Weighs and Means

Susith Wijetunga steers Tridyne International of South Burlington down a one-weigh street of growth

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

Appearances are often deceptive, but that's a maxim rarely applied to the manufacturing industry. A low, easily overlooked building set back from a leafy South Burlington street could be the exception that proves the rule. This is the home of Tridyne International Inc., maker of state-of-the-art measuring and packaging systems, and a major player in that field.

Tridyne designs and manufactures net weighers, machines that weigh, measure or count materials into precise portions, then package them. If you think weighing machines are simple, imagine a machine designed to measure flour into one-pound bags. Then modify that machine to deliver a certain number of steel bolts. Not so simple.

Family connections in Maine brought Susith Wijetunga to the United States 15 years ago from Sri Lanka. He moved from accounting to management when he became an owner of Tridyne International in '97.

As Tridyne president Susith Wijetunga explains, the company custom-makes units to serve the needs of individual customers. "One client needs a unit to weigh ravioli," he says. "Another is doing crackers, and someone else is making cough drops." Tridyne makes units that can weigh, measure and package anything from grains to pharmaceuticals, electronic components to nuts and bolts. "We do any machine in the dry, free-flowing product line - no liquids," Wijetunga clarifies.

Tridyne machines use a variety of technologies. Some use a loadcell, an electronic system capable of pinpoint accuracy. Others use more familiar technology, but this doesn't mean they are less hi-tech: For example, the conventional-sounding over-under counter balance developed by Tridyne is accurate up to .01 of a gram.

Tridyne was started in Merrimac, N.H., in the early 1960s. "Twenty-six years ago, the owner of a Vermont company, DBI Industries, bought Tridyne and moved it to South Burlington," Wijetunga explains. "At that time, the company only made a few models, but the move spurred new developments." DBI Industries also owned Kidder Metalworking Products, which makes notching machines and presses. "Kidder started in Vermont about 95 years ago," says Wijetunga. "It's a very, very established product line, with very consistent volume. We sell Kidder machines through about 50 distributors all over the country."

Wijetunga, who was born and raised in Sri Lanka, came to America 15 years ago to study at Husson College in Bangor, Maine. "I had family in Maine," he explains, "but it was still a big transition." After Husson, Wijetunga joined Coopers & Lyebrand in Portland, Maine, where he worked as an accountant, "shuttling back and forth between Portland and Boston," he remembers. "I've always been interested in business and engineering, and as an accountant I specialized in manufacturing."

While at Coopers, Wijetunga became part-owner of a management company called WL International, "a bunch of investors," as he describes it. "I was keeping my eyes open," he says. "I found DBL Industries, whose owner, Charlie Goetz, wanted to retire." When the company went up for sale in 1997, WL International bought it. "As a part-owner of WL, I became a part-owner of Tridyne International Inc., which includes Kidder and Tridyne," he explains. So in August 1997 he quit the world of accountancy and moved to Burlington to start a new life as company president.

"It was a complete change of profession, but it's been a lot of fun," Wijetunga says happily. "Tridyne gives me the chance to work with all sorts of companies, from start-up businesses to Fortune 500 companies," he says. "There's often a real sense of accomplishment when you've solved a customer's problem and helped them grow."

Wijetunga is also the company's marketing director, and he devotes much time to raising Tridyne's profile. "Tridyne had a good name over the years. The company had done a good job keeping the product line up-to-date, but they hadn't taken things to the next level. We've spent lots of money on marketing and production," he continues. "For example, we joined the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers' Institute. We go to four or five trade shows a year: Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston. We're re-establishing our presence in the industry. The company hadn't been to the trade shows for 10 years before 1997. Our name was already there, but this exposure has taken us to a new level. Now we have more work than we can handle."

The transition from accountant to manufacturer has been a happy one for Wijetunga, and so has his move to Vermont. "I play a lot of golf!" he laughs. "Vermont is a fantastic place to live. There's so much nature here. I do a lot of outdoor sports: skiing, mountain-biking, fishing. I hike whenever I get the chance."

Tridyne, which occupies a single-story, approximately 20,000-square-foot building, and employs approximately 12 people, designs and assembles its product line there, and manufactures most of the parts as well. The company has been in the same location for more than 20 years; many of the staff have been with Tridyne for almost as long. "I started working here in January 1974," says shop foreman Michael Bessette, proudly. "There's a good atmosphere. We have a good bunch of people -- everyone gets along very well."

Tridyne designs and manufactures devices that weigh, measure or count materials into precise portions before packaging them. Some custom-made units can take four months to create. From top: Bill Bogart and Jim Anderson.

