Future of Manufacturing in Philly Isn’t Smoky Factories

Think 3D printing and high-paying tech jobs.

(Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock)

(Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock)

The word “manufacturing” probably conjures up images of smoke-filled factories and Depression Era employees working for peanuts.

But the reality is much brighter — and tech focused. Take 3D printing for example, it can create everything from prosthetic limbs and hearing aides to airplane parts and even living organs. And it might just help get young professionals interested in manufacturing.

The Pennsylvania Dept. of Labor & Industry reports that there are just 20,000 manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia. In 1953, there were 359,000. Of course, the economy is completely different today than in 1953, but the number is still pretty low for a city that was once called the “Workshop of the World” for its manufacturing prowess.

With that in mind, the Greater Philadelphia Region Chamber of Commerce hosted “Growth Matters: Working with Manufacturers to Expand our Regional Economy” last week. The event looked to shed light on the modern manufacturing industry and the ways that it can be utilized to expand Philadelphia’s economy. It included a keynote talk with Evan Malone, president at NextFab, and a panel discussion hosted by WHYY’s Tracey Matisak.

Malone spent much of the event talking about 3D printing. Coming from NextFab, a collaborative workspace where startups and inventors rent out technology and equipment (it’s basically a gym for makers), he knows how crucial 3D printing will be for the future of manufacturing in Philadelphia.

“There are a number [of startup companies] in the Philadelphia area that my company works with that are using it primarily for housings for their product prototypes and industrial design efforts,” he said. He also singled out BioBots, a Philly-based company that’s 3D printing living materials.

“Biobots is commercializing 3D printing for biological materials, so we can actually print replacement organs at some point in the future instead of having to take one,” he said. “The wonderful thing about that is that you can actually use the patient’s own cells, culture them and then replace the organs.”

Another important point is that manufacturing no longer means monotonous work and low-paying jobs.

“Precision, advanced manufacturing is creative. It’s high-skilled. It’s essentially working in a laboratory,” he said. “If you’re doing mass production, that’s typically automated these days. But if you’re developing these first pilot production runs, it is very high-skilled work that requires technical thinking, and these are well-paid jobs.”

David Kiphutt, the deputy of career and technical education of the School District of Philadelphia, has worked to change manufacturing’s stigma in Philadelphia schools. He’s in charge of the types of education that you’ll find at the Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering at Benjamin Franklin High School, which opened in 2015 and gives students industry-level hands-on practice in technical fields such as manufacturing. At the event, he explained that the graduation rate at career and technical education high schools is 92 percent. What was most telling, however, was the cooperation between the school system and The Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia, and the way it’s impacting the education of the youth of Philadelphia.

“I can take you into elementary schools where they have 3D printers donated by the Manufacturers Alliance, and we have fourth- and fifth-grade students doing additive manufacturing and actually producing things in their classrooms. It doesn’t take rocket science, but you have to have an education in the background,” he said.

Between Malone’s NextFab and Kiphutt’s work with Philadelphia students, it seems that the foundation is there to cultivate manufacturers of the future. The next step would then be to link them up with businesses and investors.

That has been a challenge says Bud Tyler of the EF Precision Group.

“The service providers are energized,” he said. “The service providers want to help us, they want to be integrated with these businesses, but the manufacturing people are very hard to get out to these kinds of events.”

When Co-Founder of SureShade Dana Russikoff was asked about the resources for her company in the area, she mentioned former Mayor Nutter’s task force on manufacturing in Philadelphia.

“As that task force evolves, it’s really going to rely on the community and the businesses in the public and private sectors to come together and define what we want 21st century manufacturing to look like.”

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