On entering vocational school, Zavier Alicea was beset by all the doubts and uncertainties that face all kids. That first step was so important. He had some 20 study programs to choose from. Say, carpentry, culinary arts, automotive engineering, communication studies – all of them tempting, but were they what he wanted? He selected robotic engineering and automation.

And from there, he narrowed his focus further to mechatronics — a word constructed of borrowings from mechanical, electronic and electrical engineering systems.

“I was attracted to the problems in it,” said Alicea, embarking on a career based as much on studied ambition as the joys of intellectual challenge. Beyond having the sheer fun of solving problems, why pick the electrical? Because, he said, from the business side, skilled professionals would always be needed in the field.

And he finds himself at ELM Electrical as a panel builder, from the wiring on out – a panel being a simple designation for a highly complex command-and-control instrument carrying disconnect switches, transformers and other electronic components.

Said Scot Laurent, ELM’s Panel Shop Manager: “I got some young, bright kids in here that pick it up [snap of his fingers] real quick. Zavier’s one of them, where, ‘Hey, you want to learn?’ Just throw ’em in front of it. If you got a question — ask me, ask another engineer.”

It all started for Alicea when he helped his dad and grandfather rewire part of their home. That was his introduction to electricity as something more than just what made light bulbs light. The experience triggered a hunger. Maybe most boys want to know what makes a car tick. For Alicea, it was electricity. He was hooked.

Funny how sometimes making the wrong turn can straighten a kid out. On graduating, Alicea took a job as a machine operator. “I wasn’t happy in the situation,” he said. “It didn’t work out.” About that time, ELM acquired Columbia Manufacturing, Inc., a prominent school furniture manufacturer. Alicea’s father, Pedro, was an employee of Columbia, and Pedro mentioned his son to Bob Bacon, ELM President and CEO. And that was it.

“When I first came in and got introduced to the co-workers, they embraced me,” Alicea said. “Through talking with them, became tight and close and had a good friendship.”

Alicea immersed himself in his early duties at ELM.

“You learn different avenues, different areas,” he said, and soon he was involved in drawings and blueprints, as well.

“Every day, it’s something different,” he said. “One day, you’re working on a panel. Next day, there’s an order of, hey, let me get these prints down real quickly. “The work – that’s the fascinating part of it all. I’m loving what I’m doing.”


Any number of lively arguments have been advanced, pro and con, over the use of robots in the workplace – philosophical, economic, ethical.

But nothing argues in favor of robots like the sheer agony of the bad back.

Enter ELM Electrical’s Collaborative Robotic Palletizer.

“Collaborative” – working safely with human beings.

“Palletizer” – a robot that places or stacks boxes of product on a pallet.

The idea behind the palletizer is — let the robot do the heavy lifting, and save the human would-be lifter for lighter tasks and heavy thinking. The robot has no muscles to strain, no ligaments to inflame, no joints to sprain or crack. It doesn’t feel pain, it doesn’t get exhausted. It doesn’t know the pain and immobility all too familiar to those who have a bad back, one of the most chronic injuries in the U.S., and recognized by medicine as the single leading cause of disability worldwide.

Installing a collaborative robot for a company begins with a meticulous study of the work area — the space available, the building features, the floor traffic patterns, etc.

“We go in and look at what the customer’s needs are,” said Senior Vice President Mike Holmberg, “and develop a custom solution to solve their problem. So, we can provide a solution for a wide array of a slow-moving kind of product, and with a collaborative robotic solution that doesn’t impact a lot of floor space for the customer and doesn’t impact a lot of operational change for the customer.”

ELM Application Engineer Tim Doyle pointed to the difference between an industrial robot and the collaborative robot. “You want to keep your distance from an industrial robot,” he said. “They’re a dangerous piece of equipment if they’re not used correctly.” And they take up their own space and have to be fenced off for safety reasons, he added. “The collaborative robot,” he said, “is designed to work with people, to sense forces and to ‘understand’ if they come into contact with someone that they’re not working with.”

And programmed to shut down at that instant.

The professionals who work in the robotics field hear it all, and probably the most fundamental subject is the robots-replacing-people issue.

“A lady came to me,” Senior Automation Engineer Marwan Al Masri was saying, “and she said, ‘Why do you put these robots on? Do you think they’re better than us? Do you think they’re better than human beings?’

