Tech-savvy manufacturers are charting a course back toward prosperity

It’s no secret that manufacturers are shedding workers.

In the year ending July 2012, regional manufacturing employment dropped 2.3 percent, continuing a decline that has persisted for decades, according to the 2013 Maryland/DC Manufacturers Directory.

But local manufacturers from a range of disciplines say they are finding ways to make it work. Some technology-based manufacturers are booming, and others that have incorporated new technologies into the creation of traditional products are on the rebound.

Take, for instance, Craig Bandes, CEO of Pixelligent, a Baltimore maker of nano materials. If a piece of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick, Bandes works in the range of three to seven nanometers, producing materials for the electronics market in Asia.

Ironically, the struggles of Bandes’ competitors to succeed in nanotechnology have created one of his greatest challenges.

“Customers have worked with other nano-type technologies in the past where, after doing a lot of work, they turned out not to be able to deliver,” he said. “So, we have to sell past that and make customers comfortable that we have figured it out, that we have broken through the commercialization scale-up wall and can deliver at a price point that fits into their model,” he said.

Bandes is winning with frequent-flier miles. He’s been to Asia three times this year and has a trip on the books to Europe.

“We have to go over there if we want to establish that credibility,” he said.

If Bandes works on the cutting edge, John Danko plows the fields of tried-and-true.

Founded in 1920, Danko Arlington in Baltimore casts heavy metal: gears, electrical chassis, pumps and pipes. Overall, it’s an anemic industry.

“The foundry industry in North America is rapidly declining. It’s like farming or fishing or mining. There are a lot of regulations and rules, and there are just not a lot of people who want to do it. It’s hard work,” Danko said.

While much of the industry is being off-shored to China and Mexico, Danko still stands strong, with Dun & Bradstreet reporting annual revenue of $7.4 million.

Success comes largely as a result of massive infusions of cash on the technology side. Danko said the firm has spent almost $1 million putting in place 3-D printing technology, a cutting edge means of copying objects to produce three-dimensional solid objects. It gives Danko unprecedented flexibility.

“We are now printing in polycarbonate plastic all of our tooling that used to be made by human hands,” he said.

“We have a 10,000-square-foot wood shop and we don’t have anyone in it because it has been replaced by a giant printer that works 24/7. That’s how America is going to recover manufacturing,” he said.

Even though the industry continues to shed jobs, manufacturers say there are plenty of opportunities available for people with technology skills.

“It sounds cliche, but it really is about being able to draw the best people, to train the best people, retain the best people,” said Tyson Aschliman, vice president of Green Bay Packaging’s Baltimore division in Hunt Valley, where 110 people make corrugated packaging and display products. The firm has seen double-digit revenue growth for several consecutive years.

Aschliman has worked with community colleges, workforce development organizations and other public entities. He sees good intentions, but says too many people still enter the workforce without the necessary skills to succeed.

“They are extremely eager to help, from the top level and also from the grass-roots. But there seems to be a disconnect between the ideals of these organizations and the implementations, the real availability of valuable resources,” he said.

On the flip side, when Aschliman does identify a candidate, he typically likes what he sees.

“We are finding people who want to win, who want to play for a winner and who want to see something grow. It gives me confidence in the American psyche,” he said.

Bandes is in the same boat. He can find operators and technicians, but senior technical people remain elusive.

He needs people who can take the technology and turn it into specific applications, “and unemployment is zero in those jobs,” he said.

The universities are doing their part, producing many talented individuals. Immigration law then promptly boots them out.

“They are forced to leave just after they become valuable,” Bandes said.

By Adam Stone on May 10, 2013

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