No upgrade necessary: Machines at Merced Screw Products keep whirring away

The shiny oiled hands of Braulio Munoz plucked a round metal fitting from a mesh basket beside a droning screw machine and measured its circumference with a caliper to the millimeter.

He was checking to see how far off plumb it was from what the plans called for.

Munoz oversees a line of similar machines at Merced Screw Products and must adjust their settings every so often so they vary only by tiny fractions.

One of his machines has been making the same wheelchair part for the past 15 years. Standing before it, he pointed at the innards of the mechanical beast he works with every day.

Behind a clear oil splatter shield, automated drills and punches whirred, a spray of oil drenching the drills and metal rod.

Like these machines, Munoz has been working in the small factory for a long time. For the past 32 years he has come here every day. "I started at the bottom de-burring parts," he recalled. De-burring means removing protruding ragged edges from metal pieces.

Ever since 1967, when now-deceased company founder Don Wells moved to Merced from the Bay Area, Merced Screw Products has manufactured everything from irrigation nozzles to wheelchair parts. Each part is custom-made for its numerous customers. And most of what the machines make go into other machines that do jobs like peeling tomatoes.

One feature that sets the small manufacturer apart is that most of its machines are old. While the firm has invested in some automated computerized machines, most are 30 to 40 years old and hum along like new. "They still pump out parts," said the plant's manager, Jeff Sweet, who started working here in 1978.

Today, despite the recession, the factory floor is a busy place.

Beyond Munoz's oily machine, more similarly humming machines lined the floor of the two-building operation near the Merced Airport.

Oil and twisted metal chips and burrs lay everywhere. Bins of aluminum, steel and copper sat beside the machines.

The lubricating oil shooting onto the drills seemed to cover everything with thin smudges.

Each machine had a long tube extruding from it. Inside each tube a metal rod slowly moved forward as pieces of it were machined into threaded bolts or fittings.

After Munoz's machines had pumped out their parts, they were cleaned and sent to the rear building, where they were finished.

One part of that process is done by Joseph Moreno. Beside several seated workers de-burring metal snags, Moreno operated what resembled a metal dinosaur of a machine. It ground down bolts so that they were almost perfectly rounded.

The rough bolts were placed in a slot and then slid between two wheels, one of them stone, that filed the bolt's edges. A stream of dirty water splashed on the wheels as they spun against the bolt. Then the finished shining bolts dropped out the other side and fell into a bucket. Every 20 pieces, Moreno checked for the right circumference.

By noon on Tuesday the lunch bell rang and soon the factory floor was cleared. The machines quieted down one by one until only a radio broke the silence.

Within a half-hour, its music would again be drowned out by the thrum of old but reliable machines.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or