Podcast A Family Legacy Of Product Innovation

Podcast: A family legacy of product innovation

June 9, 2023
In this episode of The Tool Belt, Dawn Massa Stancavish, Massa CEO, explores how custom engineered sensors and transducers find application from plants to submarines and bowling alleys.

Massa Product Corporation engineers and manufactures sonar and ultrasonic products for use in ocean, air, and fluids. Founded by the man who pioneered the field of electroacoustics 75 years ago, Frank Massa, the company specializes in solving problems in various fields and environments.

Massa transducers and sensors have been operating in air for industrial non-contact distance measurement applications for over sixty years. The company has designed hundreds of devices for use in many applications including liquid and bulk level monitoring, vehicle collision avoidance, distance measurement, web break detection, and tensioning. Massa technologies also function as “the eyes and the ears for naval ships and submarines to protect the US coastline with our undersea technologies.”

Dawn Massa Stancavish recently spoke with Plant Services editor in chief Thomas Wilk about the wide range of applications for ultrasonic technologies.

PS: Thanks for being here. It's interesting, when I moved into this sector of industry, I think I underestimated the amount of Navy and Coast Guard veterans that are part of the maintenance and reliability in industrial operations mindset. And so I'm excited to talk with you today about you, your company, and your experiences.

DS: Oh that's terrific, thank you, we definitely support all of the Armed Services ourselves and with our products, so it's great to help them at sea with our sonar, but also when they transition out into other industry with sensors and products that they might need to do whatever it is they're doing.

PS: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work at Massa. I know that the company's been family held for a while, so maybe we could talk about that legacy of the company, and what you're up to these days.

DS: We're a third generation family business – I'm the third generation. My grandfather and our founder Frank is considered the father of modern sonar because in his early days as an engineer he led the group of engineers that helped advance the field of sonar and sound and acoustics as an engineering applied science. He also coauthored the very first textbook in the field called Applied Acoustics in 1934.

PS: Fascinating. Wow.

DS: He went on to do all kinds of things in air as well as under water. How he got into the underwater was kind of funny, because his friend from the RCA days (by now he's moved on and he's over at Brush development company at this point in his career), his friend had joined the Navy and was Naval Reserves, and we were starting to get ready to enter World War II. The German wolfpacks were attacking our ships in convoy and one of his counterparts from RCA that was out in the Navy dealing with this problem was trying to waterproof a microphone, sticking them went in the water to see if they could hear what's coming their way and stop attacks from happening.

It wasn't working, so he called up my grandfather and sent one to him. My grandfather took a look, knew how to solve the problem, and went to his boss. His boss did not want to go into business with the Navy, decided it would be too much red tape and take too long. And they had a great business going because at Brush they were doing a lot of phonographic pickups and radios for cars that were not using rare earth metals. The War Production Board had already banned the rare earth metals, but these were based off of Rochelle salt. Their business is booming, and he's like, what do you want to do that for, they're just going to take forever, so he said no. But my grandfather said, I've got to help my friend out. He did on his own money, his own time, created a product, sent it as a prototype for his friend to test, and forgot about it.

Then the war production board cut vacuum tubes for all commercial industry and then all of a sudden they were thinking, there goes our business. My grandfather’s friend called him back up around the same timeline and said, that thing you sent me works great, I can pick up the torpedoes, we need a lot of these. So we negotiated a $10 million contract over the phone in about 1940, which is unheard of today.

That's how he got into business with the Navy and they attracted the attention of an Admiral Furer who was in charge of working with industry. Right before World War II is similar to where we are now in a sense, because there's a lot of things going on in the world and we're trying to prepare and build up our workforce. We had a workforce in World War II but we were not building for the Navy or for the Armed Services as much as we needed to, and then it was a short period of time ramping up towards the war, and then during the war that we suddenly beefed up all the manufacturing.

Today, and I'm sure some of listeners can identify with this, what we've done over years and years and years is that we've shipped manufacturing overseas. We've encouraged our children to go to college and we then were hit with a global pandemic that killed a lot of industry and a lot of suppliers, or harmed them. Small businesses went under across the country, talented people decided, hey, it’s time to retire, and then companies had trouble hiring new folks. Back in the same time frame, right before World War II, they had the workers, but they didn't have all the products. It's interesting how history repeats itself, but kind of changes itself a little bit too.

My grandfather was pulled into a committee where at the first meeting it was Admiral Furer, and he was in charge of working with industry to advance production of products for the war. He put my grandfather in charge of being the industry person to oversee the advancement of sonar transducers, and he designed over 200 of them, 150 of them or so went into production, and they built thousands of them in a 3 1/2 year period. I think what happens when you have these kinds of ramp-ups is that when you're innovating, whether it's for the Navy or not, you have other products that come out of it. If you look at what happened when NASA, when they were doing the space shuttle programs and other innovative programs, they came out with all these other products like Tang and all these other things that you wouldn't think would come out of a program like that. But that's how innovation works.

So I feel that it's an exciting time again where there's a lot of need to build up for the military needs with the announcement for submarines, where they're trying to build two Virginias and one Columbia. But companies like mine where we have a business in plants and sensing and water and wastewater and automation and all these other avenues and oceanographic as well, when we cover all these different market spans, we also have the defense business. When we're building up innovations that way, we also are building up innovations in other areas and it provides fantastic opportunities for creativity, new workforce development, and new products. I think it's a really good time, and it's a time where people are focusing more on manufacturing in America again, which I think is also great.

