Philly manufacturing no longer dark and dirty; Makers must collaborate

BioBots cofounder Danny Cabrera (left), operations chief Madeline Winter, and cofounder Ricardo Solorzano assemble a 3-D bio-printer in their shared workspace at NextFab in South Philadelphia.
BioBots cofounder Danny Cabrera (left), operations chief Madeline Winter, and cofounder Ricardo Solorzano assemble a 3-D bio-printer in their shared workspace at NextFab in South Philadelphia. (CHANDA JONES / Staff)
Posted: January 29, 2016

Not Your Grandfather's Manufacturing wasn't the title of Wednesday's Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce event on manufacturing.

But it could have been, given the panelists on stage at the Hyatt at the Bellevue.

Give up the image of "dark, dirty, dangerous, and underpaid," with "rows of people doing menial tasks," said panelist Evan Malone, founder of NextFab, the hardware technology incubator and product development services company in South Philadelphia.

Instead, Malone urged the audience of 160 businesspeople, lawyers, bankers, and workforce-development professionals to think about 3-D printers which can make initial samples of a new product for only $5 to $10 each, eliminating the need to risk $5,000 to $10,000 to make injection-molding tooling just to test out a design with a small number of customers. 

That's the same price, he said, that it would take to use injection-molding technology to spit out a few thousand pieces.

Malone brought up the work done by BioBots, which developed a lower-cost 3-D printer capable of printing various body tissues to one day make new cartilage, a heart valve, or maybe an organ.

The Philadelphia-based company's 3-D printers, the size of milk crates, represent the new technology, promising to transform factories.

But what is also not your grandfather's manufacturing turned out to be more old school.

It's called talking.

"The competition isn't afraid to work with each other - and that's been recent, in the last five years," said Bud Tyler, vice president of the E.F. Precision Group, in Horsham.

Tyler said that manufacturing competitors have become colleagues, working together through the Manufacturing Alliance of Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

Together, they build apprenticeship pathways, work with local high schools and community colleges to create curriculums that match employers' needs, and, perhaps most important, share contracts with one another.

Better, they have realized, to keep the work in the region and get a slice of the profits than to turn the entire chunk of business away for lack of capacity, Tyler said.

The trick, Tyler said, is to get the owners of small manufacturers to come out of their shops, where they are both busy and comfortable, and communicate about shared challenges.

That kind of support was key to building Dana Russikoff's business, she told the group. Her company, SureShade, which makes shades for leisure boats, relied on a network that included the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center.

While networking may be invaluable on a small scale, what really matters are initiatives that keep the entire region competitive - support for pipelines to bring cheaper natural gas energy to Philadelphia and a business community that is not overtaxed or overregulated, Stephen R. Mullin, president of an economic consulting firm, Econsult Solutions Inc., told the group.

Absent those macro-changes, the Philadelphia region "compares horribly" in terms of high costs of doing business, he said. "We have to get pipelines."

David Kipphut's pipeline had more to do with future talent, emitting an energy of a different sort.

Kipphut, deputy chief of career and technical education for the School District of Philadelphia, bragged about the district's new advanced manufacturing program, with eight technical labs, a computer center, and a quality-assurance facility housed in 30,000 square feet at Benjamin Franklin High School at Broad and Spring Garden Streets.

The facility has capacity for 800 students, with about 320 now enrolled and the rest coming in the fall. Kipphut said the district wants to open the space for training adults evenings, weekends, and summers.

Among those in the audience was Andrew Dahlgren, an industrial designer who has long nursed a dream of buying high-speed, high-tech knitting machines to set up a contract manufacturing textile business.

So far, he said, the demand is there, but not the investment money.

His hope in attending Wednesday's session was to get involved in conversations about a key project.

"We have this idea that we have to have large-scale manufacturing," said Dahlgren, who, besides teaching industrial design, owns a business that develops samples on smaller knitting machines.

"As part of the small maker community, there are a lot of us who want to scale up," he said. "The large manufacturers you see were once small."

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769

@JaneVonBergen

www.philly.com/jobbing

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