In the late 1970S, Ralph Alviti charged his son, Steve, with finding a way to smooth the edges of jewelry manufactured by the family’s business. Little did the younger Alviti know that his solution would secure a patent and become the lifeblood of the company.
Long gone are the days when Bel Air churned out thousands of belt buckles and jewelry items. These days Bel Air specializes in designing and manufacturing machines that smooth the edges of everything from medical equipment to fighter jet parts. “I get to see a lot of different manufacturing companies.” Alviti said. “Its really cool”.
Contrary to popular belief, modern, high-tech manufacturing lines are far from perfect. Machines often leave shards of metal on cut parts or rough surfaces on wood or plastic. Sometimes the shards are microscopic, but they pose a problem when engineers try to assemble products when millimeter mater. And shards can be dangerous – no patient wants a joint replacement that flakes metal.
In Bel Air’s Conference room, dozens of samples line shelves. There’s a rotor cuff and bone plates for a knee replacement, parts for firearms, a heat sink for an F-18 fighter jet, the cap for a tequila bottle and even the inside of a golf ball.
In the lab next door, staff mix and match media – many resemble rocks – and place them into vibrating vats. All told, Bel Air staff can make more the 10,000 combinations of bonding agents, grips, hard materials and the like. Put in the right combination, operate the machine for the appointed time and out comes a perfectly smooth product. The process is far faster, and cheaper, then personnel staring through microscopes and filling rough surfaces by hand.
Deburring – as it’s known in industry circles – is crucial late in the production process, when parts often fail to fit together snuggly.
Outside of the company’s clients “most people – even engineers – that are designing products don’t realize its importance,” Alviti said.
In an attempt to reverse that trend, he placed a Bel Air machine at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, his alma mater, to provide students an opportunity to experiment with deburring. He lobbied the Society of Manufacturing Engineers to create a committee on deburring.
And Companies do call, Alviti and his staff travel the globe to study manufacturing lines and install machines. To drum up business he attends trade shows, bringing his lab to tow.
But largely he relies on word of mouth to spark orders in an industry where perhaps a dozen companies worldwide compete with him.
Joining the elite group was never Alviti’s plan. When his father started the company in Providence in 1966, jewelry reigned. Bel Air acquired competitors and built a factory in Warrick in early 1970s.
In 1984, the family doubled the factory’s size. At its height in the 1980s Bel Air employed about 70 people.
Then in the 1990s, the world economy changed. Jewelry manufacturing shifted overseas and Rhode Island’s once mighty jewelry district began a rapid decline. Alviti’s father retired from the company in the early 1990s and now runs another family business with his two daughters.
“I looked around and said, ‘What am I going to do now?’ said Alviti, who had joined Bel Air full time in 1976.
He turned to the machine he invented to smooth jewelry. Over the years, Bel Air had sold the machines through a distributor to jewelry makers around the world. It had been a side business to which the family paid little attention.
But now, with few options, Alviti ceased the jewelry operations and turned his attention to developing the next-generation machines and servicing the ones sold through the distributor.
In 2008, he opened a metal-clad building in Quonset Industrial Park in North Kingstown to better accommodate his new business operations.
Alviti estimates there are hundreds of his machines -some dating to the 1970S -still in use. One customer was shocked to learn recently that Bel Air still existed and could service the machine that needed repairs for the first time in decades.
For new customers, Bel Air will tweak off-the-shelf machines or design them from scratch. Sometimes Bel Air staff knows exactly what the parts the company is finishing do, other times it’s a mystery.
But all the time, Alviti says the work keeps him and his eight employees busy. “There’s never a dull moment here.” Alviti said. ■