PS: I hear you, I think a lot of us are trying to figure out how to negotiate the big reshoring and find the right kind of skill sets to staff up plant teams to handle all the new business. Part of what I find fascinating about Massa as a company is just what you said, where you got a variety of customers from the U.S. government and the Navy. The thing is, with U.S. submarine work, you've got strict quality control measures and guidelines to follow – five nines on a submarine really matters when you need it to be that reliable – and that your commercial products follow those same guidelines, correct?

DS: Yeah, and it's really important to say it that way, the way you did Tom. We have the same team here, we're very integrated at Massa: we are about a third engineering, a third production, ad a third business administration. In engineering we have three types of engineering: we have acoustic engineers, electronics and software engineers, and mechanical and production engineers. And when we're innovating, all those engineering groups are working together, and production. engineering is involved with it.

Then when we shift it over to manufacturing, production engineering is also following it along, so we have this really solid control policy. We have QC coming in at different points throughout this whole process to guarantee that the product is not losing anything and is meeting what we need for our standards. If we have this quality proven technique in place for the military, why would we do anything different for industry?

We have the same engineers working on multiple programs here. A lot of larger companies don't do that, one group will be doing one program and another group will be doing another program. We have the same people doing multiple programs, and occasionally there'll be some people focusing more heavily in some areas than others, but the same people are always involved and brought up to speed for continuity, repeatability, and learning. That's another piece that's woven into the fabric of all that we do. Learning is key, because people that think that they know it all aren't going to do a good job. People that are closed to learning aren't going to do a good job, and it suffers in the product that you manufacture. As a small business, Massa is a family name and it's our name, so we care a lot about what comes out, because if they say the Massa product fails, they're saying that what we created is no good and that's just not acceptable to us.

PS: One of the characteristics of the company is that products are designed and engineered all in one facility, which lets Massa work directly with clients who may have either a broad application or especially a niche application. Your team builds the product, the transducer from the ground up with that customer, correct?

DS: Yes, we have off the shelf products, but we've been on contracts, and we also will work with customers that there's products out there that they've tried, that have failed their expectations or they're too expensive or they're too cumbersome, or they're just not meeting the needs, or they're having to use multiple products to get the same end results. What we do, which is different than a lot of other folks, is in those situations we talk with them, our customers, whether it's a Navy or anyone else, if it's industry. What is your actual desire, what's that end-sensing need, and we try to understand what that is. Then we create the transducer portion of the sensor to do what it needs to do acoustically first, and then we design the electronics in the signal processing, and what you have at the end of that is a lower-cost product that is higher value and higher reliability.

The total product itself might cost more than some cheaper sensor, but it's going to be a better value and not fail you, not break down, it's going to give you the exact sensing needs that you require for your job. So the overall cost is a lot less, and the time and aggravation of your team is also not wasted and acquiring hidden costs.

We've seen in the air ultrasonics world, products fail because of being overdesigned on the electronic side and not well produced on the acoustic side. And we've also seen things fail not because of any of that per se, but just because of a lack of understanding of how the technology and how the product needs to be designed to survive in a given situation. Sometimes it's not the technology, but it's the housings and the other materials and the vapors and things that need to be discussed and assessed. A business like mine is able to talk with customers, come up with solutions for those situations where, if it's just some off the shelf product from some really large company, good luck with that.

PS: I like your phrase “designed to survive,” I think a lot of our listeners are familiar with reliability and that specific meaning where you try and extract the most value from the asset over its life, and so even a higher up-front cost becomes lower over time if you can run that asset and operate it and make sure that the asset’s life extends far beyond a similar product.

DS: That's 100% correct. Also if there's something that is a product of ours that it's working for an application and one aspect, but might be failing in another, it means that it's worth a conversation to explore what's actually going on. It's not one-size-fits-all and to modify something we have if there's a market for it is pretty straightforward for us to do. There have been different things throughout our history where we've found that we could put a new design into the world and it's like the same sort of thing with the iPhone in the sense that it's hard to believe life without it.

One of those things in our early history was we created and produced … we outfitted over 25,000 bowling alleys with the acoustic array sensors that were the very first automatic bowling scoring systems, and we did it with acoustics. Before that, they had somebody looking and counting the pins, writing it down and that was the score. We created a product that we didn't know that application was out there, and we're always looking for new bowling alleys, so to speak, but with other with other areas.

We're excited because two new products are under alpha testing right now, so once they're through with these companies, they will be co-branded. We partnered with some businesses that are known for being the leaders of what they do in their field, and they just partner with us for these products because, they're not sensor manufacturers, we are. And so I'm going to go to partner with someone that can give you quality reliable top notch sensing. Let's go to the people who've been here since the dawn of the industry.

PS: That's great. As a quick aside, you're talking to somebody who's part of a multi-generational bowling family, so my father's going to be really excited to learn that I talked to the woman leading the company who developed bowling sensors like that. He'll be really excited.

DS: Yeah, that was, that was my dad's program way, way back. Side note on that: I was a little girl when they were doing it, and we had a makeshift alley in the back for testing, and I'd come in and be like, why can't I have my birthday party here? We have our own private bowling alley!

Read the rest of the transcript

About the Author

Thomas Wilk | editor in chief

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University

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