Century-old Jeannette Specialty Glass marks National Manufacturing Day with public tours
It's loud and hot on the 60,000-square-foot manufacturing floor at Jeannette Specialty Glass.
A furnace sits near the center, churning liquefied glass like a lava lamp at about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The facility's automatic and semi-automatic machines produce about 1,000 pieces of glass products — from bathroom sinks to train locomotive lights and Christmas ornaments — every day.
The company opened its doors to the public Friday in honor of National Manufacturing Day, which traditionally is held the first Friday in October, for a glimpse inside the facility. Glass products have been manufactured at the site for over 100 years.
“We're not going anywhere. We want to be here,” said owner and CEO Kathleen Sarniak-Tanzola.
Though computers now guide the process, each piece is handled by at least one person no less than three times during the production process, according to Stephen Poster, senior process engineer. He is a Penn State chemical engineering graduate with local roots near McKeesport. He's been with the company for about two years.
For example, employees operate the semi-automatic equipment, conduct quality control, package the glass and make sure it gets shipped out the door.
Dave Smitley is one of those people. The maintenance supervisor is one of several employees who have worked at the facility for about 40 years. In his role, he observes the process from beginning to end.
The Connellsville-area native started working there when most of the manufacturing was done by hand and witnessed the transition from hand-press machinery to the computerized equipment the facility operates today.
While the process has been automatized, Smitley said workers are just as close to the glass as they were when everything was done by hand. Their roles are just a bit different now — and in some ways, more challenging, he said.
“Whenever something breaks down on an automatic system, it's a lot of troubleshooting, trying to figure out what the problem is,” Smitley said.
That's because the problems are often with the computers that guide the equipment. Fixing the problem and maintaining the equipment require different skills than they used to, and navigating those changes has been quite an experience, he said.
What is known today as Jeannette Specialty Glass was founded in 1976 by Ted Sarniak. It was born of the Jeannette Shade and Novelty Co., which operated at the current facility in Jeannette since 1904. It was one of several glass companies once located in area.
Jeannette Specialty Glass works with hardy borosilicate glass, which is more resistant to temperature fluctuations and scratching. The company started out producing industrial glass lighting products, such as highway or parking garage lights, but later diversified to also produce items for home use under the brand JSG Oceana.
The flexibility to produce items that weigh as little as a quarter-pound to ones over 40 pounds is one way they've managed to stay competitive and survive as one of the only remaining glass manufacturers in the region, according to vice president of sales and marketing Christina Jansure. Today, the family-owned company employs about 50 people. It's not a huge company, but Sarniak-Tanzola said it still manages to compete worldwide, including with companies in China.
Sarniak-Tanzola took over in 2012 from her late husband and founder, Ted Sarniak. She was born in Norvelt and recalls when there were several glass companies in the area.
“It was the lifeblood of the city,” Sarniak-Tanzola said.
Those days are gone, she said, adding that the disappearance of manufacturing has been one of the biggest changes she's seen in the area in her lifetime. Her father, now 93, worked his entire life in a steel mill.
As the region changes, Sarniak-Tanzola is looking toward the future. That includes new talent. As lifelong employees start to retire, Sarniak-Tanzola is encouraging young workers to acquire the necessary manufacturing skills to keep the facility going.
“I think manufacturing is becoming more of an area where you need an education, with all of the advances in technology and ways it's being used in a manufacturing environment,” she said, including the computer skills to maintain and operate the equipment.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @ Jamie_Martines.