Lack of broadband, training, transportation pose challenges for high-tech Berkshire firm
Great Barrington — At the Chamberlain Group facility on Route 7 south of town Democratic state Senate candidate Adam Hinds is looking into a sinus cavity through a long instrument with a light at the tip, inserted way up into a nostril. He hands the device to me, and I look into a cavern of complex contours.
Yet they are not real. There is now a way to practice correcting a blocked sinus, known as sinuplasty, without having to use a cadaver’s head, the only way to teach the procedure before this very model was made.
“It was very icky before,” said Lisa Chamberlain, who with her husband Eric, turned special effects expertise for films like The Matrix into a company that designs and manufactures anatomically correct body parts and systems that throw a pulse and have the “response and consistency of living tissue,” and “the best alternative to animals and cadavers.” These anatomical replicas are shipped to medical schools and hospitals all over the world to make the job of caring for these physical bodies of ours easier and safer.
“We got hooked on anatomy, and the possibility that we could take our skills and do something with them other than visual effects movies…it gets old,” Chamberlain said. “Now we’re bringing practice to the practice of medicine.”
“Now you’re literally saving lives,” Hinds says.
Hinds is one of three candidates running for the seat now held by Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield).
The Chamberlain Group sits south of town along Route 7, where farms and fields are peppered with businesses like auto and tire repair shops. Everything from the computerized design to the manufacturing of over 500 products is done here in a 7,000 square foot building with a staff of 22.
“We’re control freaks,” Chamberlain said, of running a flexible, small, and extremely tight ship.
But in terms of sales and distribution, this is not a small outfit. Thirty percent of the products are exported to 50 different countries, and Chamberlain said the company just signed contracts for export to Russia and Japan.
Earlier this month the company won the “Exporter of the Year” award from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Massachusetts and North East Region offices.
Chamberlain is now showing Hinds a replica of a baby, complete with internal parts that can be switched out to practice different emergency room procedures. This baby can have its pulse turned on and matched to a beating heart. This very model is used at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Hinds is now holding a heart that also might as well be the real thing, for teaching coronary artery bypass surgery.
It’s all designed with computer software called Mimics. The designs shoot directly to one of seven 3-D printers in the next room that use a fine powder to make a model before it is dried in an oven. Later, silicone and other materials are used to make the artificial parts behave like real ones.
Hinds wonders if Chamberlain has had any government assistance. Nope, Chamberlain tells him, as they head into the next room, where models and the supports for those models are made. “Government has been both benign and friendly to us,” she observes.
Chamberlain points to a CNC (Computer Numeric Controls) milling machine that is making end boards for a colonoscopy trainer. On the other side of the room is a vacuum form machine. It’s like a “big oven” that makes casts from a liquid. Right now a torso is cooking.
There are formulas for everything, and the materials are injected into the molds by hand, Chamberlain explains, after leading Hinds into the small “mixing room.”
We head into another room, where Hinds meets employee Dave Perrone, who used to work at Mead Paper Company in Lee, and Evan Glasener, who Chamberlain says she hired because he has “really good hands…not everybody does.
“I don’t need people with advanced degrees to do this work…I need people who want to work hard…be focused.”
Chamberlain said her efforts to connect with local schools for hiring have been difficult, and that finding the right employees is one of the company’s major challenges. The connection between schools and the workforce is something Hinds says he wants to address.
Chamberlain says her company is “small enough that we don’t need that many talented people, but those we have are critical.” It made Hinds wonder about how to prepare the county’s young people for locally available work.
Chamberlain said that while there is a larger pool to choose from in Pittsfield, “south county is like a foreign country” to many who live north, making those potential workers reluctant to travel. This throws the conversation into how hard it is to get by without a car in the Berkshires. Hinds says this is where a better public transportation system –– both locally and for travel to and from Boston and New York City –– is critical to a thriving economy.
“If you’re going to be a fully functioning person in Berkshire County,” Chamberlain said, “you’ve got to have a car.”
And Hinds talks about a changing philosophy that raises questions. “Do we spend time attracting big industries, or should we make sure the small to medium manufacturers have what they need?”
Hinds said what surprised him about his tour was that “these are businesses that could be based anywhere…and you’re choosing to be here. That’s significant. There’s the mixture of community and the arts and access to nature and quality of work.”
“We were actually out on the Appalachian Trail today at lunch,” Chamberlain said.
“See?” Hinds said with a chuckle.
“I was actually dressed just as I am now,” Chamberlain replied, looking down at her fashionable power suit.
We move on to a thorny subject in these parts: lack of high speed Internet, or broadband. Turns out it isn’t such a problem for the company, “right now.” She spends more than $250 per month for service through Time Warner Cable, which is high, according to Chamberlain. But Chamberlain says the lack of speed is making a bit of trouble that could muck things up in future. She has an employee who lives in Becket, for instance, and has a flexible work schedule, but an insufficient Internet connection; Chamberlain wants her to have home access to the company’s network.
Cell service is the bigger problem. “For some reason there is one bar [of service] in my building,” she said, noting that she uses Verizon. For that reason she doesn’t give her cell phone number to clients. “It didn’t used to be…a year ago there wasn’t a problem,” she added, noting there were four bars back then.
“So we don’t understand it and they [Verizon] haven’t been able to explain it to us.”
Chamberlain jumps in with another sticky rural issue for businesses that do a lot of shipping: the dearth of FedEx or UPS hubs. Right now packages have to go out by mid-afternoon or an employee has to go to Albany or Pittsfield. “It is a pain,” she said.
Hinds says broadband and transportation are critical keys to confronting the county’s population decline, and to pull more people with certain skills up to the area from New York City, for instance.
Chamberlain smiled. While she has lived in the Berkshires long enough to know the ropes of rural life, there is a new irony sprouting from technology dependence. She had recently gone to a graduation party in Monterey, she said, when she was faced with this modern twist.
“When I got back in the car my Google Maps did not work –– like, the whole way home. We had to drop breadcrumbs. I used to carry maps. Remember those things called maps?”