Touchstone Laboratory Rediscovering Its Core
By JOSELYN KING
Touchstone Research Laboratory, based in Triadelphia, has always reached for the sky — and mostly the aerospace industry — to sell the products it creates, develops and manufactures.
But the year 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic had the company looking inward and rediscovering its roots in metal and steel fabrication.
Brian Joseph, president and CEO of Touchstone Research Laboratory, said 2020 affected the business “in a funny way.”
“This whole COVID thing hit hard, and we didn’t experience it in the same time frame as everyone else,” he said. “The first thing we noticed, everybody stopped calling. The world went silent for us, and we went, ‘That’s just strange.'”
Many Touchstone clients are in the aerospace industry and utilize composite parts produced by Touchstone. With fewer people flying, and with less commerce, there wasn’t as much of a call by the aerospace industries for Touchstone’s products.
“We had some deep discussions and asked ourselves, ‘how do we bring in work that isn’t reliable on the aerospace industry?” Joseph said. “We broadened our base, and took on some additional things.
“We changed some of our offerings, and started making more things out of metal. There are people who wanted that, too.”
The aerospace industry and others continue to need metal fixtures to surround composite parts, he said.
“There is a whole market for that,” Joseph said. “We used to do more of that. But when the composite things were doing so well, we just focused on that.”
Touchstone next shifted its direction and set up a separate steel fabrication facility in Wheeling’s Peninsula Industrial Park.
“We had most of that (production line) here, but we weren’t using it,” Joseph said. “Now that becomes a significant piece of the business again.”
The Touchstone main campus in Triadelphia consists of Touchstone Research Laboratories, Touchstone Advanced Composites, the Touchstone Testing Laboratory and CFOAM LLC — makers of the CFOAM coal-based product most often used in making molds for aerospace parts.
It also has plants in Mingo Junction and Millwood, W.Va.
Touchstone had plans to expand and build an additional facility at its Triadelphia campus in 2020, but that project was put on hold, according to Joseph.
During the past year, the company had its high and low points.
As the pandemic continued, Touchstone found it had to decrease its operations in Millwood, and lay off some employees, he said. At the same time, it increased the number of workers at the Touchstone campus.
Touchstone won a fifth “R&D 100” Award for its Bonded Met-Preg product, a patch made of the “world’s strongest aluminum” that is used by the U.S. Navy when repairing naval ships. The award is presented to those involved in the research and development of revolutionary ideas in science and technology.
Touchstone also received a $750,000 contract with NASA in which it will develop and produce solar sails for the government agency, according to Joseph.
Another contract for the agency — this one for $2 million — asks Touchstone to research how NASA rockets can be protected from lightning strikes, he said.
“I think it will be fine. I think we will bounce back,” Joseph said. “I think commercial aviation will kick off here inside 2021. I think individual travel will go through the roof. Once we are allowed to travel, I think people will want to go on vacation somewhere. People are anxious to get out.”
But he is not so sure business travel will return to past numbers as more and more businesses are finding it better virtual meetings a better alternative.
In 2021, Touchstone will re-examine its plans to expand and construct another building and launch another company at its Triadelphia campus, he said.
“I can’t wait — I want to spin out another company soon,” Joseph said. “The thing we are always looking for is talent. Who wants to run a high tech business? Who wants to be the lead engineer-for that business? My biggest challenge is going to be finding the right people to put in the right places. We see that now.”
He said Touchstone also will continue to look for new customers in 2021, and he predicts Touchstone Advanced Composites will emerge from the pandemic as “a bigger business.”
Businesses that do survive will get stronger as they examine, learn about and adapt to the environment, and create new relationships, Joseph said.
“2020 was a bad year, but these times pass,” he said.