Matthew Doom texts a lot at work and is a whiz on the 3-D printer. Unlike most tech workers, his office is a wooden workbench next to a milling machine where he cuts metal for medical devices and other parts.
The 20-year-old is one of a dozen employees at Baklund R&D in Hutchinson, Minn., who are using Internet connections with far-flung customers, smartphone chats and the latest in computer equipment to squeeze more business out of traditional tool and die equipment. Eight months ago Doom was milking cows at a nearby dairy farm.
"We're taking an approach that is extremely nontraditional and we've even been able to beat prices offshore," said Jon Baklund, 44, a second-generation toolmaker who runs the small shop 60 miles west of Minneapolis. He estimates his factory doubled its business with the innovations, getting inquiries from companies in 37 states last month.
Baklund, which hired four people in the last year including Doom and is seeking two more, is among hundreds of shops nationwide that are leveraging technology to meet demand for low-volume, highly customizable products. Other companies, such as Etsy Inc. and TechShop Inc., serve as online marketplaces or starting grounds for tiny manufacturers to churn out new inventory in metal, wood and even fabric.
Makers of dies and machine tools have boosted employment about 18 percent since August 2009, compared with a 2.9 percent gain for overall manufacturing, according to Dan Luria, an independent manufacturing economist in Brighton, Mich.
Driven by 3-D printing
Specialty operations are finding new opportunities because of 3-D printers, said Patrick Hunter, senior vice president of marketplace operations for MFG.com in Atlanta. The technology allows three-dimensional designs created on computers to be sent digitally to industrial machines, which put down layers of materials ranging from plastic to metal in creating parts or products.
"It's opened the doors to smaller shops because people aren't tied to the large mass manufacturers," said Hunter, whose company has been matching customers with parts makers for about a dozen years.
Low volume typically means product runs of more than 1,000, which exceeds capacity of a home workshop, and less than 5,000 to 10,000, which is usually the minimum to get work done at a factory in China, he said.
More than 58 percent of small shops added new machines for so-called additive technology in 2012, the third year of gains since the recession ended, according to Wohlers Report 2013, which tracks the industrial market for industrial 3-D printing technology from Fort Collins, Colo.
New companies, jobs
All the experimentation and new equipment are translating into hundreds of small companies, each with the capacity to hire more employees, said Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop. The company offers monthly memberships, training and access to advanced manufacturing equipment to more than 6,000 members at six locations from Detroit to San Francisco.
Square Inc., which makes a credit card paying system that plugs into mobile devices, and Lumio, which makes a rechargeable lamp that unfolds from a book, are two companies that used TechShop's San Francisco location, Hatch said.
"There's a whole ecosystem being created and people are creating their own jobs in ways that are probably not even being counted" in official employment figures, he said.
Businesses with fewer than 50 people have added workers for 34 straight months to a record high in October, according to data from Automatic Data Processing Inc. in Roseland, N.J.
As technology such as 3-D printing gets less expensive, it can also supplant manufacturers that don't adapt, said Claus Moberg, CEO of identity verification company SnowShoe, in Madison, Wis.
A key tool for his business is the MakerBot Replicator 2, a 3-D printer priced at $2,199 that creates computer-programmed shapes out of plastic, Moberg said.
MakerBot of New York was acquired by Eden Prairie-based Stratasys Ltd. in June for $403 million in what analysts called an offensive acquisition of the desktop 3-D printer. That's because MakeBot's relatively inexpensive machines give Stratasys access to the booming market for smaller 3-D printers.
Before the MarketBot deal, Stratasys had specialized in larger and pricier 3-D replicating machines.
Last year, SnowShoe was paying a traditional machine shop about $70 apiece to have small stamps milled out of aluminum, each with a unique shape, that could be pressed on a phone or tablet touch screen to verify identity, he said. On a MakerBot, they cost 17 cents each. The company now owns three machines, which running 24 hours a day can churn out about 300 parts, he said.
When he needs more capacity, he rents it from a company in Denver that runs a sort of MakerBot "farm" with multiple machines available for custom orders in one location, he said.
This is where traditional machine shops, enhanced with technology like the 3-D printers, thrive, Minnesota shop owner Baklund said.
The world of technology-enabled manufacturing continues to surprise Doom, the new machinist said. A year ago he was working at a farm, milking and breeding cows, when a friend told him about the job at the machine shop. Now he's helping to create parts for medical devices and even NASA.
"I didn't have that high of expectations," said Doom, who already had familiarity with computers. "Eight months later I'm running multiple machines.''