcraft beat out companies in China, Taiwan, and Turkey for its contracts, the company’s been forced to find ways to streamline the manufacturing process so that it can maximize profits. The entire factory floor has been reconfigured to improve efficiency. Raw materials are now located next to each work station to cut down on production time and engineers have designed smaller, mobile machines so technicians don’t have to walk far between operations. While these may sound like minor changes, every minute equals money as the company fights to stay competitive.
LISTEN TO YOUR CUSTOMERS
Silex Medical in Southington knows it’s the little guy in the huge world of surgical instrument makers. What matters most to owner Carlos Lara is the close relationship he’s fostered with his hospitals and their surgeons. He’s constantly listening to doctors who use his laparoscopic instruments, designing his devices based on their recommendations. After a recent trade show, female surgeons complained that the instruments on the market were too large for their hands so Lara went to work on a smaller version to accommodate them. The new instrument is in the final stages of FDA approval and will be on the market in the coming year. An added bonus for his clients, Lara says he can deliver his devices quicker than the competition because all of his parts are made in Connecticut.
The common ingredient among the innovators in Connecticut I met is the ability to change with the times, whether it’s by reinventing the company to meet a new market need or just improving efficiencies in the manufacturing process.
You can watch my segments by clicking here: Made in CT.
Christina DeFranco, Environmental Journalist | CT Documentary and Video Producer