EASTHAMPTON — In the 2008 Marvel Comics superhero movie “Iron Man,” the main character Tony Stark — an industrialist, weapons manufacturer and inventor — sits behind a futuristic computer, speaking instructions to the computer as it creates for him a precision-made mechanical suit of armor.
Most viewers probably marvel at the scene’s sharp graphics and futuristic computer, capable of building a machine on its own. When local machinist Chris Heon watches that scene, though, he has a different reaction.
“That’s just not realistic,” he said with a smile. Manufacturing machines still need people to operate them. And Heon would know.
For three decades, Heon has been working as a machinist at Easthampton Machine & Tool Inc., one of the region’s many precision tooling companies. And in 2014, he and his wife, Laurie, bought the business and have run it ever since, mostly making parts for other manufacturers’ production lines.
“Everything we do is local,” he said.
Easthampton Machine & Tool does an incredible range of work on its lathes, milling machine, deep-hole drill, grinders and other complex equipment.
Some days, that means making the end of a robotic arm that a local manufacturer uses to pick up stamped disks on its production line, or part of the device that threads candle wicks for Yankee Candle. Other days, the job is making a prototype for somebody who has an idea for a product — for example, the beekeeper they helped make a small heater for his hives.
Artists will drop by, too, looking for specialty items that the company is able to make.
“Their motto is: ‘We can do that,’” was how Easthampton resident Alan Elman described the company on Facebook earlier this year. The center brace on Elman’s 55-gallon aquarium broke in the middle of the night and the sides had begun to bow out. So he called Easthampton Machine & Tool, which quickly fashioned him a metal brace to hold the tank together, saving his living room and his fish.
“If you need a doohickey or a thingamajig fashioned out of metal … give these amazing people a call and they’ll make it for you for a fair price,” Elman says.
Most of the company’s work is for manufacturers who need a few parts and quickly; maybe their essential machine broke and needs a quick fix. Easthampton Machine & Tool doesn’t do large production runs. The company’s niche is being ready to do small runs for customers, many of whom they’ve worked with for decades.
Chris Heon is a graduate of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, and both he and Laurie Heon are big believers in vocational education. They said several current employees came to them as students through co-op programs.
“You always need the tradespeople,” she said. “People need stuff made.”
Easthampton Machine & Tool is located at 72 Parsons St. in the building that housed Trytko’s Market 25 years ago. (The company has also done work for Trytko’s , they said.) And the Heons, who have been married 33 years, live just down the street now.
“We love Easthampton,” Laurie Heon said. That’s why the company does some of the “neighborhood work” that walk-ins bring to them from time to time, even if it’s not profitable for the business.
The company’s bread and butter is making the precise and complicated parts that nearby manufacturers need, turning out components that have to be accurate to within the size of a strand of hair.
That’s what machinist Robert Lewis was doing inside the shop last week, using a machine known as a “knee mill,” which was programmed to drill the exact hole he needed on a dye holder for a local manufacturing company.
“This is a very involved process,” Lewis said, describing all the machines the piece would have to move through before it is exactly the required size and shape. He said he loves the work. “It’s making things with my hands … I’m always creating something.”
Loyalty to customers is important to Easthampton Machine & Tool. The Heons showed off their expansive inventory in a side room of their shop. They keep spare parts from past jobs for years and years, just in case a client needs the same job done again.
The business is also loyal to its machines, many of which have been at the shop for decades. Chris Heon showed off several that have been in the company ever since he was a machinist there, describing how they take care of them to ensure that they can keep working for years to come.
“I think there’s always going to be a need for this kind of machine,” he said.
Those looking for quotes can visit Easthampton Machine & Tool’s website.
Dusty Christensen can be reached at [email protected]