A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 2, 2019

High Tech Firms Have Revived Manufacturing In New York City

The city has good engineering schools, a vibrant tech scene - and A LOT of moneyed investors.

The old sweat shops may be gone, but precision high tech industry is growing. JL

Clay Risen reports in the New York Times:

It’s been a long time since “New York” and “manufacturing” sat together in a sentence that didn’t include words like “decay,” “pollution” and “job loss.” In recent years, the city has been undergoing an industrial transformation; 2015 was the first year in decades that New York did not see a drop in manufacturing jobs.These jobs don’t take place in the sweaty, iron-and-oil factories of old. They are high-tech and, not automated, requiring sophisticated human skills to navigate 3-D printing and computer-numerical-control milling  to produce small batches of precisely engineered products.
On a crisp afternoon in late September, a submarine launched from Governors Island. The 100-pound unmanned vessel bobbed in the waves for a few minutes before dipping briefly underwater, then returned to the dock.
Brian Wilson looked on like a worried parent watching a child swim alone for the first time. “There’s no GPS underwater,” he said. “It doesn’t always know where it is.”
The submarine, designed and built by a Bronx-based company called Duro UAS, is called an “underwater autonomous vehicle,” even though, for now, it’s not quite autonomous, relying on a control cable linking it to an operator on shore.
Within a few years, Mr. Wilson, the president of Duro, hopes to sell these submarines to harbor authorities, bridge engineers, environmental nonprofits — what industry insiders like to call “blue tech.”
To summarize: They’re building underwater drones, from scratch, in the South Bronx. Who said manufacturing in New York is dead?
And Duro is far from alone. Honeybee Robotics is building equipment for Mars rovers in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Rosco Vision Systems makes rearview cameras for buses in Jamaica, Queens. Those giant video screens starting to appear in subway stations? Boyce Technologies makes them at a high-tech factory in Long Island City.
It’s been a long time since “New York” and “manufacturing” sat together in a sentence that didn’t include words like “decay,” “pollution” and “job loss.”
But in recent years, the city has been quietly undergoing an industrial transformation; according to a report by the Industrial Trade and Assistance Corporation, with research funded by Empire State Development, 2015 was the first year in decades that New York did not see a drop in manufacturing jobs.
These jobs, however, don’t take place in the sweaty, iron-and-oil factories of old. They are high-tech and so far, not automated, requiring sophisticated human skills to navigate innovations like 3-D printing and computer-numerical-control milling — essentially, robotic drills and lathes — to produce small batches of precisely engineered products.
At Boyce’s facility, which occupies an old fragrance factory, employees work alongside giant precision robots, making everything from customized nuts and bolts to their own circuit boards; they even make the plastic connectors at the end of machine cables. “We really want to bring manufacturing back in America,” said Charles Boyce, the president of the company.
If developed with care, New York’s future in tech could involve more and better opportunities for the middle class, filling the gap between Google millionaires and gig economy workers with no benefits.
“Manufacturing is a good entry point for a middle-class career where you don’t need a college degree to get started,” said Lisa Futterman, a regional director for the state’s Workforce Development Institute. “It could be a great path for first-generation immigrants who don’t have networks and don’t want to take on college debt.”
Companies like Duro and Boyce are committed to staying in New York, and are willing to offer the sort of salaries and health care coverage needed to foster a new generation of high-skilled blue-collar workers. The question is whether the city is ready for a return to the factory floor.
Duro was founded in 2015 by Mr. Wilson and Gabriel Foreman, who met while working at a consulting company in Manhattan.
From an early age, Mr. Wilson, who grew up nearby in New Jersey, was fascinated by New York Harbor, especially the complex world below its surface. How, he remembers thinking, do you keep a close eye on a bridge foundation in the murky, cold, swift currents of the East River?
“The port of New York and New Jersey is one of the best ports in the country,” Mr. Wilson said. “This is a huge maritime city, but people don’t always realize it.”
Mr. Wilson and Mr. Foreman had seen friends play with aerial drones, and they began to wonder if there wasn’t a way to make a drone that worked underwater. The challenges are much more complex: For starters, an operator usually can’t see a drone underwater, so it needs to be truly autonomous, using sensors to find its way. And it needs to be able to stabilize itself in powerful, unpredictable currents.
Several large companies, many of them defense contractors, already had products on the market. But for anyone outside the military or deep-pocketed energy firms, they are prohibitively expensive, often costing well above $100,000.
Mr. Wilson and Mr. Foreman founded Duro to develop a cheaper model that city governments and environmental groups could afford.
