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Innovation Economy

How do we create manufacturing jobs in Mass.?

Eric Hold works on the electrical boards of a mass spectrometer at 908 Devices in South Boston.
Eric Hold works on the electrical boards of a mass spectrometer at 908 Devices in South Boston.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“What we need are manufacturing jobs, not stupid social apps.”

That was a comment appended to a column I wrote in August about two app start-ups in Boston, and I thought it raised a good question: Who is creating those new manufacturing jobs? If you want to weld, rivet, or stamp for a living, rather than code and upload, where will you work?

I agree with Russ Wilcox, co-founder and former chief executive of E Ink, when he says our goal should be not just to invent things in Massachusetts, “but invent them and manufacture them here. Today’s manufacturing isn’t just wrench-turning; it’s a really good job. And manufacturing can help lift Central and Western Massachusetts.”

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You can place most manufacturers in Massachusetts into one of two buckets. Some have been here forever and built up facilities and skilled workforces, like Crane & Co. (1801), Smith & Wesson (1852), or Gillette (1895). Younger companies that make stuff here tend to sell new, expensive, sophisticated products in fast-changing industries.

If you own an e-book reader from Amazon, Sony, or Barnes & Noble, the key elements of the low-power, high-contrast screen were made in South Hadley by E Ink Holdings, a Taiwanese company formerly known as Prime View International. The E Ink technology originated at MIT and became a startup in 1997.

When the company began to make its product, it sought a partner nearby that could help — and found a company in South Hadley. E Ink later built its own plant there, and today employs 81 people to make “ink” (actually tiny black-and-white microcapsules that form the dots on its screens), and affix it to a flexible aluminum sheet.

The 90 miles between E Ink’s research and development team in Billerica and the South Hadley plant “allows for interplay between research, manufacturing, and product development,” says Giovanni Mancini, head of global marketing for E Ink Holdings. “There’s constant interaction,” which allows the company to continually improve its products.

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It isn’t hard to find other makers of first-of-a-kind products that are manufacturing them in Massachusetts. In a former Army warehouse on Boston Harbor, 908 Devices has 34 employees focused on designing and making a portable mass spectrometer that sells for $50,000. Typically, mass spectrometers are “stuck in labs, and they weigh 150 pounds or more,” says chief executive Kevin Knopp. The company’s M908 device, introduced last year, weighs just 4.4 pounds and can be slung over your shoulder; among its many uses are helping police identify drugs or explosives.

Over the summer, 908 more than doubled the size of its office, which includes a machine shop outfitted with the latest computer-controlled milling machines. One reason the company makes things in Boston, Knopp says, is that the technology is so unique and sensitive that it wouldn’t entrust it to an outside contract manufacturer.

More common, though, are start-ups like Somerville-based Formlabs, which makes a $3,300 desktop 3D printer that turns digitally-designed objects into something you can hold in your hand. Founded in 2011, the company already has 80 employees — but none of them build printers.

The company chose to work with a San Diego contract manufacturer. That decision was all about focus, explains CEO Maxim Lobovsky.

“We need everyone’s brains focused on developing products,” he says, “understanding what our customers need, and telling them about what we have. Everything else is a distraction.”

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Massachusetts has roughly 250,000 manufacturing jobs, down from a peak of about 500,000 several decades ago, according to federal statistics. Other states frequently dangle cheap real estate, workforce training grants, loans, and tax breaks to companies that set up a new manufacturing plants. Massachusetts doesn’t tend to compete as aggressively with those sorts of incentives.

Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of Housing and Economic development, says it isn’t realistic to imagine that factories and mills from the glory days of shoes, textiles, or telecom equipment will once again be filled by big companies. The state’s goal, he says, is to keep manufacturing employment at about the 250,000 level, while continuing to increase productivity and output.

He adds that about 100,000 of these workers will retire over the coming decade, so there’s opportunity for younger workers to fill those positions.

“The best strategy is to find companies with 20 or 50 employees, and create a sense of critical mass and clustering, and you get more who want to be close to those companies,” he says.

One area where I’d like to see improvement: more in-person and digital connections between communities with underused manufacturing facilities and workforces and the places where start-ups bloom (generally inside of Interstate 495). Speedier and more frequent train service to cities like Springfield and Holyoke would also help immensely.

For now, I think we need to count on — and support — start-ups like 908 Devices and E Ink to develop new products that will be made in Massachusetts, typically by smallish teams.

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I asked Mancini at E Ink what happens to the microcapsule-coated sheets that are made in South Hadley. They’re cut up and shipped to another facility near Shanghai, where each sheet is attached to the electronics that will control the display. About how many people work in that factory? North of 3,000, Mancini says. (And one of those “stupid social apps,” Facebook, today employs more than 7,000 people.)

So, esteemed commenters, what’s your best idea for creating that number of new manufacturing jobs in Massachusetts?


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.