By Bob Zaruta, President/CEO, NWIRC

My recent road trip to feature a regional manufacturer took me to Meadville – AKA Tool City, USA. In the 1980’s, a major decline in heavy industrial manufacturing unfolded in the Great Lakes region. Fortunately, the economic decline that resulted was offset by a surge in light industry, mainly tool & die machine shops, located in Meadville. This boom earned Meadville the nickname Tool City, USA and, for many, the branding rights as ‘the tool & die capital of the world’. It’s no coincidence that Pennco Tool & Die, founded in 1980 by Phil Passilla Sr., was out in front of it all. From its humble beginnings as a small grind and mill shop, Pennco has transformed itself over the years and has national recognition supporting the leading manufacturers in the country with close tolerance precision dies, gages, tooling, fixtures, assemblies, and custom machining solutions.

Picture of Cody Passilla, Phil Passilla Jr, and Casey Passilla of Pennco Tool & Die.
(L-R) Cody Passilla, Phil Passilla, Jr., and Casey Passilla

In 1985, the 2nd generation of the Passilla family came on the scene with Phil Jr. joining his father in the business. In 1998, seeing an opportunity to expand, Phil Jr. led Pennco’s entrance into the world of wire electrical discharge machining. Wire EDM cuts or removes metal material using electrical discharges between two electrodes creating spark that produces intense heat (8,000 to 12,000 degrees Celsius). Add adaptive machine control that maintains a constant discharge and Wire EDM remains to this day a highly valuable process to cut a wide range of hard, thick, and thin materials with less waste.

With a vison and sound strategies for growth in mind, it’s no coincidence that Pennco Tool & Die also diversified and entered new markets including medical, the company’s largest business sector today, aerospace, electronics, and telecommunications. When I met with Phil Jr. and asked him what’s in his recipe for success, he spoke about their willingness and abilities to take on the most difficult work, the work others look to avoid. He went on to say that this approach to business growth “helped us to get in the door, establish a relationship, and prove ourselves.” Add their differentiation in equipment, highly skilled employees, high-quality, and on-time delivery, and you’ve got their value proposition.

Now, the 3rd generation is on the scene at Pennco with the addition of Phil Jr’s. two sons. Casey is the Improvement Manager, Hard Mill Supervisor, and Cody is the Business & Development Manager. Again, no coincidence, they are already helping to shape Pennco’s future with increased emphasis and investments to expand the company’s CNC capabilities with the latest technology and automation. Last year the Passilla’s acquired a building on Baldwin Street (formerly the Hite Company) and after several months of renovations and plant set up, their brand-new Mill Turn Fab facility is open for business.

Photo of Pennco Tool & Die; with sign 'we hired a Crawford Tech' graduateAfter meeting with Cody and his father at their main location on Mead Ave, we headed over to check it out. Wow, what an impressive first impression immediately upon entering the front door. From the foyer, through a large opening, you can see their new DMG Mori 5 Axis CNC and Vertical Mills running. I immediately thought how impactful this first sight would be on visitors. Certainly, for prospective customers, but also for potential employees. Especially students or young adults who are unaware of today’s advanced manufacturing environments, who are looking for exciting work and rewarding careers.

The rest of my tour was equally as impressive, and included meeting a young man, Hunter Craig, operating a CNC mill. Hunter was one of students featured on “signing day” at Crawford Tech and is somewhat of a local celebrity having been interviewed by media about his new job. He was all smiles when we met and when asked what he liked most about his job, he responded with excitement in his voice, “the variety of work”.

Phil Jr. has been a long-time champion for education and training of the next generation of manufacturing talent. Crawford Tech is a critical component for success and Phil Jr’s commitment and support for the school is well known and appreciated in the community. He serves as the Chair of the Precision Machining Advisory Committee and proudly displays the sign outside his buildings denoting their hiring of Crawford Tech graduates.

A week after my visit to Pennco, I had the chance to see Phil Jr at the Iroquois Club for, what else, a special event for Crawford Tech “Revitalizing a Technical Workforce for Our Companies”. A large crowd of over 100 were on hand to hear about the multi-media and multi-phase marketing and branding campaign to promote exciting jobs and rewarding career opportunities for graduates of the precision metal program at Crawford Tech. All made possible through the support of the Lang Family and Ainsworth Foundation.

It’s very apparent that ‘Tool City’ will continue to thrive because of industry working together, with others in the community, to attract and train the next generation.