I think it’s fascinating that the company was founded more than 100 years ago to manufacture oil-impregnated wooden bearings.
Yes, we made them for the textile machine industry, since there were quite a lot of those factories here in New England at the time. They needed bearings that wouldn’t build up a static charge, because that would attract lint and lead to bearing failure. But we sold that division in 1965, which was the year after I’d joined the company. We’d already gotten into manufacturing powder-metal parts by then.
I was surprised to learn that you’ve been working with powder metal since the 1930s.
I think the technology had come over from Germany at that time, and Chrysler was really the big dog in the field. They had a product called “Oil-Lite” which they did a marvelous job of advertising on talent shows and things like that. It was a word that was on every tongue, sort of like Kleenex or Coca-Cola. Oil-Lite bearings were the first bronze oil-impregnated bearings, and we started working with similar materials as a nice companion piece to our wooden bearings. But powder metal soon became the centerpiece of our operation, of course. Those types of materials really hit their stride after World War II, especially in automotive applications. And while about 70 percent of all powder-metal parts are pressed for the auto industry, we decided to focus on the remaining 30 percent, which has worked quite well for us. We manufacture sintered powder-metal parts for things like powertools and recreational products, locks and security devices, fire-prevention equipment, and especially the HVAC market, for air conditioners and such as that.
I understand that your father, Nathaniel D. Clapp, joined the company immediately after the war, and then bought it a few years later.
That’s right. The company wasn’t in very good shape then, because there were all sorts of price controls in place during the war, and he was brought in to turn things around, which he was able to do. Then I joined the company right after I’d graduated from Brown University, where I’d studied sociology. I started off in sales and basically worked my way up through a variety of positions. And things have changed a great deal for us since that time. While we had about 150 employees then, we have about 30 now, but we’re still shipping the same amount of product, in terms of tonnage. And we’re able to do that because Wakefield is a very high-tech, state of the art manufacturing company. Our customer base has shifted, too, since many of them are now making their parts in the Pacific Rim, so we’re really focused on our customers here in the United States, and especially the Midwest. But we have customers in all of the lower 48 States.
In terms of materials, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen over time?
For gear manufacturers, there are some really nice alloys being produced via sinter hardening. These alloys come hardened right off the belt, which cuts heat treating and tempering out of the equation and leads to a significantly lower per-part cost. But over the last 30 years I think that one of the biggest advances has been in the area of pre-alloy steels, where each particle of powder is a little billet of the alloy that you’re looking for, so that’s very attractive. We also seem to be doing quite a bit of work with stainless steels these days, along with non-ferrous materials such as copper and brass.
U.S. economists seem to be hopeful — would you agree with their forecast?
DC: Since 2000 it’s been a rocky ride for everyone in manufacturing, but we’ve seen improvements this year. It hasn’t come back in a heated rush by any means, but we’re starting to feel better about things. It’s all about finding your niche these daysãways of setting yourself apart from the others. But with a 100-year history, I think we’ve managed to make something of a name for ourselves.