September 13, 2010 | last updated March 25, 2012 3:46 am

Keeping Things In Line In Marlborough | Adcole Corp. dominant on Earth, in space

If I told you that none of the GPS satellites out in space right now would work if not for a Marlborough manufacturer's invention, would you believe me?

I wouldn't have, either, if I hadn't visited Adcole Corp. myself.

Adcole's founder and CEO Addison D. Cole, an engineer, invented the sun-angle sensor that launched the company in 1957. While in space, the best orientation is the sun, and from the very earliest days of the space race and the Cold War, it was understood that accurate orientation for spacecraft, satellites and the like was desperately needed.

Adcole's sun-angle sensor does just what its name says it does. It measures the angle of the sun in order to give a craft, manned or unmanned, its precise location in space.

Most American satellites are equipped with Adcole sun-angle sensors. All GPS satellites are, according to Brooks Reece, a company vice president.

Today, the company has about 175 employees in various locations. About 125 of them are at Adcole's Marlborough facility, where it does all of its manufacturing.

But Adcole's technology doesn't spend all its time in the sky. It has applications that are also rooted on Earth.

Arc Seconds

In the 1960s, International Harvester asked Adcole to make an automatic camshaft measuring device to help with its manufacturing process.

The equipment that does all of this is a staggering and impressive array of electronic, optical and laser technology.

In an internal combustion engine, the rotating camshaft is the lungs. It allows air and gas to enter the cylinders and drives the pistons back into the cylinders where the gas/air mixture is compressed and ignited by a spark, pushing the piston back out and turning your car's crank shaft, and eventually its wheels.

As far as precision parts go, cam shafts and crank shafts are about as precise as it gets. And it's because of Adcole that your car is so quiet, reliable and efficient. It's because of companies like Adcole that automobile engines are as reliable as they are.

Adcole's cam shaft and crank shaft measuring equipment is used on engine assembly lines around the world by the vast majority of engine manufacturers from Caterpillar to Volkswagen.

The devices can take a measurement every 10th of a degree and are accurate to 12 millionths of an inch.

You've seen angles measured in degrees and degrees broken into units of time, right? Reece told me there are more than 3,000 arc seconds in a degree and that Adcole can measure angles to one quarter of an arc second.

"Customers want that and Six Sigma," Reece said. So, the company makes high-speed versions of the measuring machines.

This line of work has given the company a front-row seat to the changing world economy. Adcole has about 150 cam shaft and crank shaft measuring machines installed in China and about 75 percent of its new machine shipments are headed to Asia, including Thailand and India.

And in recent years, the company has seen the market for Chinese goods change, too. "Very little of China or India's production is exported," Reece said. It stays in those countries for sale in those markets.

Got news for our Industrial Strength column? E-mail WBJ Managing Editor Matthew L. Brown at .

Vice President Brooks Reece describes how an Adcole crank shaft gauge works.


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