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Solutions Spotlight: Innovations in ultrasonics

March 29, 2021

In this podcast episode, Control editor in chief Keith Larson is joined by Dawn Massa Stancavish, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Innovation Officer at Massa Products Corp. to discuss applications for ultrasonics over the years, and how Massa is providing custom innovations for unique applications.


Keith Larson: Hello, this is Keith Larson, editor of Control magazine and ControlGlobal.com. Welcome to this Solutions Spotlight episode of our Control Amplified podcast, sponsored today by Massa Products Corporation, a leading designer and manufacturer of ultrasonic and sonar instrumentation. With me today is Dawn Stancavish, who serves as both chief operating officer and chief innovation officer for Massa.

Welcome, Dawn, a real pleasure to talk with you today. Thanks for joining us!

Dawn Massa Stancavish: Hi Keith. It's a great opportunity to be here today, so thank you. 

Keith: Glad you could join. Dawn, you have a unique connection to Massa Products Corporation – one that goes far deeper than punching a clock and picking up a paycheck. By way of introduction, maybe you can tell our listeners a bit more about yourself and how you came to assume a position of technology and business leadership at Massa?

Dawn: Well sure. It's kind of funny. My maiden name is Massa, so I'm actually third-generation here at Massa Products Corporation. But growing up with this family business has been kind of interesting because I had a little bit of the inside knowledge throughout my life, the kind of learning through osmosis that a lot of people don't have that opportunity in terms of learning about a business, in terms of learning about a technology as well. So, it's always a part of our family, the business itself and the types of things that we do here. 

My grandfather started the company in 1945, and he also used to live across the street from us, so I knew him very, very well and he was a very vibrant personality, so I was able to always ask questions about anything I ever wanted, and joke around with him, and know him very well. We used to have lunches at the plant, and he loved to show me around. My grandfather and father both worked together here, and my father is president and CTO, they both were engineers. 

Here's the funny part about it though. Growing up with this, I did have all of that inside exposure to how things are from I guess a different vantage point. But I didn't go exactly following in their footsteps. I decided in school that I was trying to differentiate myself, especially in my teenage years, so throughout high school and college I kind of did a lot of different types of studying. I studied everything from photography to psychology and business. So, I kind of, I did a little bit of engineering in college as well, enough to know that my strong suit really is in the understanding of what we are capable of, but more so in developing where we could possibly go with new ideas, opposed to actually creating the products themselves. 

Keith: Yeah, I mean, it does take different perspectives on things and a more diverse set of perspectives certainly seems to be more successful than having just a bunch of engineers, I  mean I am one, I can say that. I know what you mean. 

Dawn: Yeah, it was really a valuable experience, because I studied so many different things. I had just joined the board, and after working in different fields, and I found that perspective was very valuable, because I had also studied a lot about this field and I knew about our business, and looking in at that level, I was able to identify areas where the business really needed some of my skillset to kind of tie in different pieces of what we were doing and where we were trying to go. So, it was great that I had the experience of the engineering, and it was also really great that I had the other perspectives and the other skillset, because I was able to tie stuff together, and I use today everything that I ever studied. Because as COO, I have sales and marketing under me, and we do a lot of the eAdvertisement, and that draws heavily on the art stuff that I've studied as well as the marketing things I've studied and the psychology. Then, running the business, the psychology is just as important for tying everybody together from a cultural standpoint, and aligning the strategy of where the business in going with what we're doing internally. And as far as the creative side, with new product development and understanding what customer needs are, and understanding what we can do from a capabilities and engineering standpoint is really great for identifying how our core capabilities align strategically, both with our business plan but also with customer needs.

Keith: Yeah, I want to focus a little bit on the history of the company, because I kind of think it really differentiates Massa from just another sensor company in a lot of ways. Massa became an independent company under your grandfather’s leadership more than 75 years ago, during the Second World War. Can you tell us a little bit about the precipitating events that had your grandfather striking out on his own?

Dawn: Yeah, definitely. Just, this is a fast, abbreviated, Cliff Notes version, because it's a very long story. 

He graduated in 1928, full fellow from MIT. My grandfather was an Italian-American. He was born here, but he learned English by going to school. He graduated with honors in 1928 as an Italian in Boston, which is really amazing. And what he found through his journey was that if he just focus on the things that he was really good at, which was just naturally finding solutions within engineering problems, people would listen to his ideas and see him for what he was capable of, and he's recognized for his mind.

So, he went to work at Victor Talking Machines, which later merged with RCA. So, first it was Victor Talking Machines, then it was RCA-Victor, then it was RCA, and in that time his first job was to get rid of the hand crank on the Victrola, the old record player. And from there, as they were developing and merging with RCA there were a whole bunch of engineers that were collaborating and they were like a think tank. And they developed all kinds of new products in the audio side of the acoustic industry, but they, for the very first time in that timeframe, were applying engineering principles to it, so it was the development of the field from an engineering/applied science standpoint, and electro-acoustics as an engineering science was born. My grandfather co-authored the first textbook with Harry Olson in 1934 called "Applied Acoustics." 

