From the outside, the 3M plant appeared to be doing business as usual on Monday. But inside, as workers learned whether they were one of the 124 let go by the company, things were anything but normal. Some emerged from the meeting with tears, others with sighs of relief.
They all wondered why.
After all, 3M is doing well nationwide, with a soaring stock price and few layoffs.
But the plant in Columbia, which primarily makes flexible circuits and other electrical components, has been a victim of a soft technology market, 3M spokesman Matt Fagan said. Sales in flexible circuits have dropped 27 percent in the past year.
Because of the way 3M is managed, the health or weakness in other divisions has nothing to do with jobs across division lines, he said.
“We manage all of our businesses independently,” Fagan said.
The Columbia plant is 3M’s only manufacturer of flexible circuits in the United States. Therefore, when the flexible circuit market is down, the plant in Columbia is the hardest-hit. There are other 3M plants that produce flexible circuits, but they are all overseas, 3M spokesman Bill Nelson said.
Flexible circuits are primarily used in the cartridges of printers, but are also used in hard-disk drives, hearing aids and other electrical devices. Within printer cartridges, flexible circuits serve two purposes: as an interface between the cartridge and the computer, and for heating ink to help in flow.
Because of less demand for final technology products produced with flexible circuits, the market for the circuits has been weakening since the technology downturn in mid-2000, Fagan said.
3M’s largest customers of flexible circuits are Lexmark and Hewlett Packard, both of which make printers.
The flexible circuit market is under the umbrella of the Electro Communications division, which is a relatively small part of the company. Electro Communications accounts for $1.9 billion of the almost $17 billion in total company sales, Fagan said. Electro Communications headquarters in Austin, Texas, announced Monday that it will lay off 130 workers there, he said.
Most of those laid off are wage workers responsible for the assembly of flexible circuits and other components, including lenses and tags used to mark library books for security.
Some 3M plants have unions, but Columbia workers are not part of any such organization.
The company did not offer the workers any job fairs or other means to find a job, but Fagan said it would consider hiring back the employees if jobs become available.
Such positions could come up sometime next year, when Columbia’s 3M plant is scheduled to receive a $6 million defense appropriation from the federal government. The windfall, which provides money for further development of a handheld biological weapons sensor, has already passed the U.S. House and Senate, said Ernie Blazar, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.
Columbia plant manager Tony Aulisa could not be reached for comment. Numerous workers were approached, but they declined to comment.
Missourian reporter Erin Foote Pursell contributed to this report.