On the shop floor, the mood is calm but busy. A giant net weigher, almost complete, towers over one area. The finished machine will be slotted into a production line, where it will weigh plastic clips into boxes. "We made the whole thing," says Wijetunga, "except for the control chip and the conveyor belt" - the apparatus that will carry the clips up and into the sheet-metal hopper, from where they will drop onto the loadcell, which cuts off the flow when the desired weight of product is reached. "We used to build our own microprocessors as well," explains Wijetunga, "but recently we changed most of our electronics over to commercial PLC programmable units. Technology has changed so much, and customers are looking for the flexibility of the new technologies, so we're trying to standardize as much as we can."

The net weighers come in all shapes and sizes -- one recent creation was 12-feet-high -- but the basic design is the same: a funnel-shaped steel hopper that is held poised over the weighing apparatus. For machines with such a relatively prosaic purpose, they are surprisingly elegant: gleaming sheet metal, stripped-down frames, sparse, business-like control panels. Every surface has a surgical appearance, and it almost seems a shame to think of these sleek creations as part of a busy, noisy production line.

The medical analogy isn't so far-fetched, as hygiene is of paramount importance to many of Tridyne's products. Some of these machines will be handling food that will be eaten by millions of people world-wide. "We developed units to serve the food industry," says Wijetunga. "We configured them to meet USDA standards -- paying attention to things like wash-down facilities. But the USDA laws don't apply any more," he adds. "As of last year, their regulations devolved to the individual states."

In another part of the shop, components for other units are being machined, and Kidder presses assembled. It's an interesting contrast: the sleek high-tech of Tridyne's product line, and Kidder's far more down-to-earth machines, some with designs that cannot have changed much for a century. But watching blades being ground for a notcher, a hand-operated machine for the precision cutting of metal, it's clear that the same spirit of craftsmanship, care and pride pervades all the company's activities.

"Most of our net weighing systems are custom-built," says Wijetunga, "so output depends on how big any given project is. One project might last several months. Last year we did a big project for a major food manufacturer, building a unit to measure frozen soup mixture into bags. That took four months." Smaller machines are quicker to make. The company can produce up to five of its compact model, the F-98, in one month. "As an average, right now 30 units a year sounds like a reasonable figure," Wijetunga says.

"There's no real limit to the price of net weighers," explains Wijetunga. "They can cost anything up to $500,000 or more. It just depends on what the customer is looking for. We serve mom and pop operations, midsize companies, and Fortune 500 businesses," he continues. "We can provide a semi-manual machine for people who just want to package jelly beans." Wijetunga estimates that there are approximately 1,000 Tridyne units in operation at any one time, all over the world. Some of the countries Tridyne exports to include China, Taiwan, India and Puerto Rico. "But most of our sales are within the U.S., mostly to the West Coast, the Southwest, and the Northeast.

"Tridyne is unique. We're probably the best in the industry," Wijetunga says proudly. "We have a tremendous amount of happy customers, and that helps with sales, of course." As a result, he explains, "the company is growing right now. We'll probably be increasing our work force soon." He estimates that in the last three years, the company has grown 15 percent. "We have a three-month backlog right now -- we're up to our necks," he admits gleefully, anything but daunted.

Besette has seen big changes in his time with the company, "not just with the product line, but with the technology we use to make the product. Things are very promising," he says.

"We want to be premier in the industry," declares Wijetunga. "Actually we're there, except volume-wise. And there are certain markets we haven't tapped into yet.

"We're a little bit more conservative than other companies," believes Wijetunga. "We'll build a machine, but we'll also make sure it works and meets the customer's requirements. So we have a good name in the industry." In a small but highly competitive industry -- "there are five companies who are our major competition" -- Wijetunga's first priority is customer satisfaction, he says. "Thirty to 40 percent of our sales are repeat orders," he reveals, "but we have very committed workers. We never put junk out of the door."

Business is booming, but the mood in the shop is calm. "We have a good bunch of people," says shop foreman Michael Bessette. "Everyone gets along very well." From left: Susith Wijetunga, Art Audette and Walt Henry

In this hotbed of activity, it's a wonder that everyone seems so relaxed. "That atmosphere is very, very important. There's a lot of flexibility," says Wijetunga, "and we're really proud of what we make. People enjoy coming to work here. Most of them have been with us a long time," he continues proudly, "and they're very talented, very aware of the industry."

Wijetunga is involved with every stage of the operation. "I'm pretty hands-on," he says. "I sit down every day with the overseer to discuss plans, and I'm involved with the production side."

"Susith is very good at what he does," says Bessette. "In a business like this, you have to work very closely together. Information needs to be conveyed from the concept through the design to the finished product."

"We're all trying to do whatever it takes to get things done," says Wijetunga. He pauses for a moment. "And there's nothing we can't do here."

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London.