Phoenix Workbenches

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The Sun, Lowell Massachusetts
Lowell company makes high-tech

Sun Correspondent             

   Think workbench and you might imagine Dad or Uncle Joe puttering down in the  basement. But a Lowell company is  re- defining the concept and its product is definitely not your father's workbench.
   Phoenix Workstations designs state-of-the-art industrial workstations used mostly in electronic assembly industries, according to co-owner and Vice President Michael Thompson.
   A division of the family- owned, privately-held General Woodworking Inc., the  company recently won a contract to provide more than 1,200 custom workstations for Raytheon Co. in Andover.
   Raytheon had very specific requirements, but that didn't faze this company. "Our real niche is custom," Thompson says. "If you can think it, we'll make it."
   This is the "largest single contract" in the company's six-year his- tory, says Thompson, adding that competition was stiff: Phoenix went through an arduous five- month process, competing against four other manu- facturers before winning the order.
   Chris George, Ray- theon's section manager in process engineering, says the decision-making in- corporated direct input from 250 operators who spoke with the five vendors, completed surveys used to develop specifications and tested prototypes.
   The company, says George, wanted to "buy the best at the lowest cost" and looked at the ergonomics, practicality and adaptability of the stations used to manu- facture electrical equip- ment.
   Slated to arrive in stages at the rate of 50 a week, these workstations are "cutting edge, the next generation" in their fea- tures, Thompson says. George says the workers "are going to notice the improvement immediately in comfort, completion of tasks and having every- thing right in front of them."
   Ergonomically correct so the worker can adjust the height manually and electronically, the stations also are electrostatic  dis- sipative (ESD).
   This is a very important  feature for the assembly of delicate circuitry, explains Thompson, who has a master's degree in manu- facturing engineering.
   Thompson says that static electricity from the worker's body could ex- plode components. "it looks like a hand grenade went off." is how he de- scribes the result.
   The solution is using a high- pressure ESD lam- inate on the top of the workstation that wraps

Phoenix Workstations of Lowell just made it biggest sale, 1200 custom workstations it will ship for Raytheon Co. to use in its Andover plant. Shown with one of them is President Les Thompson, front, and Operations Vice President Michael Thompson.   sun  photo/cheryl a. miller

Shop foreman Fred St. Onge adjusts wires on a workstation at
Phoenix Workstations. The most sophisticated $2,000 ones made by the Lowell company come with hidden wire harnesses for the operator to plug into, 60-feet of external wiring and de-ionizers to remove static in the aid immediately around the operator.
around the edges too.  This specialized work surface brings the body's voltage down to that of the bench, which is also grounded.
   In fact, the benches sold to Raytheon have a con- tinuous monitoring system for the levels of voltage of the oper- ator and the path to ground. 
   "They beep and flash." Thompson says of the stations.
   Cost of these high-tech work stations, complete with hidden wire harnesses for the operator to plug into and 60-feet of external wiring and constant de-ion- izers to remove static in the air immediately around the operator, is about $2,000.
   The bench itself is "a steal," says Thompson. The major cost is the high-pressure laminate.
   With customers such as Honda, Hewlett-Packard and Digital in this country, and with sales abroad to Israel, Mexico, Costa Rica and China, last year, General Woodworking and Phoenix Workstations had combined sales of $8 mil lion and anticipate $9.5 million this year.
  Although this work- station is not your father's workbench, it was Thomp- son's father Les, the company founder, who decided that General Woodworking needed to expand.  The 20-year-old company had been manu- facturing tops for work- benches and office furniture -- "anything with a lam- inate," says Thompson.
   So instead of only doing work surfaces for other companies, the family, which includes Thompson's mother, two brothers and a sister in addition to Thomp- son and his father, (there is another sibling who does not work in the business) spun off the new division in 1992. Integrating its prior workstation expertise with metal working and finishing, the company crafts the custom stations -- both frames and surfaces for clients like Filtronic Comtek Inc. of Merrimack, N.H.
   At Filtronic Comtek's plant, workers make prod- ucts for cellular phone communications. Gary Morris, facilities manager, says they use the work-
benches for assembly 
 and testing and also require the ESD pro- tection on top of the bench.
   All the 300-plus work- stations in use at the Merrimack plant and in another Salisbury, Md., facility have been custom -- even down to color specifications -- something "unheard of in bench manufact- uring," says Morris. Some have overhead trolleys for tools.
   Phoenix, says Mor- ris, is "very customer oriented, very pro- gressive."
   Tony Longo, main- tenance supervisor at Bedford's Fuji Film, says the benches help with the work flow at the facility where workers load film into cartridges. Although those benches were not custom, Longo says in researching the product, he's found these are "the sturdiest benches" by far.
   A bare-bones economy bench sells for $300 and prices go up to $2,000, according to Thompson

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