LOWER TOWNSHIP — In this modern age of fleeting digital things, the work of TMU Inc. seems almost magical.
Within the family firm’s large machine shop, hidden among suburban homes near the Cape May Canal, hard metal is transformed into literally any shape imaginable.
Several dozen machines — from very large to small, from quite old to brand new — cut, shave, drill, groove, grind and polish metal into the exact shapes needed by manufacturers, government agencies, ride operators and anyone else dependent on just about any precise metal part.
Owner Robert J. Bartle, of Lower Township, said one of his bigger customers is Jomar Corp. in Pleasantville, which needs all kinds of parts for the blow-molding machines it manufactures and sells globally to companies that make bottles and such.
At times, TMU — Tooling & Manufacturing Unlimited — has made complete machines itself. The largest, Bartle said, was a machine for Campbell Soup that can fill 1,000 cans of soup a minute.
Other orders come in for parts small enough to almost fit beneath your fingernail, he said.
The glass industry in Cumberland County is another source of customers, he said. Nipro Glass, for example, needs parts for machines that make vials, syringes, tubing and cartridges.
But the variety of jobs the business bids on and wins is almost as diverse as the mechanical creations around the world.
Last week, TMU was finishing up 6-foot pieces of stainless steel shaped a bit like propellers. Bartle said they will be used in a water turbine that will be put into a river in Africa to create electricity from its flow.
This ability to craft metal into any shape for almost anyone requires a large and varied assortment of machines, and a highly skilled and experienced crew of machinists to operate them.
The machine of choice these days is the Haas CNC, which stands for “computer numerical control.” Put your part design and specs into a California-made Haas, change the cutting heads and tools on it as needed, and it will carve away the unwanted metal from the part while a shower of cutting oil keeps the friction heat down.
Bartle said TMU now has 10 of these Haas machines. The newest and also the biggest, at 15 feet across, already has handled several jobs in its first weeks at the plant. It cost $150,000.
His first Haas CNC, acquired in 1999, has been used every working day since without any downtime, he said.
For some big jobs, TMU needs a much larger and much older machine, an SIP jig borer about a dozen feet tall and wide.
Bartle said the machine, Swiss made in 1942 and still running perfectly, is itself the epitome of machining ability, with all of its parts as precisely fitted as the workings of a watch.
TMU also has lathes with 12-foot beds, a hydraulic precision grinder, many other grinders, a sandblasting/glass-beading room, drill presses and a full welding shop.
For aluminum work, primarily fancy tops and railings for boats, TMU has another shop at nearby Heritage Towers, a boat outfitter.
Operating the company’s machinery requires skills that can come only from long training, apprenticeship and then time on the job.
Bartle grew up in the business, founded by his father in 1966, starting work at age 15.
He said he trained for years at a vocational/technical school in Camden County, served apprenticeships for four years, worked in the shop on all the machines and took additional classes at night school.
Even after all the training and apprenticing, “in the shop it takes you a good 10 years to really know what you’re doing,” he said.
His son, Mark Andrew Bartle, 34, of Lower Township, started even younger, at age 10.
Shop foreman Jimmy Szigeti, 54, of Green Creek, said he started work at TMU when he was 16 years old.
He, too, has blazed a career path for his son, Michael, who recently started work in the shop at age 17.
These skilled workers and their machines can do so much with metal that it’s almost easier to say what they can’t do.
While the shop makes parts for the Morey Organization in Wildwood, there are certain “life or death parts” on rides which operators are required to replace only with originals from the manufacturers, Robert Bartle said.
And for certain metal processes, such as chrome or nickel plating or sheet-metal fabrication, TMU farms the work to businesses in the Philadelphia area, he said.
In the recession and since, TMU “has had its ups and downs, like anybody else, but business was pretty good the last couple of years,” Bartle said.
This summer orders have slowed, which he said is an early indicator that a slowdown is ahead in the manufacturing sector, where the bulk of his customers are.
Machine shops in New Jersey haven’t gotten back to their levels of a decade ago, when American manufacturers were suffering less from work going overseas, especially to China.
In 2002, there were 531 shops in the state with 3,634 total employees, federal Labor Department data show. A steady decadelong decline reduced the number of N.J. machine shops to 390 last year, but the number of employees rebounded to 3,383 workers after hitting a low of 3,110 in 2010.
Total wages at private machine shops in the state have held up even better for the skilled work force, hitting a 10-year high of $184 million last year, up from $156 million in 2002.
The challenges of the future will be for Mark Bartle.
“He’s running the shop now. I’m demoting myself to a helper,” Robert Bartle said, smiling.
Without a third generation to take over, TMU might have contributed to the trend of good, big machine shops disappearing.
“I’m very fortunate,” he said. “A lot of guys my age or older have nice shops and just end up closing them. They don’t have anybody to take over.”
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