Robert Basso applies well-honed engineering skills to automate specialized manufacturing processes.
His innovative concepts have benefited makers of fishing rods, golf shafts and aerospace components over several decades, and his ideas have resulted in the establishment of domestic and foreign factories to make polymer matrix composites.
Basso, president and owner of Century Design Inc. of San Diego, has been selected to receive the 2002 J.H. ``Jud'' Hall Composites Manufacturing Award. The selection was announced July 31.
He is practical, flexible and a realist.
Since a recent diversification, his firm supplies systems to repackagers of optical media and magnetic tape.
``To me, that is a growth business, while composites is a leveling-off business,'' he said in a telephone interview. The repackaging niche ``represents more than a third of our business.''
Century Design's Web site advertises equipment to remove polymer shrink tape, typically after a composite rod or shaft is cured in an oven.
The firm made its first shrink-wrap-removal system in 1973. A few years ago, a major repackager inquired about the technology's application to media and tape packaging. Vendors were removing shrink film manually from millions of digital versatile discs and compact discs returned for repackaging each week because of a wrong price or label, Basso said.
``We build machines to remove shrink wrap at production speeds of 80-100 per minute, revolutionizing the returns industry,'' Basso said.
For skeptical repackagers, Basso demonstrated the capability in his plant and guaranteed the equipment's performance.
Basso received a mechanical engineering degree in Massachusetts, relocated to the San Diego area in 1952 and worked as an aerospace tool designer.
He bought a small airplane in 1954 and, for several years, commuted by air from his home at the end of a Chula Vista housing tract to his job adjacent to the San Diego airport. The longtime pilot often flies his current Piper Navajo to domestic customer locations.
His Ryan Aeronautical supervisor suggested Basso set up a garage shop - which eventually became Century Design - because other firms could use his creative technical knowledge.
In 1972, Basso formed a sister business, Carbonite Corp., to manufacture graphite fishing rods and golf shafts. He experienced nearly instant success. Creating the graphite golf shaft ``was quite impressive, but not without its problems,'' he said. Incorrect fiber orientation resulted initially in bent shafts. He found a way to straighten the shafts en route to resolving the orientation issue.
3M Co. of St. Paul, Minn., acquired and relocated Carbonite in 1974, and Basso subsequently confined himself to making equipment and creating turnkey factory capabilities.
Basso has concerns about the composites industry and is disappointed to see domestic production going to low-cost Asian companies.
In 1972, each carbon-fiber-reinforced shaft sold for $60, but now each Asian-made shaft sells for less than $3, he said. ``There is almost no way to do that'' domestically, with material alone costing almost $3.
``I see a substantial leveling off of our advanced composites industry,'' Basso said. ``I don't blame the manufacturers for going overseas,'' with current restrictions and inspections.
``It is extremely difficult to be a manufacturer in the U.S., and worse in California,'' he said. ``Complying with everything is the hard part. Automation helps, but it doesn't create jobs.''
Century Design employs 18, occupies 23,000 square feet and had 2001 sales of $4.8 million.
The Composites Manufacturing Association of the Dearborn, Mich.-based Society of Manufacturing Engineers will present the Jud Hall award Sept. 26 in Atlanta during Composites 2002, organized by the Composites Fabricators Association. The CMA award is given annually and recognizes an individual for leadership, technical developments, patents or educational activities.
In 1998, SME presented Basso with an Eli Whitney Productivity Award.