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Factory fans love to see ‘how it’s made’

During a tour of Built-Rite Tool & Die, president Craig A. Bovaird (center) spoke with tour organizer Chris Denney and visitor Erik Sobel, a principal at Technology Research Laboratories.
During a tour of Built-Rite Tool & Die, president Craig A. Bovaird (center) spoke with tour organizer Chris Denney and visitor Erik Sobel, a principal at Technology Research Laboratories.Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe

LANCASTER — Craig Bovaird pulled open the door that led onto another manufacturing floor at Built-Rite Tool & Die, a lofty space with concrete floors where a handful of workers operated plastic molding equipment spitting out lead frames for electrical connectors at the rate of eight to 10 per hour. Over the hissing and grinding of the heavy machinery, Bovaird, who bought the plastics and engineering firm in 1999, shouted, “We’re about to enter an older world. This is old school technology.”

The section of throwback equipment was one stop on a two-hour tour Bovaird led through his 65,000-square-foot Built-Rite complex here, showcasing automation systems for a broad array of industrial tasks from injection molding to 3-D printing, to sonic welding and die cutting. The tour group was an unusual one: instead of clients, visiting dignitaries, or politicians seeking a photo-op, it was just 16 people who happen to love manufacturing.

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“People have no idea that stuff still gets made here,” said Chris Denney, who organized the tour. “People think that everything is made in China, that nobody here makes anything except cheeseburgers and french fries.”

Built-Rite is the fourth plant visited by the group of manufacturing enthusiasts known as New England Factory Tours. Inspired by a similar group in San Francisco, it is indicative of the cachet manufacturing has gained in recent years as a new generation of entrepreneurs known as makers turn their attention from software and services toward tangible products — from hardware to drones to smartwatches.

The growth of this movement is underscored by the emergence of shared workspaces such as Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, the home of startups such as 3Doodler, the maker of a 3-D printing pen, and Greentown Labs, also in Somerville, a hardware incubator that houses wind turbine developer Altaeros Energies, weather sensor maker Understory, and other firms.

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Micaelah Morrill, a program manager at Greentown Labs, checked out a 3-D printer during the tour.
Micaelah Morrill, a program manager at Greentown Labs, checked out a 3-D printer during the tour.Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Bolt, a Boston venture capital firm that invests in hardware startups, has raised nearly $30 million since it was founded two years ago and backed at least 18 companies, including Petnet, which makes a smart feeding dish for dogs and cats, and Pavlok, a wearable gadget that delivers a mild electric shock when users indulge in bad habits.

President Obama also has made manufacturing a key component of his economic strategy. Over the past few years, his administration has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to promote manufacturing through research, worker training, and the establishment of “centers of excellence” around the country.

In Massachusetts, manufacturing still employs about 250,000 people, paying average wages of about $80,000 a year compared with about $60,000 for all industries, according to state labor statistics. Most manufacturing in the state is so-called advanced manufacturing that uses sophisticated processes, makes sophisticated products, and requires highly skilled workers.

New England Factory Tours was launched last fall through the social networking site Meetup. The group made its first stop in November at Pace Industries in Billerica, which attracted 20 tour-goers. Pace is a die caster, using molds to shape molten metal.

Most of these “tourists” have a professional connection to manufacturing, but their interest extends beyond their jobs. In spending their free time in factories, many are indulging lifelong fascinations with how things are made.

At Built-Rite Tool & Die, vice president Andy Samoiloff demonstrated some of the products made by its Reliance Engineering division.
At Built-Rite Tool & Die, vice president Andy Samoiloff demonstrated some of the products made by its Reliance Engineering division.Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe

Denney, for example, is the chief technical officer at Worthington Assembly, a small electronics maker in South Deerfield. But Denney, 30, traces his love of manufacturing to his childhood when he watched a Sesame Street episode featuring the inside of a Crayola factory.

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“Why are some people interested in music?” Denney asked. “I’m not sure why, but I just love factories. I love seeing how things are made.”

Erik Sobel, who traveled 40 miles from Newton to Lancaster to take the Built-Rite tour, said his obsession with manufacturing began when he visited the now-defunct Wonder Bread factory in Natick on an elementary school trip when he was about 9 years old.

Today, Sobel, 53, is a principal at Technology Research Laboratories, a technology and product consultancy in Newton. But when he is on vacation, he tries to find breweries or food processing plants or other manufacturing operations that are open to the public.

“I just love to see how stuff is made,” Sobel said. “There’s something mesmerizing about watching the steps.”

The goal of the New England Factory Tours is to visit a least one plant per month. Anyone who signs up for a free account on Meetup can go, though they have limited slots and fill up quickly.

The tour series is organized by Denney and John Amend, a cofounder of robot maker Empire Robotics, along with Ben Einstein and Christopher Quintero, both of Bolt, where Einstein is managing director and Quintero is an associate.

After setting up a Meetup profile, the group started reaching out to factory owners and managers to see if they might be interested in hosting the tours. Some refused to open their facilities to the public, citing safety issues and concerns about trade secrets. Others, like Built-Rite, have jumped at the opportunity, hoping the tours help them connect with new clients.

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Many of these manufacturers, including Built-Rite, are courting startups that are moving products from prototypes to commercial production. Adam Shayevitz, a Boston-area consultant who helps entrepreneurs find materials and manufacturers for new products, said higher transportation and rising labor costs in China and other overseas manufacturing centers make it an opportune time for local factories to woo startups looking to scale up.

Bovaird explained a product to Morrill and others in the group touring the plastics and engineering operation.
Bovaird explained a product to Morrill and others in the group touring the plastics and engineering operation.Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe

Working with a local manufacturer, Shayevitz added, makes oversight easier.

“It is such an advantage to have someone you can drive to, within an hour or two, where you can see the process, resolve technical issues,” Shayevitz said. “Startups don’t have the time and resources to deal with companies overseas. They’re trying to get something to market fast.”

The ground for hardware startups has become especially fertile in Boston, where the makers movement is supported by incubators, shared hacker spaces, venture capital, and, of course, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They have helped produce successful companies such as iRobot, the Burlington robot makers, and Boston Dynamics, an advanced robot maker that also consults for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA; the US Army; and other federal agencies.

But bridging the gap between a prototype and mass production can be daunting, especially for engineers with limited background in high-volume manufacturing, according to Shayevitz.

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One of the key goals of the factory tours, Denney says, is to ease the transition for those would-be entrepreneurs.

Micaelah Morrill, a program manager at Somerville incubator Greentown Labs, connects entrepreneurs with local manufacturers. Morrill said that she has attended New England Factory Tours events to meet more manufacturers and to get firsthand experience inside more types of factories.

On the tour at Built-Rite, Morrill said seeing the heavy equipment in action gave her a concrete appreciation for aspects of manufacturing she had only known about theory.

“I’d never been on an injection-molding floor before,” Morrill said. “I knew of the machines, but I’d never seen them in person. It was really cool.”

Many come on the tours to make business connections, said Amend, one of the tour organizers, but they also have a longstanding interest in the day-to-day operations of factories.

“It’s like a live, better version of the TV show ‘How It’s Made,’ ” Amend said.


Jon Christian can be reached at jonathan.a.christian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jon_christian.