From that group he also became the head of government sounds, where he was doing different developments for various government projects, like telephones on ships and things like that. He also developed and patented the very famous ribbon microphone that everybody knows as the iconic symbol from the 30s of what a microphone is, and that was still the symbol through the 50s. So, lots of people have gone back and used that, and that actually revolutionized the entire recording industry. 

He worked in the sound department there developing speakers, microphones and loudspeakers for movies because in the Great Depression, the movie theaters switched over from being silent films to talking pictures, and his group was the only group that wasn't cut in the engineering side because they were developing the sound for the movies and when no one could afford anything, everyone could afford going out to the movies and it was a nice escape from whatever troubles they were experiencing on a daily basis.

So, as time went on, he left, he ended up leaving RCA and going over to Rush Development Company, where he was head of engineering, and while he was there, they were first just doing a whole bunch of car radios and pickups and all kinds of things that depended on vacuum tubes, and one of his friends from RCA had gone off to join the war effort and remembered him and his capabilities within the sound industry, and they were trying to figure out how they could put something in the water to hear and locate torpedoes coming at ships during World War II. And the word didn't exist at the time, hydrophone, but basically, they were trying to develop a hydrophone. What they had done, was basically soundproofed a microphone, put in some air and stuck it in the water, and were kind of wondering why it wasn't working. They sent it to him, my grandfather, he said he'd be able to take a look at it. He got it, knew what to do, but at the time, business at Brush was really strong and his boss didn't want to do anything with the Navy because it involves red tape and how long it would take. 

So, he felt bad for his friend and redesigned it on his own, sent it back, and time goes on. But then the war effort continued, and they cut vacuum tubes, which is what they were heavily relying on for their products, so much so that they were figuring out how they were going to let people go and close up shop and what they were going to do, and his friend happened to call back right in that timeframe and said, "Hey guess what? That thing you sent me works perfectly, we can pick up torpedoes, it's fantastic." So, my grandfather negotiated over the phone the equivalent of a $10 million contract in 1945 dollars, not 1945, it was before that because it was during the war and before he established our company. He negotiated that contract and went to his boss and said, "Hey, you know what, we could either close up shop or we could go into business with the Navy, because I have the contract." And they said OK. So then, at Brush, they were the main people who did all the designs for sonar transducers throughout World War II and they quickly designed them and put them into production. 

So, he learned a lot at RCA as well as at Brush about the importance of production engineering and the importance of collaboration and the importance of speaking up when you know what a good idea is. So, he took all of that and he founded Massa Products. Actually, it started as Massa labs in 1945, because after the war was over, he wanted to go out on his own and he had this dream to develop something on his own. So, first he started consulting for five years. He started the business in Cleveland, and then in 1950, he moved to Hingham and built the building here that we still are in today, and we design, engineer, manufacture all in-house. 

Keith: Gotcha. It seems like that model your grandfather established—of design-driven innovation and customization, based on really talking to your customers—seems to really drive the company today, doesn’t it?

Dawn: Absolutely. And finding solutions that really aren't there. Like, if something's not cutting it in the field, we want to understand why, and that was something that allowed us to establish ourselves and set ourselves apart through the 50s and through the 60s, and in the 70s, and again in the 80s. Every decade, it would shift and it would be different products, different innovations, and we did go through a couple hiccups at various times, there was one time in the 70s and another time about, I'd say about, it started maybe about 10 years ago, until about three years ago, we had a little bit of an issue with the management not quite understanding that founders' mentality. But every time that something like that happens, we've come back and overcome it and changed and gotten back on track. That's really the foundation of who we are. I mean, there's not many companies that have it within their mission and their vision to continue to make the world better through advancing the technology itself, and improving the entire field as opposed to just whatever their localized business is. 

Keith: Sure. Can you share an example or two of your design and development philosophy, and how it's solved a measurement challenge on behalf of your customers?

Dawn: Yeah, I'd like to give some more recent examples, as opposed to historical, even though there are tons of historical ones, but I can speak more fluently about the ones that I have been involved with firsthand.

Being a company that does both work for the military as well as work for industry, we have an interesting business model where there's certain things we can talk about and certain things we can't on both sides because of confidentiality and IEP and things like that, but I can give general overviews of general issues. 

On the military side, we've had situations where sometimes what has been wanted has not been an ideal solution, so we've worked within contracts to find new solutions, and we've always enjoyed working closely with the Navy to figure out how we can improve things, and being a smaller business, we're able to act quickly and they generally like that. 

