Special edition: Mass production alive and well in Detroit

McClure's Pickles is one of the up-and-coming names (some would argue it has already arrived) in the slow-food movement. Its pickles and chips and bloody mary mix can be found in fashionable grocery stores across the country. Demand hasn't been an issue for the young company. Production capability on the other hand, well...

For years the company worked out of a small facility in Oakland County with rudimentary production capabilities. Joe McClure, co-owner of McClure's Pickles, says his workers were often "sitting around waiting for a pot to boil, literally." That changed when the 6-year-old company moved to a 20,000-square-foot facility on the Detroit side of its border with Hamtramck last year.

"When we first got in here, we thought there would be a lot of extra space," McClure says. "We filled it up pretty fast."

The former American Axle diagnostic building was empty but in good shape. McClure's Pickles brought it up to food safety codes and moved in more modern manufacturing equipment. That enabled it to double production to 3,000 jars of pickles a day. It now has room for all of its supplies, space to experiment with new products and a few thousand square feet left over to make room for the production operations of Simply Suzanne's granola business.

It has also grown its staff to 20 people, 15 of which are based in its Detroit production facility. The company's most recent hire has an associates degree and a background in culinary arts. He can move from different points of the line to help make sure production continues smoothly. 

"For production, it suits that need, depending on who we need on the line," McClure says. "Who I hire is tailored to that need."

Smart and green manufacturing

Talent is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for manufacturers. Gone are the days of high school dropouts making fat wages bending metal for bumpers. A college education or a defined skill set are becoming more and more attractive to manufacturers looking to fill jobs on their lines.

So much so that as the manufacturing process employs more automation (or becomes smarter as its commonly referred to) the more advanced education employers are demanding from their workers.

"The more automated and sophisticated a manufacturing process is the less tilt there is for locating it in a low-cost labor area," says Jayson Pankin, president & CEO of AutoHarvest, a TechTown-based nonprofit focused on bringing intellectual property from manufacturers to the market. "That will be more of an equalizer going forward." 

That sort of high-level manufacturing capability is what attracted Fusion Coolant Systems to the Focus:HOPE campus in northwest Detroit. The 4-year-old start-up is developing an environmentally friendly cutting fluid for industrial uses that help improve cutting tools performance while reducing the wear. The idea is to eliminate toxic cutting fluids that are standard in sectors like aerospace and automotive. Its potential has led the likes of General Electric, Ford, Masco and Boeing to try it in pilot programs.

To get to that point, Fusion Coolant Systems needed a financially viable solution to testing and developing its product in an industrial setting. Focus:HOPE's manufacturing education campus turned into an easy fit because of how advanced its equipment and staff were.

"They had skilled machinists we could rent by the hour," says Tom Gross, CEO of Fusion Coolant Systems. "That was easy on the pocketbook. ... It was a real draw. It was the access to the manufacturing experience and equipment we could afford."

Fusion Coolant Systems recently closed on a $600,000 angel round. Its sales are up 25 percent over the last year and Gross expects revenues to land between $500,000 and $1 million in 2013. It has also recently hired two people and is looking for another. Startups like Fusion Coolant Systems are becoming the poster children for the future of advanced manufacturing.They show that manufacturing isn't just about production companies coming up with new ways to make things faster. Sometimes its about cost savings created through efficiencies. Other times its about shrinking carbon footprints. Increasingly, often its becoming about all of the above.

Detroit manufacturing

Another card manufacturers in Detroit have increasingly played is the power of the city's brand. Made in Detroit resonates not only as a clothing line but because it invokes images of the city when it was the Arsenal of Democracy, and Americans pumped out quality product after product.

That sort of brand recognition is why a growing number of high-profile manufacturers go to great lengths to make sure their products are made in Detroit, putting the Motor City's name prominently in their brand. McClure's Pickles, Valentine Spirits and Detroit Bikes all feature the city's name in their brands. Shinola is starting to sell high-end watches and bicycles to capitalize on the strength of Detroit's brand.

The 1-year-old company has turned the 5th floor of the Taubman Center of the College of Creative Studies into its production facility. There, a staff of 18 people (that number is growing) is working to produce 45,000 watches and 1,000 bikes this year. Those workers turn 45-95 itty-bitty parts into the first handmade watches mass produced in the U.S. in decades.

"It's quite complex," says Jacques Panis, director of strategic partnerships for Shinola. "The different stations range from stamping the baseplate to making sure the movement is sending through the right pulse or tick. It's a very intricate process."

Bikes have bigger parts, and more of them. Shinola's bikes will have 240 parts, sometimes more if one considers that some parts, such as a pedal, are made of different parts themselves. Panis expects his workforce will grow to 75 by the end of this year. Each of those workers needs at least the equivalent of a high school diploma and the desire to spend dozens of hours learning how to work a variety of positions on the line.

"It's a lot of training," Panis says. "The beautiful thing about Detroit is the people are here, the talent is here."

Editor's note: This series of special editions is the result of a partnership between Model D and the Detroit Regional Chamber. 

Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.