NEW BERN, N.C.
the more interesting aspects
of editing Radio World Engineering
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 audio processing.
While 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 fulfill it.
|Laser 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.
Unlike mass-market industries,
more of a boutique business.
radio stations were all built
one by one; service and customization
requirements. Even today it
remains a business where
purchases are most often
made in small quantities.
Wheatstone 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 multi-station 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 smallest systems.
Although 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.
|Pick 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.
A good example of how this works in
broadcasting occurs in audio processing.
Wheatstone’s latest designs 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.
In their audio processor
lab, Wheatstone has available
both new and “classic”
processors with 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 the configuration
settings to match those requests in
the lab before the new processor ships.
|This 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 dramatic
contrast and more durability than obtained with
traditional silkscreen techniques.
So 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 improperly soldered.
For mechanical parts there’s a laser
steel cutter that cuts 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.
Wheatstone 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.
|CNC 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.
It seems that when we speak about
modern manufacturing the torch has been
passed to other countries and overseas.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a company
like Wheatstone so committed to
making their products in the United States.
My 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 technology.
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.
Michael LeClair is chief engineer for
radio stations WBUR(AM/FM) in Boston.