“I said no, I don’t. That’s definitely not how I think about it. I said, my job is how to make this save your back, and I protect you and others from getting hurt.”

“It’s not about jobs or anything of that nature,” Doyle said. “It’s about saving somebody’s back from doing a tedious job all day long with heavy lifting.”

Added Holmberg: “Move those individuals into a higher-value path, like visual inspection, something that requires more dexterity, to assemble a part, rather than just do stacking and unstacking cases all day.”

As to deploying a collaborative robot: “So you start with your risk assessment,” said Doyle, “you understand your tasks at hand and make sure they’re acceptable, and when you deploy your [robot], it frees you up, gives you more floor space on the manufacturing floor, in your laboratory or in your assembly area.”

“And so, we do simulations ahead of time, to make sure the robot is actually doing what it’s supposed to do,” said Al Masri, “and afterward, test it over and over again. And finally – we commission it.” “And when that solution works,” Holmberg said, “that’s the joy – not only for the customer, that’s the joy in what we do, and that’s what keeps us going back for the next one.”


At ELM Electrical, the CEO calls them — collectively and warmly — a “culture.” One manager describes them as a “great team,” while another says with finality that they are merely “the life and blood.”

The word “employees” would be the conventional designation, and at ELM, on any day, they can be found venturing into the far corners of electrical service to produce, with exhaustive precision, the devices for harnessing and delivering this awesome force of nature to the essential needs of everyday life. Installing programmable logic controls and operator interfaces, for example, and assembling control panels and mounting components. It’s the work of those of summit skills and insatiable curiosity.

“You hear these terms – our employees are our biggest asset,” said Bob Bacon, ELM President and CEO. “So having high-quality, high-value people who care about our customers and their co-workers is critical. It’s our most important thing. It’s the reason we’re successful.”

And noting a phenomenon in relationships, Bacon added: “What’s really interesting about it is — high-value people attract other high-value people.”

Case in point in the matter of quality attracting quality: Scot St. Laurent, ELM’s Panel Shop Manager, who came from a different company. “Worked with ELM in the past, used them as a sub-contractor,” St. Laurent said. “So, when I had the opportunity to come and work for ELM – that’s a company I’d like to come and work for. Because of the experience and the knowledge base that they had, and the diversity – made me feel [like] one spoke of a big wheel. They made me feel like… I want to be a part of that.”

A day in the life of ELM: “Every day, it’s coming in and getting to play with the big kids’ toys – that’s the best way to put it,” said Applications Engineer Tim Doyle. “And,” he added, “to solve real world problems. You have a great team of people who are dedicated, hard-working, really smart, and everybody collaborates. Which makes it a great place to work.”

Said Mike Holmberg, Senior Vice President: “Our employees provide everything we do electrical for our customers, so they are our greatest asset. They are the life and blood of ELM Electrical. Without our employees, we don’t exist.”

For Tim Rzeszutek, Senior Project Manager, there’s a kind of harmony throughout the staff. “It all starts with everybody here’s pretty much passionate about what they do,” he said. “We all come in, we’re focused on what we’re doing. Everybody’s relying on everybody else to do their part.”

Even when there’s a sour note.

“If we get somebody who’s not working out, or they’re coming in late,” said Bob Bacon, the CEO, “they don’t hear about it from me, they hear about it from his peers, … ‘Dude – you’re coming in late. You’ve got to be here. We’ve got to get this job done.’ I’m just so impressed with the culture and the way it self-enhances itself.  It continues, and it wants to be the best, and they strive to be the best. And it’s just a great scene and a great culture.

“I’d love to take credit, but I can’t. It’s the people in the organization that created the culture. It’s really powerful, and I,” he said, “don’t want to mess it up.”

ELM Employee Spotlight: Marwan Al Masri

For Marwan Al Masri, the kid from Lebanon, beset by the uncertainties of youth, the pieces of his life kept falling into the right places at the right times, like an amazing puzzle composing itself.

They first arrived when Marwan was out of high school and trying to get on with his education. The family couldn’t afford college, but he’d won a scholarship to a university in France. A month before he was scheduled to leave for France, he was with a friend, filling out some forms for the American University of Beirut, a distinguished school established in 1866. The form asked for the applicant’s preferred course of study.

