We Take the Wheatstone Factory Tour
of the more interesting aspects of editing Radio World Engineering
Extra is the occasional field trip to see some of our industry
leaders. In November I got the chance to visit Wheatstone Corp. in
the small town of New Bern, N.C. It is a classic, U.S.-based
manufacturing company: In one end come raw materials such as steel,
wood, plastic and electronic components. Out the other side, finished
products emerge as audio systems, consoles, routing switchers and
tour guide is the ever-hospitable and knowledgeable Phil Owens.
the broadcast industry has had its share of large corporations to
support its growth, it is also notable for the number of relatively
small and agile companies that have been important players over the
years. Many of these companies were founded by individual engineers
or inventors who saw a need in the broadcast business and moved to
mass-market industries, broadcasting is more of a boutique business.
Before consolidation, radio stations were all built one by one;
service and customization were essential requirements. Even today it
remains a business where purchases are most often made in small
Lasers are used to cut custom steel parts for consoles and equipment chassis.
Dimensions are finer and can achieve precision cutouts impossible for
a traditional steel punch press.
is a good example of just this style of manufacturing. Completed
items can often be traced back to the individual assembler that put
in the last screw or finishing touch. Each system is assembled and
tested individually before it is shipped to the customer. The exact
configuration of any system is flexible and can be specified exactly
as needed, whether a single studio with just a few faders or a set of
large control systems at the heart of an enormous multistation
consolidation. Interconnections can be analog, AES digital, Ethernet
or IP and in the exact number and type of each as ordered by the
customer. There is a range of customization available for even the
it sounds strange, customers are looking for a custom experience when
it comes to software too these days. By this I don’t mean that
customers want the ability to write their own code necessarily, but
they are concerned about the range of configuration choices and
options that used to be hardware-based and now are done via software.
The GUI is the new greenie tweaker.
good example of how this works in broadcasting occurs in audio
processing. The latest designs from Wheatstone feature literally
hundreds of controls that are settable in software. To help simplify
setup, Wheatstone offers a customization service that will develop
audio settings to your specifications. This is a subjective task and
one that can really only be done by people using their ears to listen
to the final product.
A Sample of an Aluminum Panel After CNC Milling
their audio processor lab, Wheatstone has available both new and
“classic” processors with both analog and digital exciters
coupled to modulation monitors. A customer can request a particular
sound, perhaps to match an existing model of processor with a
particular kind of music. Wheatstone can then work out the
configuration settings to match those requests in the lab before the
new processor ships.
IN THE LATEST
what did I see during my visit to the New Bern headquarters? There
was the latest in modern equipment for making surface mount hardware,
which transforms a computer file and spools of components into an
assembled card. A specialized camera system is used to take
high-resolution photographs of the finished boards that can detect
within thousandths of an inch if a component is misplaced or
mechanical parts there’s a laser steel cutter that can cut patterns
too intricate for a traditional punch machine. New to the floor was a
multi-axis CNC milling machine busily drilling patterns into aluminum
panels. In another corner, a computer controlled milling machine cut
out wooden chassis ends.
takes pride in deploying the latest and best technology available to
manufacture their equipment. This was apparent in how eager the line
workers were to show off what their equipment could do for an outside
visitor like myself. Their investment in technology has paid off in
high quality and higher productivity; according to President Gary
Snow, the output from this factory has more than doubled over the
last five years while the number of people required to run it remains
about the same.
IT’S MADE HERE
Milling Machine. Using a computer program and exchangeable heads,
this device, shown working on a set of module plates, can mill holes
and panel openings with precision to about 0.001 inches.
live, and have lived for more than 40 years, in cool and hilly New
England. Although originally dedicated to agriculture, my area became
the birthing ground of modern industrial manufacturing in the U.S. It
remains a strong part of the history and culture. The cities, towns
and countryside are dotted with the remains of these early factories,
which ranged from simple two-story fieldstone buildings into massive
brick structures hundreds of yards in length.
However, in recent
years it seems that when we speak about modern manufacturing it seems
the torch has been passed to other countries and overseas.
why it’s so refreshing to see a company like Wheatstone that is so
committed to making their products in the United States.
thanks to the kind staff at Wheatstone for their hospitality in
showing me around the factory floor and tolerating my endless
questions and interruptions. In particular thanks to Gary Snow for
making the tour possible, and Vice President of Engineering Andrew
Calvanese for an interesting conversation about the future of audio
And finally, my thanks to patient and helpful Eastern
U.S. Sales Engineer Phil Owens for shepherding me around so that I
would not miss anything. I enjoyed this tour immensely and was
impressed at every turn.
LeClair is chief engineer for radio stations WBUR(AM/FM) in Boston;
he has been technical editor of Radio World Engineering Extra since
its inception in 2005.
and place machine used to assemble surface mount component circuit
cards. This machine is capable of placing eight components per sweep
with an accuracy of 0.0001 inches. It is the beating heart of
electronics production at Wheatstone, part of a recent $2 million
investment in electronics assembly equipment.
quality control inspection of finished surface mount cards is done
photographically by this dedicated computer with specialized
high-resolution camera and software, which uses DSP to detect solder
failures or bridged components. The card is photographed in segments,
as shown, and any errors which require manual repair are highlighted
for hand assemblers to fix. Automated inspection of boards has
reduced board returns due to component placement errors to
module strip from the new LX series uses a new powder coat paint
process with the labels etched using a small laser. The result is
and more durability than obtained with
traditional silkscreen techniques.