Built on People

Astro Machine Works
Written by Ryan Cartner

Astro Machine Works is a comprehensive machining and fabrication facility that specializes in custom machine building, machined parts, and fabrication. With more than three decades of experience serving a diverse range of industries, and a team of highly qualified experts – some having been with the company since the very beginning – Astro has truly become a complete solutions provider.
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Throughout its history, Astro Machine Works has often chosen to take the path less traveled, and its immense success is a glowing testimonial to its capacity for innovative and out-of-the-box thinking.

The company was started in 1984 in Ephrata, Pennsylvania with a clear vision to build a business that encouraged people to achieve the full breadth of their potential. The leadership at Astro believed that promoting a culture of teamwork, where relationships were built on trust and integrity, would result in a stable workforce and quality workmanship. After 33 years of building on this foundation, the company has seen a great deal of success.

In the beginning, the company purchased an existing machine shop from a business owner who was retiring and worked out of that facility for two years. In 1986, Astro purchased industrial property, built its first building and moved the operation into it. Today, this facility performs machining and painting, and houses its corporate office.

Since building that first structure, the company has seen steady expansion. In 2009, Astro built a second facility for large machining and welding, and in 2015, the company renovated and began using a third facility for additional machining, the engineering department, an assembly shop, and a wire EDM (Electrical Discharge Machining) operation. This year the company is expanding the building it built in 2009, doubling the size of its welding, fabrication and large machining departments. Altogether, Astro has 100 employees working out of a three building campus totaling 75,000 square feet.

One of the keys to the success of the company is its effort to take proper care of its workforce. Astro pays above average wages, offers an exceptional health insurance package, and provides additional financing for safety equipment, prescription glasses, and more. It recognizes that quality work comes from having a close team that has learned over years to work together, and so the company rewards longevity by offering a bonus to employees every five years.

While all of these features help to keep a motivated workforce, the company leadership feels that the most important thing they’re doing to keep their people happy is the use of a system they call Open Book Management. This means that the company makes daily, weekly, and monthly financial reports available to employees. This is a relatively unique approach among machine shops; these types of businesses tend to be very fragmented and so management teams often keep the financials close to the vest. Astro, instead, provides consistent metrics to the entire employee base. “Every month, when the previous month is reconciled, the sales are updated,” says Eric Blow, President of Astro. “We provide information that shows where every single dollar of the previous month’s revenue was spent. It’s complete transparency, 100 percent with the exception of individual wages and individual health issues.”

This approach helps to keep everyone engaged and invested in the quality of the work they do. Taking it a step further, the company has implemented a very innovative bonus structure. “Everybody is in the same bonus pool, including myself as a company officer,” says Blow, “so we sink or swim together, everyone’s rowing in the same direction. If we have an off year and they don’t get a bonus, I don’t get a bonus either. That’s the way we want it.”

Through these unique policies, Astro has fostered a very team-oriented, collaborative, people-centric culture where employees feel a responsibility to the team and take great pride in the work they do. When everyone is watching the bottom line, everyone is accountable to everyone else. Shared rewards for shared success make for a very productive and efficient work environment, and the company takes half of its net profit minus all taxes owed and other ancillary expenses and puts that into the bonus pool. “In essence, we make a lot more money by giving half of it away,” says Blow.

The company has attained ISO9001:2008 certification, signifying that its quality management system meets international standards and regulatory requirements. It has also been AS9100C certified which demonstrates a level of quality acceptable for aerospace applications. Beyond this, the company performs frequent evaluations for PPAP (production part approval process), APQP (advanced product quality planning), and FAI (first article inspection). These certifications and evaluations ensure the quality of the products that Astro produces, but beyond these standards the company also opens its facility to customer visits and audits, extending its philosophy of transparency to clients as well.

As we here at Business in Focus well know, a prevailing challenge in the manufacturing industry across the board is a shortage of qualified workers. Young people are not taking up trades at the rate necessary to replace the retiring workforce. One of the ways in which Astro is working to overcome this obstacle is by investing in the capacity to train new people with less experience, and then refocusing its recruitment efforts on finding dependable people with a good work ethic. The company has aligned with Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology and has become the largest employer of the college’s graduates in any of its majors. Through these innovative recruitment efforts, and through the internal employee retention efforts that make Astro a life-long career destination for employees, the company is beginning to overcome a difficult obstacle that has haunted the industry in recent years.

In fact, in ten years the company has quadrupled its sales by merely doubling its workforce. As Astro has grown it has become more efficient, more productive, and its reputation for quality work demonstrates that nothing has been sacrificed to achieve these heights. In 2006, the company had fewer than 50 employees and earned just shy of $7 million in sales; in 2017, with one hundred people, it will see just shy of $26 million in sales.

To be sure, the breadth of applications for which Astro manufactures equipment is immense. The company has built machines for a diverse collection of industries including medical, pharmaceuticals, food processing, energy, aerospace and defense, and many more. Astro machinery has been used for the manufacture of confectioneries, snack foods, automobile batteries, ceiling tiles, flooring, and boating and aircraft components, and these represent only a small selection of the vast spectrum of equipment the company has built. “It seems like in every corner of the world we’ve touched something,” says Brian Hess, Sales and Marketing Manager at Astro. “We’ve made parts that go into tsunami detecting buoys in the ocean, and we’ve made parts that went up on the International Space Station.”

The company is built on a foundation of seven core values that flow through every aspect of the operation. Commitment refers to the company’s pledge to consider employees, customers, and community in every action. Compassion takes this further in an effort to have an earnest appreciation for each other. Innovation means nurturing creativity and embracing new technologies to maintain a competitive edge in a fast-evolving industry. Integrity is about honesty in how the company deals with one another, whether internally or with clients and other partners. Quality is about craftsmanship and pride, something the company has made an incredible effort to cultivate organically through the implementation of these very values. Respect is about treating others the way you want to be treated; it’s the heart of the company and it has been a driving principle from Astro’s genesis. Finally, everything depends on a commitment to teamwork and a culture of collaboration. Even this list of company values was created by the workforce itself through a companywide initiative where employees defined what values were important to them. “Now, we have a concept that everyone can own and embrace,” says Blow.

Machine shops and mechanical contractors are common, certainly. There are hundreds of shops operating out of the same region as Astro, making it a very competitive business to be in. As a result, the company has had to find a way to differentiate itself in order to succeed. The path Astro has chosen is unique. Rather than building a traditional company, it has focused its efforts on building people and allowing those people to build the company for themselves. It’s a business built on trusting people to be the best that they can be, and Astro’s success is a true testament to the quality of its people.

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