“Electrical engineering?” his pal said.

Naw, Marwan said. What would be the point? He was on his way to France next month.

 “I’ll put it in anyway,” his friend said. What could it hurt?

A week before his trip to France, Marwan received a phone call. Not only was he accepted at American U., he was awarded a scholarship. Then he had his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

That door had barely closed when the next one opened.

Marwan had graduated with distinction from American U. and was trying to decide what was next.

“I had two choices,” he said. “I could continue at American U. or go into the military.”

There’s always an uncle.

“Then my uncle in Massachusetts called,” Marwan said. “He said there was a foundation that occasionally gives scholarships.”

And there went Marwan, off to Boston University with an academic scholarship, and then a master’s degree in computer systems engineering.

Next came the job hunt. It included a convenient website that invited seekers to list themselves, and that in turn resulted in a phone call from ELM Electrical.

 “I didn’t find them,” he noted. “They found me.”

Next came the prescient engineer, and Marwan’s plan.

“I still remember the first engineer I worked with,” Marwan said. “His name was Mike, and he was asking me – ‘How long you think you’re going to be here for?’ And I said, you know, not more than a year. And he’s like – you watch. You’re going to be here for 20 years. And I said, no way…”

Marwan’s plan was simple and basic — get some experience in the field, put aside some money and head back to Lebanon, to home and family.

“And I’m here for 16 years now,” he said.

The reasons are quick to mind.

“I love it for many things,” he said. “First, the flexibility I have.”

Being able to work remotely out of Boston for about a year, until it suited him to move back to headquarters.

“I can do things at my own pace, as long as I get them done,” he said, “and I get to do all sorts of things – program PLCs, computers and robots. A lot of intense, fascinating things. I love to solve problems, and to make things work better, and I love the idea of automation.       

“And I feel appreciated.”

ELM’s Apprenticeship Program

“And we did that for project purposes,” Project Manager Tim Rzeszutek was saying of a particular area of ELM Electrical’s vigorous and demanding Journeyman Apprentice Education Program. “But we also saw a lot of value just because we were giving ’em in-house training that was more focused on what we do.

“Ultimately,” he added, “it was better training than what they were receiving at their local tech schools.”

“Journeyman” may have the sense of middle-of-the-road or routine, but in this context it means “pro” and “big league.” The ELM journeyman can go to a wall box spouting a bewildering lion’s mane of wires – some white, some black, some bare – and determine which go with which, make the connections, and the homeowner merely comes to a neat cover on the wall, flips this switch for the ceiling light, that one for the counter light, and plug the coffee pot in that plug. The miracle of electricity is so simple – if one doesn’t think too hard about it.

 But those learning to deal with it have to think very hard about it.

“There are a lot of guys that are so willing to help you,” said Alex Pedro, ELM apprentice. “Drop everything. Classes are great. Shop is great. I love it. It’s really amazing.”

“Here at ELM, we started out like every other electrical contractor – register our apprentices, send them to night school, and that worked well for a lot of years,” said ELM instructor Paul Asselin. “As the company grew, our needs changed and we started the current program a couple years ago. They’re taught the same lessons if they were to go to night classes. But we have the added advantage of having a hands-on lab where our employees, our students, can actually put their hands on material, build projects on the wall, make things work, get that gratification. They’re our employees – they’re our greatest assets.”

Apprentice Alex Alfano took quick aim on joining ELM. “I never had a lot of electrical experience,” he said, “so I wanted to go through this program so I could learn a lot more through the book and get some hands-on experience as well. We started by going through the book… If you don’t have a lot of experience, but you’re willing to work, they’ll put in the time and effort and train you so that, One, you’re trained correctly, and Two, they’ll have an employee they can teach so that you’ll come out a journeyman.”

Added Pedro: “ELM is training their employees the right way – not cutting corners. And I think that’s what we need more of in this world. Like, doing things the right way.”

And said apprentice Jared Borja: “We’re very taken care of here. Everything at our disposal, everything we could possibly need to do our own job correctly and become full journeymen.”       

And Instructor Matt York underlined ELM’s goal and success with the journeyman program.

“The investment from the company is substantial, it’s never-ending,” York said. “It seems like so much of  the company’s profit gets reinvested back into employees. I don’t know how I could put a value on that. I really do love it.”