- a musical repetition:
the repetition of the exposition preceding the development
- a recurrence, renewal, or resumption of an action
It was getting close to showtime, and Charles Gerard Conn was in trouble.
The intrepid young owner of a small grocery store in Elkhart, Indiana, had already overcome his share of trials. He enlisted in the Union army as a drummer boy in May 1861 at age 17; later, he would be an active combatant and ascend to the rank of captain. He was captured during the Battle of Petersburg in 1864, and spent the remainder of the war as a POW in the Confederacy’s infamous Andersonville prison, despite two attempts at escaping.
Now the year was 1873, and the dilemma Conn was facing wasn’t life-or-death but was nonetheless vexing. He had been involved in a barroom brawl days earlier and had a rather painful split lip to show for it. To make matters worse, his injury made his participation in Elkhart’s “Brick Brown Band” impossible. Conn was a cornet player, but pressing the instrument to his lips to play was unbearable in his post-brawl state.
With a concert quickly approaching, Conn decided on a course of action. He fashioned a cushion for his cornet mouthpiece made from a rubber stamp. It got him through the gig and drew the interest of a few of his friends, who asked Conn to make some for them. Word of the innovation spread, and soon Conn reconfigured a sewing machine into a lathe to help produce the mouthpieces to meet the growing demand.
Conn’s side hustle took off. He would eventually establish C.G. Conn Ltd., the first company created in a prolonged bullish period of instrument manufacturing in Elkhart. Other companies sprang up, and after a couple of generations, the small city approximately 15 miles from Notre Dame’s campus became known as the band instrument capital of the world. By the 1970s, an estimated 40 percent of the world’s band instruments were made in Elkhart.
History of the
Two years after his successful cornet mouthpiece experiment, C.G. Conn took his instrument making full-time. He went into business with 15 artisans from France to begin producing horns.
The business took off. By 1878, Conn employed 60 people at his business. The growth continued and by 1905, he had the largest instrument-making factory in the world.
At every turn, Conn relied on innovation to keep the company moving. He produced the first American-made saxophone after agreeing to make a copy of the instrument originally designed by Adolphe Sax.
Conn’s fame drew the attention of famous musicians of the day. John Philip Sousa’s band was outfitted with Conn instruments, and Conn’s factory produced the first commercially successful sousaphone at the composer’s suggestion.
Conn’s legacy of handmade instruments continues to this day. It’s a major appeal for artists of all kinds, including Henry Bloss ’25, a trumpet player in the Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra. He’s been playing a ConnSelmer-produced Bach instrument for more than a decade.
“Everyone has a slightly different way of playing the instrument,” Bloss said. “It’s kind of like how no two people write the same way. I really like playing handmade trumpets. I like playing an instrument that is uniquely mine.”
The spirit of innovation that Charles Conn exhibited in the 1870s is still alive today at the company that bears his name, now known as ConnSelmer. They still make instruments in Elkhart, but the industry landscape has changed dramatically. ConnSelmer is now the only major band instrument manufacturer left in the United States. The pride and the weight that comes with that distinction is felt in all corners of the company. Many employees at the Elkhart facility have been working there for multiple decades, or are the latest in several generations of family who have been employed there.
“The people who work on our team are craftspeople,” said ConnSelmer CEO Steve Zapf. “You don’t just put a bunch of pellets into a 3D printer and see a trumpet pop out of the other end. It’s tremendous craftsmanship.
“At the same time, we recognize that it’s more expensive to manufacture in the U.S. So we have to modernize. It’s incumbent upon us as a higher-cost U.S. manufacturer, who wants to remain manufacturing in the U.S., to invest in modernization and innovation so that not only do we bring our product up to the next level, but we’re more efficient when we do.”
The instrument manufacturers no longer have the presence they once did, but the South Bend-Elkhart region is still heavily reliant on industry. More than a third of the workforce is employed in manufacturing, often in highly customized settings with high volatility. Perhaps the best-known example is found in recreational vehicles, approximately 80 percent of which are made in Elkhart County. Today, the industry is booming, thanks in part to the pandemic. (As many tourist destinations closed due to COVID, some families opted to go RV-ing at state and national parks for their summer vacations.) The boom times are welcome, of course, but it doesn’t take a long memory to recall a much different climate. In 2008, when the recession hit the RV industry particularly hard, Elkhart County led the nation in unemployment.
