DURYEA – Mike Duffy has a problem, one that many businesses would welcome — he can’t keep up with orders.
But he’d like to, if only he could find the people he needs to design and build products for Keystone Automation, the company he founded in 1999.
“Right now we can’t take any new projects until the end of May because I don’t have anybody available (to do additional work),” Duffy said last week.
The company makes specialized machinery for use in a variety of industries, from food makers to pharmaceuticals. Keystone also markets its own products, including a bedbug oven for use in hotels, hospitals and other institutions.
“We’re familiar with a whole bunch of industries” from cosmetics to heavy manufacturing, Duffy said. That’s intentional, so that when one line of work slows, another can pick up the slack.
Duffy became fascinated with automated manufacturing while working for a now defunct Gould battery plant in Lackawanna County. He learned to program the machinery and later earned an associate degree in mechanical engineering from Penn State Worthington Scranton.
After working five years at a Scranton design facility, Duffy opened Keystone, first offering programming services for the computers that control automated manufacturing processes.
But, “I thought it was great idea to do mechanical design and fabrication,” not just provide services to other companies.
“It just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Duffy said, and the business now employs nearly 40 at its 21,000-square-foot engineering and production facility on Clark Road.
“We’re looking at 25 percent annual growth over the next few years,” he said, with a goal to reach $10 million in sales.
Now he could use a few more good people to turn out the work that includes designing and manufacturing specialty products for the military.
“The most difficult job to fill is an experienced mechanical engineer,” Duffy said.
He’s been looking to add a third position for more than six months with no luck, despite offering a six-figure salary.
There’s also a standing opening for someone with a background in machine mechanical design, which doesn’t necessarily require an advanced degree, but lots of real world experience.
In a way, Duffy brought the problem on himself. After relying on referrals for years, he had the company website redone by a design firm in Scranton.
“That was like flipping a switch,” he said, and now two or three leads a week arrive from website inquiries.
Manufacturing offers good jobs
Ron Maloney, president of economic development agency Penn’s Northeast, believes Keystone is part of an important local industry that may be at risk.
“I believe the base is still here; it’s still strong, it’s still desired,” he said. “But like everywhere else, manufacturing is in a precarious position.”
Maloney believes that’s due in part to ignorance of the good jobs available in the industry, as young people have been urged to get four-year college degrees in less demanded fields.
“If you learn how to operate CNC machinery of any type, you can go anywhere in this country and make $55,000,” he said.
Beyond the professionals with degrees, most of Keystone’s employees are considered technicians and many are homegrown, starting as delivery drivers and then trained into various positions in the shop.
Ken Okrepkie, regional manager at Ben Franklin Technology Partners, said Keystone Automation succeeds because Duffy and his staff aren’t satisfied to stand still.
“What (Duffy) does is see opportunities within a client company,” recognizing how a piece of equipment can add efficiency and profitability.
Then, without breaking confidentiality, he spots applications for something similar in another industry.
Duffy credits much of his success to the support Keystone has received from state government, Wilkes University and quasi-public agencies like the NEPA Alliance.
“Pennsylvania has the best resources for manufacturing in the country,” he said.
Beyond support and training, “you actually get leads from them,” added Bernie Andreoli, who heads Keystone’s business development efforts.