On the commercial side, especially where this audience is living, we have done a lot within water and wastewater and processing in terms of listening to issues that people have had, and we have sold a lot business-to-business, but we like to understand the end user's issues and occasionally we do get to do business with the end user themselves. When we have that insight, that's ideal for us, because usually what's standard and offered out in the market is not the perfect solution. Usually for either the reason being that they have to buy lots of product for repeatability or different technologies to just make sure that they always have something working or to overcome different problems that they're having, like uneven surfaces or foam, or other issues that they may be having.

One of the things that we've worked with people a lot about is understanding the right pairing for transducers if it's an ultrasonic application. With ultrasonic products, having the right product go in the right environment, having them understand where it's mounted, whether it's in a tank, what else might be in the viewpoint, what type of materials the products are exposed to—speed of sound does shift when it comes in contact with certain types of materials—whether it's an in-contact sensor it changes, it's general operation has to be a certain type of transducer for that. If it's in the air, sometimes fumes can affect it, temperature variances. But if we understand what those things are, we can make sure that they're using the correct product and help them troubleshoot, or sometimes we do workarounds or modifications to better fit their specific application, and that overall saves them a lot of time and money because they're not wasting time with a cheaper product that they think is going to give them their solution, but they end up having to throw it out or buy lots of them or it's not on warrantee, or they're having all kinds of trouble. 

We've also worked with various types of businesses as well. There's process controls, there's liquid level. We've done everything from distance measurement at different rates and speeds, different levels of accuracy. Collision avoidance. We've done so many different types of things that we've really enjoyed understanding all the different things that people are trying to achieve and how we might be able to fit their needs.

Another example that I could talk about is that sometimes it's just something really simple, like our technology was able to, it all gets waveforms back that we are able to analyze and assist people with, so sometimes we're able to help them identify what they're seeing and we're able to adjust their products to do the more fine-tuned sensing that they need. A lot of people think that they need narrow beam angles, when they really don't, they just need to understand the product that they do need. 

Another example is we had just this week a situation with a customer that's purchasing one of our new products that happens to be undergoing a certification right now, we're rushing the certification to meet this customer's deadline actually. We have another product that is already certified to meet the needs, but what we did was because the product that we have was going to be delayed because sometimes certification takes time, and this customer understood that, what we did was we found a workaround. What we did was we took our existing product that is already certified and we modified it, so that from a customer/end user standpoint it would operate just like the product that they're getting, so they have a product to tie them over until the certification's finished, and then they'll get our new product, and we'll swap it all out and take care of all of that for them. So, they were very thrilled with that solution. 

Keith: I can imagine, I can imagine. Have any of these unique applications where you worked with specific customers turned into, "oh, we can apply this much more broadly," and become more of a general product across your portfolio?

Dawn: Oh yeah. You know, there's always something that you can take and think creatively and look at different markets and see where things can go, and I think that's been one of the more fun aspects of what I do, is that when I talk to people about what we can develop, and we have several customers that we're under mutual non-disclosures with that we're developing new products for, and we often will enter an exclusivity agreement for that specific product for that specific customer for that specific marketplace, but that doesn't mean that there aren't other things that we're learning about the development of the product that could be used in a completely different manner in a completely different market for a completely different application that has nothing to do with what we're agree to with a customer.

For example, if something happens to be developed that's supposed to be very, very specific and it has to withhold performance in very difficult conditions, what we get out of that, we could learn from it and apply it to other types of applications because our engineering team is designing and developing for every application that we do, we have the same engineers that work on the government programs as work on the commercial programs, so we learn a lot through all of that in terms of how to design a really rugged, robust, quality product that could operate in various environments and do so well with high-quality reliability and repeatability. 

Keith: I was thinking that the fact that you have the engineering, design, manufacture all under one roof, which is kind of a rarity nowadays, I think that probably is very helpful in creating solutions that really last and are reliable and function out in the field. 

Dawn: Yes, definitely. That's an important core philosophy of how we do business here, because that was one of the most important things to my grandfather when he started the business, and that was passed down. My father strongly believes in it, as do I, and we train all our people to work well together for that reason. We need to have interdepartmental collaboration and good communication. In larger companies often what happens is there's a lot of turnaround in employees, there's different departments in different locations, so it's very much removed in terms of when you come up with an idea to when you end up with a finished product. And for us, we've really narrowed our strategy to be more focused on what things we do, what things we do well and expand our business based on that core philosophy. Being able to have that control from design to production every step of the way is what has also allowed us to maintain our footing an our longevity over 75 years now as one of the industry leaders in this type of product.

Keith: Level really is a big category for what you do for process manufacturers certainly. But it's really not the only thing that electroacoustic technology can help measure. What other phenomena of interest to process industry/process manufacturers that you can discern with electroacoustic technology?