“In addition to the cyclical nature of the RV industry, our region is vulnerable to negative disruptions associated with new technologies in manufacturing,” said Scott Ford, Notre Dame’s associate vice president for economic development. “But by the same token, we have over 40,000 college students in the region — not just at Notre Dame, but the eight other colleges and universities in our area. These institutions, along with other training providers, give us an array of resources to support industry advancement. But we needed to organize in a way that they could provide a clear linkage to companies, and help strengthen the bonds between industry and those innovation assets.”
That link materialized over the course of several years through a series of successive partnerships and grant awards. One of the results was the formation of a group known as the Labs for Industry Futures and Transformation (LIFT) Network, established through a $42.4 million grant awarded to Notre Dame in 2019 from Lilly Endowment, Inc. As Ford put it, LIFT helps to animate regional chambers of commerce, school systems, higher education institutions and other entities, to have all parties working together to increase the productivity and resilience of the region’s manufacturing sector. The anchor of the LIFT Network is Notre Dame’s iNDustry Labs, a group that operates as a platform for collaboration between the University and local industry.
“What iNDustry Labs and LIFT are seeking to do is engage in partnership with companies,” Ford said, “to infuse new technologies; provide access to talent, access to R and D facilities and research, training; and help them generate new products, processes, markets and increased wages. They become the best versions of themselves.”
In some ways, ConnSelmer sought to be a better version of itself by rediscovering what made it a premium instrument brand in the first place. Through a suite of projects launched in 2020 that connected Notre Dame’s expertise and resources with ConnSelmer’s challenges and opportunities, a mutually beneficial relationship has formed that could serve as a blueprint for further collaboration between the University and the region.
“We were invited out to ConnSelmer and we did our normal pitch of the resources and talent, the ecosystem we can provide,” said Michael Shoemaker, an iNDustry Labs engineer-in-residence. “We noticed some initial things that we had questions around and saw some opportunities. A couple of weeks later, we got a call from ConnSelmer wanting to know more.”
Shoemaker’s role as an engineer-in-residence is to act as the partnership lead between Notre Dame and local manufacturers, providing expertise on how to navigate a research university and some real-world knowledge borne from experience. In Shoemaker’s case, that comes from time as an engineer with Ford Motor Co. “Engineers-in-residence bring a really critical piece to this ecosystem,” Shoemaker said, “because they’re able to leverage their previous knowledge. They’re able to walk into a business, and they can relate to not just the C-suite, but they’re able to relate to those operators, to everyone on the shop floor. And they’re able to not just ask the right questions, but also really start to identify the root cause of some of the issues.”
In a typical collaboration with area businesses, iNDustry Labs engineers-in-residence are joined by dedicated industry innovation fellows from a group called "enFocus". These individuals are selected for a competitive fellowship after completing an undergraduate, or often advanced, degree in a STEM-related fields.
The initial visit to ConnSelmer’s Elkhart campus revealed exactly what Zapf means when he describes trumpet-making as “craftsmanship.” Each instrument is handmade in a process that starts with stamping and shaping the brass and ends with testing the horn in a sound booth. In between are dozens of literal touchpoints a maker has with the instrument. This process is part of what gives ConnSelmer trumpets (sold under the brand name Vincent Bach) their appeal: The person playing the instrument knows that there is technically not another one like it in the world. To the uninitiated, that may sound like an artist’s overstatement. But Zapf is a believer, especially considering ConnSelmer instruments are played by all the major symphonic orchestras in the country.
“There’s an opportunity with the Bach trumpet, for example … to personalize the intonation so it allows you to shape the sound, which allows you to perform at the most elite level,” Zapf said. “I know artists who will buy an extra airplane seat when they travel so their instrument can be right there next to them the whole time. It’s that important that it gets to the next gig in perfect shape because this is what allows them to express themselves.”
Yet for all the benefits of an approach that produces subtle uniqueness in each instrument, over time, a certain amount of drift can occur in the processes used to create them. And the trained ear of an artist can sometimes pick up differences between instruments made decades ago and those produced now. In some cases, this drift may be simply a result of a lack of complete records or schematics for an instrument produced before the computer age. Other times, something else appears to be at work.
ConnSelmer was interested in a sort of forensic analysis of a model of trumpet made in the late 1950s. At that point, trumpets were made in New York state, and the company wondered if different materials and resources were used during that time and in that place. For answers, iNDustry Labs used the Materials Characterization Facility (MCF), a unit within the Center for Sustainable Energy at Notre Dame. The MCF provides world-class equipment and instrumentation to support a variety of scientific endeavors, including the testing and analysis of raw materials to determine composition, structure and other properties. Boasting leading experts in materials science, it was a natural fit for the work.
