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Blunt Rochester seeks to strengthen supply chain for manufacturers

Katie Tabeling
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Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) talks with key figures in Delaware’s manufacturing sector on a stop Friday morning. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

NEW CASTLE — In the uncertain days that followed the COVID-19 pandemic, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) was struck by how fragile the country’s supply chain was.

It wasn’t just how quickly the United States government burned through its stockpile of personal protection equipment. When the entire world paused for weeks to assess how the coronavirus impacted business. When business and exports resumed, it was on a slower basis.

“It impacted lumber, driving prices up and with it the housing prices. We saw no baby formula on the shelves, or masks. I visited a sewer treatment plant and they were waiting on a single screw. All of these things have an impact on each other and our ability to thrive,” Blunt Rochester said.

Almost two years after Blunt Rochester toured Delaware to get a first-hand account of how supply chain struggles still shaped businesses, she stopped at Wilmington Fibre to see what has changed for small manufacturers. The tour comes on the heels of a supply chain roundtable with life science leaders and as the Building Resilient Supply Chains Act is up to considered by the House of Representatives.

“We can’t let up on making sure we have strong supply chains. It’s connected to lowering the cost of American goods, to making sure our health and safety are intact because we don’t know when the next pandemic will come. It’s also important to keep us competitive with the rest of the world,” Blunt Rochester told the Delaware Business Times.

Workers at Wilmington Fibre emboss and print images on thousands of guitar picks in a single day. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

The Building Resilient Supply Chains Act builds on top of Blunt Rochester’s Jobs Agenda bill package, which includes seven bills that combine workforce development, affordable housing and supply chain initiatives. In this specific bill, it would authorize $41 billion over five years to support grants, loans, and loan guarantees that support the diversification and expansion of domestic manufacturing supply chains.

But that’s not to say Blunt Rochester’s work on this has just begun. In 2022, she worked to help get the CHIPS and Science Act passed, which granted the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership (DEMP)  $400,000 to launch CONNEX Delaware, a business-to-business website portal to connect Delaware manufacturers, buyers and suppliers.

CONNEX Delaware launched in October, and Wilmington Fibre was among the first to use it. So far, the company has been using it to source machine parts and materials. While it’s in the early stages, Wilmington Fibre Vice President of Operations Dave Celli can easily see the future benefits.

“This can put it right in front of people at Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Getting your name out there is the hardest thing. For example, that sewer plant could have easily been a client of ours,” Celli told Blunt Rochester.

With close to 120 years in business, Wilmington Fibre has 23 employees working on custom non-metal fabricated parts and goods. 

But what the company is most famous for are guitar picks. Wilmington Fibre is capable of turning thousands of rolls and sheets of resin into roughly a million guitar picks per month. 

The resin is fed into a machine that literally stamps the resin through a die, or a specialized tool to cut or form it into a specific shape.

From there, guitar picks are run in supersized rock tumbler machines, each with drums the size of small barrels, to smooth out the rough edges. Once the picks are clean, they head to UV industrial printers for patterns and logos.

Wilmington Fibre manufactures thousands of guitar picks that can be customized, but major customers include the Guitar Center and Fender. But once in a while, there are some cool custom projects.

“It’s pretty awesome when you have Loretta Lynn’s sound engineer come in and request a job,” Celli said. “It can get real specific. We met with one of the members of AC/DC and he wanted to have a certain thickness.”

While the guitar picks are what Wilmington Fibre is best known for, the company can also make components for any industry like screws, plumbing washers or even electrical insulators to stop short circuits between rails and signaling equipment.

With the continuing workforce woes, Celli added it’s been a struggle to find experienced staff and get them to start. Some days, he’s had 10 candidates not show up for interviews. Other times, his hires find a different job with a higher salary. That proved to be a problem with getting the custom dies made.

“I couldn’t find customized people, and I was literally at my wit’s end,” he said. “It was just a revolving door. So we worked with DEMEP and they got someone in there to make the dies more universal.”

From there, Wilmington Fibre adapted and started to train up its existing staff and look for entry-level roles from Delaware Technical Community College or Delcastle Technical High School.

“We have one student that’s 10 years out of Delcastle, and he’s already a foreman,” Celli said.

Editor’s note: a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Building Resilient Supply Chains Act was part of the Jobs Agenda. We regret the error.

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