Dawn: Yeah you know, I think that there's a lot more out there that ultrasonics and sonar could be used within that entire industry. We're still trying to learn new areas where it could be used and that comes from really customers telling us what they want, what they need and learning about different markets. But it's used in liquid level as well as, we don't do a lot in flow, some things are used that way a bit. There's a misconception that, well it's kind of funny because there's ultrasonics and then there's sonar, so sound is a medium and it travels through other mediums at different rates. So, if people don't really understand that technology, they don't really understand where else it could go. Sometimes, if you're just looking at what's out there off the shelf, and you try to put it in a certain environment where there might be a lot of foam or there might be really uneven surfaces, you might think, "Oh geez, why would I even bother trying ultrasonics, because it gives me trouble?" But there are some workarounds to those types of environments and situations and we have had some success in those areas. So, we have products that work well with uneven surfaces like our FlatPack, and that's used in multiple types of, not just in water and wastewater and not just in flow and not just in uneven surfaces in this field but in others. It's been able to work for customers all over the place.

Keith: I would imagine that the fact that the speed of sound is sensitive to the media that it's in, that right there can tell you something about the process in a lot of cases of what is actually there, not just the level, but what's in the intermittent space as well.

Dawn: Yeah, definitely. We can learn a lot about what a material is doing within a process with our products. We've talked to people about that, we've worked to different degrees with that. Not just in process control but even like more in the oceanographic side as well. We can tell a lot about what's happening with our products.

Keith: That's interesting. Well, just to shift gears a little bit, the process industries and the technology suppliers too have really been disrupted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Although, it looks like, knock on wood, things are looking up. To what extent has Massa’s business been affected, and what steps did you take to ensure that your customers’ needs continued to be met?

Dawn: Yeah, that's definitely an interesting question given today's world. I don't think anybody could have ever imagined where we are right now. But, we've been very fortunate here at Massa. Being that we do the sonars for the Navy, we've been fortunate enough to remain open as an essential business throughout this pandemic. So, I've been able to really view this whole problem of business during a pandemic from a very different perspective than most other people that I've talked to. Aside from grocery stores, construction businesses and healthcare, a lot of places went completely remote. We never did. We're a manufacturer, so manufacturing remained open throughout the pandemic. We had some people go remote for a little while. Most people are back 100% now. With the vaccine coming out, it's even more promising to have more people returning, but most of us are here. I can count on one hand the amount of people that have to still be remote right now, and even those people, most of them come in part time.

So, being a manufacturer, having that Navy business, made us stay on top of what CDC guidelines are very, very strictly. I check it every week to see what's going on. We've been fortunate to have zero transmissions on site as well, and out of all of our employees there's only been a couple cases of COVID and they did not happen on site here whatsoever, and that's for the entire past year. So, we've done really, really well. Thank God. We've put up safety protocols. We've distributed and provided to our employees masks and PPE and sanitizer. We increased our own facility's cleaning to daily right back in, I started doing that before things closed down, I wanted to increase the cleaning because I was concerned just seeing what was going on on the news and stuff. So, we have been really up on social distancing, masks, sanitizing, cleansing, surface cleaning, bathroom cleaning on a daily basis, and some areas more frequently because everyone was provided their own supplies of extra cleaner for wherever they frequent, just to make sure that they're comfortable and safe.

Keith: Clearly, Massa continues to work with your clients to find new applications for electroacoustic technology. You're chief innovation officer, so from your seat on the leading edge of innovation, what new sorts of new developments and applications do you see coming in the future from where you sit?

Dawn: Well, I see a lot of new products coming in very different types of fields. I see a lot of potential collaboration with other companies, where we have our strength as being the experts in electroacoustic technology, we like to partner with other companies that have a strength in something that's non-competing with our technology but works well with our technology, so that we could figure out new way where we're in a mutual beneficial situation where we're helping them fit a customer need better than they could without us, and they're also helping us learn more about where our technology could possibly go. So, I see a lot more of that happening in the near future.

Keith: Great, well I really appreciate you taking the time to share your perspectives and wishing you continued success for another 75-plus years there at Massa, so congratulations. 

Dawn: Thank you so much. 

Keith: I want to say thanks also to Massa Products Corporation for sponsoring this episode of the Control Amplified podcast. And most of all to you our listeners -- I hope you enjoyed today’s podcast and will consider subscribing at the iTunes store or at Google Podcasts. Plus, you can find the full archive of past episodes at controlglobal.com. This is Keith Larson, signing off. Stay safe until next time.

For more, tune into Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast.

About the Author

Control Amplified: | Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

The Control Amplified Podcast offers in-depth interviews and discussions with industry experts about important topics in the process control and automation field, and goes beyond Control's print and online coverage to explore underlying issues affecting users, system integrators, suppliers and others in these industries.

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