Researchers at the MCF audited and classified the properties of vintage trumpets, and compared them with those made at ConnSelmer’s Elkhart plant today. They focused on a part of the instrument known as the bell — the wide opening at the end of the horn. After careful analysis via spectrography and other processes, some answers started to emerge.
It turned out, the brass alloys used in the different horns were quite similar. That was a good sign.
Yet close inspection revealed some subtle differences that could account for variations in sound. Identifying these slight deviations in everything from thickness to grain structure will help ConnSelmer impart some of the desired characteristics of the vintage instrument into its modern counterparts. The exercise fits within a broader ConnSelmer corporate initiative called ConnSonic, which combines historical reclamation and modern manufacturing and fabrication.
“We delivered those results pretty quickly around the initial testing,” said Shoemaker. “[The partnership] really snowballed into other projects to include shop floor analysis, material testing, and it grew to R and D testing for future products.”
In each aspect of the partnership, iNDustry Labs and ConnSelmer are seeking to retain the identity of a legacy brand while finding ways to become more resilient for the future of manufacturing. Perhaps no project in the collaboration exemplifies that dynamic so poignantly as the process known as bell-spinning.
Bell-spinning is an integral part of the horn-making process. It is, without hyperbole, an artform. Spinners must perform a series of manual tasks to create the signature shape of each instrument. This includes operating a lathe to smooth material and remove excess, folding a seam, inserting a stabilizing wire and rolling the fringe at the end of the instrument. Not surprisingly, the job takes extremely specialized knowledge that can be gained only through experience. Only a handful of operators can perform this demanding task, and some of them at ConnSelmer learned it from a family member who had the job before them. Training a new bell-spinner can take up to six months, but the aforementioned boom in Elkhart’s RV industry makes it challenging to find qualified candidates for the job. And more job openings at this position may be coming soon: Many bell-spinners are nearing retirement.
ConnSelmer and iNDustry Labs are investigating nontraditional solutions to address the issue. Exact outcomes are still being developed, but the end result may be a combination of a first-of-its-kind application of artificial intelligence technology, and in-house component manufacturing. It would provide more consistency in the product and an upskilling opportunity for current and new employees, and help ConnSelmer guard some trade secrets related to the process.
Innovations in woodwind instruments are also being explored. ConnSelmer and iNDustry Labs are collaborating on a treatment system for the wood used to make clarinets, protecting them from the wild variations in humidity and temperature experienced throughout the country. Testing at Notre Dame facilities showed the system to be effective. It’s another example of how the iNDustry Labs model can be helpful, giving area industries access to resources that they may only need for a specific project or timeframe.
“I think iNDustry Labs has an opportunity to really make an impact on this region. In this time when we need to think about the future and how manufacturing is going to change.” —Michael Shoemaker
“It’s complicated to have all the tools you need to stay on top,” Zapf said. “Maybe you need [equipment] for five days and don’t really want to go out and spend the money to buy it, because it will take years to recoup that investment.
“Our product managers … know what they want to do, but enabling us to get there more quickly allows us to remain more competitive in what is very much a global market, and continue to produce here rather than just offshore everything and look for a lower cost.”
The ConnSelmer/iNDustry Labs partnership extends to other areas related to production processes and materials testing. For a company founded on innovation, the projects are a natural fit for ConnSelmer. Yet it’s clear the relationship is mutually beneficial. Notre Dame College of Engineering students who enrolled in an applied learning course during the fall 2021 semester helped to create a robust database to track ConnSelmer instruments. The following spring, a course on spectrographic analysis enabled students to learn about material characterization and instrument testing. These kinds of experiential learning opportunities give students a sense for how classroom theory can translate into a real-world context with real stakeholders.
Moreover, there is a broader purpose that is served through iNDustry Labs and LIFT initiatives. Like most universities, Notre Dame recognizes that its success is tied to the success of the surrounding region. Yet unlike its peer institutions, Notre Dame is located in a manufacturing center, which makes the work of iNDustry Labs an important part of the University’s overall engagement with the community. Notre Dame hopes to contribute to an ecosystem where businesses and the University can learn from each other and share in the benefits of the discoveries to be better prepared for the future. To use an apt analogy, it’s a little like a song that gets a reprise at the end of a musical: the tune may be familiar, but is given a new context and fresh appeal.
“I think iNDustry Labs has an opportunity to really make an impact on this region,” Shoemaker said. “In this time when we need to think about the future and how manufacturing is going to change, what excites me is being right there in that forefront. We’re able to really help companies discover some of these things for the first time, but not just identify it and speak to it. We’re helping companies actually implement these methodologies.”