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Defense, nuclear sectors keep York manufacturer 'quietly optimistic'

Written by Brett Sholtis/The York Daily Record | Aug 3, 2017 8:02 AM
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Mark Oberdick of York Township, an employee of Precision Custom Components for 13 years, welds an i-beam component. (Photo: Paul Kuehnel, Daily Record/Sunday News)

(York) --  When the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier was commissioned last week in Norfolk, Virginia, few people knew that part of it was made in York. Those who did know probably worked for Precision Custom Components. 

Exactly what parts were made at PCC is classified information, said Jim Stouch, the company's vice president of business development and sales. That kind of secrecy is common in defense industry manufacturing, and more than half of PCC's contracts come from the defense sector.

After years of job cuts among York County manufacturers, PCC is "quietly optimistic" about future growth, Stouch said. The 140-year-old company is banking on new technology -- and federal spending -- to make that happen. 

The company may never return to its high-water mark in the 1980s, when it employed 850 people, Stouch said. However, it is hiring.

Today PCC employs 190. That's about 100 skilled laborers, such as welders and machinists, as well as engineers, salespersons and managers.

Those employees work at the York plant that dates back to 1876, when it opened as S. Morgan Smith Company, making water wheels. 

In the same 8-bay factory that made turbines for the Hoover Dam and dry casks for spent nuclear fuel, these days the plant is banking on technologies that are still in development. 

Going nuclear

One part of the company's future depends on the success of nuclear fusion.

Fusion is a reaction in which at least one heavier, more stable nucleus is produced from two lighter, less stable nuclei, said Neil Sheehan, Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman.  

"Reactions of this type are responsible for an enormous release of energy, such as the energy given off by stars," Sheehan said. 

PCC has already made small nuclear reactor components, Stouch said, and that gives it an advantage over other companies for future contracts. "If small modular nuclear reactors are viable, because we've made them in our past, it's a good fit here."

PCC is part of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, a partnership between the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. It seeks to make nuclear fusion reactors. 

That technology is slated to begin its roll-out within 10 years, which means PCC -- and other area companies -- could see a business boom.   

 

Challenges remain

Still, there are threats to growth both locally and in government. 

"Since more than half of the business is defense related, its level of funding and consistency of funding is key," Stouch said. 

It's been five years since Congress has approved a budget on time, Stouch said. Those delays grind work to a halt at the plant, even after orders are in place.

If navigating D.C. sounds challenging, consider that the nuclear fusion project involves international politics, Stouch said. The past year has seen Britain pull out of the European Union. It's also seen Russia get hit with a new wave of sanctions. 

If anything, the project is one thing that keeps some communication going between those nations, Stouch said. "It's an ongoing challenge."

On the local level, it's also a challenge to find enough qualified employees, said Art Hendrix, vice president of human resources. As workers retire, the pool is shrinking for replacement welders and other skilled laborers -- especially those willing to work second shift. 

"The work ethic in this area is good," Hendrix said. "We're working with HACC and others to find people who have the right training."

 

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