This Warren manufacturing business is on the laser's edge of an American comeback story

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 4/2/24

Ward's Manufacturing, started by two Rhode Island siblings, is proving that small business manufacturing businesses have a lot of potential in the current economy.

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This Warren manufacturing business is on the laser's edge of an American comeback story


With meaningful connections to Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, Kiffin and Kelly Ward had a choice to make when deciding where to open their new custom metal fabricating business.

Last Wednesday, as they stood on the packed shop floor of Suite 7 at 84 Cutler St., listening to Governor Dan McKee round out a list of praiseworthy speakers that included both of Rhode Island’s Senators and its most recently-elected Congressman, there was little doubt in the North Kingstown natives’ minds that they had made the right choice to come back home.

“This is why we chose to come back to Rhode Island,” Kelly said. “This just doesn’t happen anywhere else. This is special.”

It was a little extra special, as Kelly celebrated her 33rd birthday the same night that friends, family, business associates, mentors and the aforementioned political elite of Rhode Island all joined together to congratulate the brother-sister team on accomplishing their dream of starting a small manufacturing business, aptly named Ward’s Manufacturing.

Filling a need with in-demand industry
The Wards are first-generation Americans with a family lineage tied to the trades. One of Kelly and Kiffin’s grandfathers was a carpenter working in London during the rebuilding effort after World War II. Their other grandfather was an auto mechanic and a metalworker. Following college each sibling went into manufacturing, Kiffin working for a sports equipment company and Kelly as a project manager for a company that builds robots for the agricultural industry.

Together, they noticed a piece missing from the local manufacturing supply chain. Each of their companies often had to pay outside contractors to order custom parts in order to finish the products they sold to their customers. And finding a company that worked nearby, that could turn around a custom order quickly, and do so for a reasonable price, could be an exercise in futility.

“We both saw this niche that wasn’t being filled to the level it needs to be, because the demand is still much greater than the supply,” Kelly said. “There has been a push in recent years for manufacturing coming back to New England and the Rhode Island area specifically, partially as a response to market forces.”

What is offered at places like Ward’s Manufacturing, they argue, is something that more and more local businesses are finding advantageous — someone local to work with who you can call and talk to directly, and go pick up an order in person from. They offer a specialized, customizable service that supplements many other industries.

“It can be anything, from an artist who needs a cool design to someone making sports equipment,” said Kelly. “In order to build whatever that thing is, you need custom metal.”

While the machines they use are technologically impressive and cutting edge (pun unapologetically intended), there’s actually only two main pieces of equipment that makes up the brunt of the whole business.

A fiber laser cutter performs the intricate work, carving custom pieces out of metal up to 3/4 inch thick (depending on the type of metal), which is coordinated through a computer (referred to in shorthand as a CNC machine). If that metal needs further processing, like the saddle brackets that Kiffin was making to demonstrate to their large audience last week, it will then go into the CNC press brake, which bends the metal into the necessary shape. With his knowledge of computer-aided design, Kiffin can draw completely unique designs to fit any necessary application requested by a customer.

“Most of our customers aren’t the end user of a product necessarily,” said Kiffin. “It’s another manufacturer that doesn’t have the equipment that we do. Maybe they have a cutting table, but they need to send the part off for precision of a laser cutter.”

Rebuilding the American manufacturing dream
Part of the reason for the Wards were able to identify this niche market for their business in the first place was because of the widespread loss of such businesses throughout the past few decades.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing jobs in the United States hit their peak in 1979, with that sector responsible for employing nearly 20 million Americans. By 2019, that number had fallen to just under 13 million. The Rhode Island Manufacturers Association indicated in a recent report that more than 100,000 Rhode Islanders had manufacturing jobs going back to the 1980s, and as of the most recent report from the RI Department of Labor and Training from February of 2024, that has fallen to just around 40,800 jobs today.

Part of this mass exodus of manufacturing jobs, locally and nationally, could be attributed to the outsourcing of manufacturing to places like China and other Asian nations, which could save companies money on production and personnel costs.

But today, Kelly (who got her B.A. from Northeastern University and a M.P.A. from Columbia University) said unless you are a large manufacturer buying vast numbers of units, you are likely not seeing such drastic savings from snubbing American workers and going overseas for your orders.

“Even for pretty large orders, given the supply change disruptions and geopolitical risks and time zone barriers and language barriers, it’s still sometimes more economical to go domestic for even the larger orders, it just depends on what you’re looking for,” she said, adding that the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act enacted by the Biden Administration had “put some real money and juice into the manufacturing sector.”

A happy home in Warren
It was fitting that the Wards left Rhode Island in order to find employment after college, only to realize that the small size of Rhode Island would provide a perfect place for what their instincts told them would be a viable, in-demand small business model.

“In our mill neighborhood, literally every single business here is a small business. The reach is amazing,” said Kelly. “We have customers all across the country, and so do our neighbors. We would always prefer a local customer because you get to know them as people, you can get to know what they need, we can visit each others’ facilities, we can drop off their orders.”

“As soon as we looked inside I could picture where the machines would go and it had the high ceilings,” added Kiffin, who studied Mechanical Engineering at URI, of finding their spot on Cutler Street in Warren, which he said used to be a rubber mill. “And being in downtown Warren near the water with all of these great restaurants and businesses and being next to the Chamber of Commerce, it all just really felt like it was meant to be.”

And considering the help that the Grants needed in order to get to this moment — working with people from the RI Small Business Association, Commerce RI, and Bank RI to procure startup funding, and coordinating with staffers from the politicians who helped put them in the right rooms with the right people over the years they built their dream, it must have felt like a true birthday wish come true.

“I got married two years ago and in some ways it felt that level of surreal,” said Kelly. “Like here’s some family member who has known me since I was a little kid, and then over there is someone who gave me a template for my very first business plan. It was pretty incredible.”

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