The obvious next step would have been to relocate to California, where the engineering talent and investor capital are. But the duo figured they would have a hard time getting noticed there. “We could never do what we do in San Francisco,” said Mr. Wilson, implying that their project would get lost in the shuffle there.
To many entrepreneurs, New York might not be the ideal alternative. Real estate, labor, regulations — everything is expensive. But Duro — along with many other tech-oriented manufacturers — are noticing what the city has to offer.
New York’s colleges and universities have several strong engineering departments, and Manhattan is full of investors. Plus New York’s unusual infrastructure has its own tech needs.
“No question, operating in New York is ridiculously expensive,” said Mr. Boyce, whose company designs and builds communications equipment for New York subways. “But our focus is on public transit. Being in the middle of that, we can respond to urgent issues faster, and that gives us the ability to take work from larger competitors who are not as agile.”
Determined to make Duro work in New York, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Foreman gathered some money from relatives and, along with a $150,000 investment from Quake Capital, a Manhattan-based firm, they set up shop in the engineering school at City College.
To generate revenue until the underwater drone is ready, Duro sells what it calls the sonde — a small tube that floats like a buoy and comes packed with a customizable suite of sensors to track things like water quality and temperature.
Like the submarine, virtually everything in the sonde is made by Duro itself, either on a 3-D printer or one of several computer-controlled machine mills. That allows Duro to move quickly and cheaply from prototype to finished product — so it can offer a lower price.
The company is growing. Two years ago, Duro moved from City College to a building in the South Bronx; a few months later, having quickly outgrown its first space, it relocated to a bigger office upstairs. Despite its sweeping picture-window views of the Harlem River, the new workroom already feels cramped, packed with new employees and stacks of parts.
In the conventional narrative, New York is supposed to be a postindustrial success story, with old, dirty manufacturing having ceded the floor to high-tech and creative industries. All those once-empty factories in Williamsburg and Bushwick now house software start-ups and workshare spaces.
Duro is something in between. But as a manufacturer, it still has an image problem, Mr. Wilson said. And this affects its ability to properly recruit and train employees.
“People think manufacturing is dirty, and that image has hurt the pipeline of people who might want to go into it,” said Adam Friedman, the executive director of the Center for Community Development at the Pratt Institute.
But today’s tech manufacturing positions require intense, extensive skills; you can’t take over a computer-assisted laser cutter after a few shifts on the job. Mr. Boyce said that it takes a year to train workers at Boyce Technologies.
“Manufacturing is not what it used to be, and the education system has to adjust accordingly,” said Miquela Craytor, the executive director at New York City’s Small Business Services.
Both the city and state governments have made some efforts to change that. ApprenticeNYC, a city program, helps train workers on high-tech machinery, while the state government has funded start-ups in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
But for the businesses in need of a work force, such efforts are not enough. “Their intentions are good,” Mr. Boyce said, “but they’re crippled by bureaucracy.”
One answer, at least for some companies, is to do it themselves. Soon after founding Duro, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Foreman started working with some of the city’s high schools and colleges to build a worker pipeline. One of the company’s efforts, Fundamentals of Fabrication — FunFab, for short — focuses on finding talented students in underserved parts of the Bronx.
Not all the students who go through FunFab end up working for Duro — but that’s not the idea. The goal is to build a critical mass of workers with hands on math and science skills across the city. “It gave me a path to follow,” said Ramon Felix, a freshman at CUNY Guttman in Manhattan, who participated in FunFab at Bronx International High School. “I learned all about engineering, computers and how a business works.”
Boyce has similar in-house training programs, and it has reached out to schools like LaGuardia Community College and Queens Technical High School to get students prepared earlier for manufacturing jobs.
But for these companies to continue to grow, Mr. Boyce said, they need serious assistance from the city and state — above all employment and training subsidies.
“The ‘Made in New York’ brand is really valuable in my industry, but it’s not taken seriously by the city,” he said. “I want the city and the state to do their share.”
Despite all the hurdles, New York’s tech manufacturing sector seems to be flourishing. Boyce’s revenue and employment are growing at double digits, and it has nearly outgrown its Long Island City facility. Duro will likely soon be looking for more space, once it brings its underwater drone to market.
And for now, at least, both companies are committed to staying in the city. “As we keep growing, we want to keep that growth local,” Mr. Wilson said. He’s betting — and hoping — that New York will agree.


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