The robots are not trying to take over the world or put people on welfare, at least at one Bridgeville-area manufacturing plant. At Miller Metal Fabrication it’s an amicable partnership, with automated lasers and humans working in tandem over the past couple of decades to expand business and add jobs.
Business is good right now at Miller Metal — good enough that the company is planning a move from the rental property it now occupies to purchase nearby land and build a 60,000 square foot manufacturing plant. It’s an almost $7 million project, including state grants of $313,000 for required road improvements to the entrance of the property that will also benefit other area businesses, and about $208,000 toward the new building.
“We are getting ready to build a world class manufacturing facility,” owner and founder Marty Miller said Monday at a press conference in Bridgeville with Gov. John Carney and state and local officials in the company’s current building, which it leases from O.A. Newton along Route 13 north of town.
Miller Metal currently employs a little under 100 people (disclosure: This reporter’s father is one of them, and many other family members have worked there over the years). According to CFO Michael Elehwany, the company hopes to add around 25 jobs in the next three years with the expansion, six of which would come from consolidating the company’s Greensboro, Maryland site to the Bridgeville location. Depending on the jobs it adds, the company could get an additional grant of about $57,000.
The company has been growing and adding onto its current space here and there, but that’s not very efficient, said Marty Miller III, son of founder Marty Miller. The younger Miller works as account manager for the company. He said Miller Metal needs more work space, along with storage space for finished products and raw materials.
The company uses a number of automated laser machines and is looking to invest in a tube laser, which automates even more of the work and is able to do more complicated tasks. Where in some industries automation has cost a lot of jobs, Miller Metal has grown in tandem with automation so the process has been smoother. Using automation lets Miller Metal work more efficiently, Miller said, and frees up people to do more fulfilling work.
“When we robotically weld something, that’s usually a part that somebody is already sick of welding and they are ready (for it) to be moved on to a robot anyway,” he said.
“We develop and train our employees at every level to provide them with advanced IT skills,” Elehwany said Monday. “This translates into a higher skill set for our people, and a higher standard of living.”
On the factory floor, the company’s lasers efficiently turn sheets of steel into a wide range of metal parts for projects and industry in the region. That’s a casual sounding description in today’s science-fiction-meets-reality world, but if you stop to think about it, it still has the ability to startle: A machine cleanly and quickly slicing through steel using beams of concentrated light. The highly programmed machines dart around the metal at high speed, twisting and turning and changing angles as they dice it up per exacting specifications into industrial parts. For their part, workers program, monitor and maintain the machines, and help feed in the raw materials and process the newly shaped parts among other tasks.
The elder Miller credits embracing technology with the company’s rapid growth. In the old days, he said, the company was lucky to process 100 pounds of steel a day. Now, recent records show they’re processing about 45,000 pounds of steel a day at the Bridgeville site.
“Manufacturing is always one of the key parts of the economy that you want to see nurtured,” said Kurt Foreman, CEO of Delaware Prosperity Partnership, which is the state’s nonprofit economic development organization. Manufacturing is key because historically, manufacturing jobs pay well and bring outside money into the area, he said.
“(Founder) Marty has a great history of doing really cool things and being an important part of the area,” he said, and it can’t be taken for granted that companies are going to continue to grow and thrive always in the same area. One of the nonprofit’s missions is to keep businesses in the state.
That’s where the state grants come in. They also are intended to give businesses a boost. The idea isn’t to prop up a business in an industry that’s struggling, Foreman said, but to enhance what companies are doing.
“We’re looking for growth … that could be investment that leads to more taxes, that could be investment that leads to more jobs,” he said.
“I can’t think of a more important economic development project that we’ve done in my tenure as governor,” Carney said Monday.
“I’m convinced as a country if we’re going to be successful, we’ve got to make things here in the United States of America like we have for generations,” Carney said. “And that’s why I was so excited when I first visited this place to see the incredible work that all of you do here, the incredible vision of Marty. We talked a lot at that time about the prospects for expanding this plant, and that’s why we’re here today. And I just couldn’t be more excited.”
The elder Marty Miller took his skills working with tools and metal and built the business from the ground up. He started out working as a mechanic on farm equipment, Marty Miller III said, and also had a job working as a maintenance man. He decided to start his own welding business in the early 90s in Bridgeville, and moved on to building equipment.
“He’s got a very mechanical mind,” Miller said. For example, his father studied old style pretzel twisting machines and figured out how to make his own version.
Eventually, he moved the business to Harrington, and then down to its current rented spot north of Bridgeville in 2006, tweaking his business model and continuing to grow. The Greensboro site opened five or six years ago, Miller said. The company now works with clients around the U.S. and in Canada, according to Elehwany.
“Miller Metal is a classic American entrepreneurial story,” he said. “As a lifelong Sussex County resident, Marty Miller grew this company from a one-man job shop shop over 35 years ago to a world class fabrication company.”
In the time of COVID, supply chain and supply disruptions have left many industries scrambling, but Miller said their business is still going strong despite the price of steel tripling.
The timeline for the planned expansion hasn’t been finalized yet, but work could start as early as this year, he said.
His father joked, “The governor will not have to bug me anymore. He’s been after me for two or three years, when am I getting started. So we’re starting now.”