What Makers and Manufacturers Can Learn From Each Other

What Makers and Manufacturers Can Learn From Each Other

Scaling is vital, and storytelling can help.

Google pegs the birth of the maker movement as 2005, the year Make magazine launched with a DIY mindset for the digital era. Suddenly, artisans and crafters were calling themselves “makers” and it was cool to create things by hand—a conscious reaction to mass-produced goods at a time when people were craving authenticity and connection. After a 14-year publishing run that included Maker Faire exhibitions around the world, the magazine folded in June. The founder of Make told TechCrunch, “It works for people, but it doesn’t necessarily work as a business.”

Popularity without prosperity has long been the plight of the maker, particularly in an age when it’s so easy to create a brand presence online and when pretty images of handmade objects like pottery or wooden tables are so highly appreciated. Scaling those sorts of businesses is another story.

Meanwhile, many of Minnesota’s major manufacturers seem to have the opposite challenge: more demand than they can find talent to fulfill. It’s a topic we reported on earlier this year. It came up at our TCB Talks: Manufacturing event in June with leaders of Graco, K1 Sportswear, and Dunwoody College of Technology, and we look at it again in this month’s cover story (page 47). Traditional manufacturing has an image problem. Perhaps the big guys should take a cue from the maker movement and share more stories; behind every giant plant with high-tech machinery, there’s an individual who had an idea to make something or invent a process that fulfills a need, be it temperature-controlled packaging or a carbon detector for chemical analysis.

For TCB’s first-ever Manufacturing Excellence Awards this month, we focused on the stories: the inspiration for Starkey Hearing Technologies’ smart hearing aid, which monitors the wearer’s health and translates 27 languages right in her ear; the strategy behind H.B. Fuller’s dramatic growth, doubling in size over the past decade and expanding into new sectors; and Mercury Mosaics & Tile’s transformation from maker to manufacturer. The ceramic tiles that founder Mercedes Austin started out making in her apartment are now produced by a team of 30 in a 15,000-square-foot Minneapolis space with a soaring glass top ceiling and work tables covered with perfectly painted tiles. It’s the consummate example of the opportunity and breadth of manufacturing in Minnesota. This is a place where medical devices are invented and everything from plastics to metals are produced and an artist with talent and ambition can turn her craft into a thriving business—one that’s on the brink of a significant expansion.

With the encouragement of mentors from the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers and the Small Business Administration Mini MBA program, Austin began looking beyond the Twin Cities for a second location, anticipating extra capacity by 2020. She picked Wadena, 160 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. 

And not just because she can buy a building for a fraction of what she currently pays in Minneapolis. The town has welcomed her with open arms and residents are ready to get to work. “It’s a huge wakeup call about how important this work is,” Austin says. “I want to be part of the restoration process to a country of manufacturers.”

“I want to be part of the restoration process to a country of manufacturers.”
Mercedes Austin, founder, Mercury Mosaics

Mercury Mosaics will create just six jobs in Wadena to start, but Austin is thinking ahead. She will soon need waterjet cutters to keep scaling the custom work her company does for Room & Board, and those large machines won’t fit in her Minneapolis factory. 

“I like the intimacy of this space,” Austin says of her Minneapolis headquarters. “I see the magic our space has on the team. And I couldn’t picture the eight dogs that come to work here every day [with their owners] in a 100,000-square-foot facility.” 

It’s a space and a process worth seeing, so join us at our Manufacturing Excellence Awards, which will be held at Mercury Mosaics & Tile on September 26 (see tcbmag.com/events). We’re not just handing out plaques; we’re going to talk to the winners, all featured in this issue, about the work they do and the opportunities ahead. As Austin says, “If you don’t change with the times and find ways to innovate, you’re going to be in one of those reports about businesses that have failed.” 

Thanks go to industry leaders Mike Fiterman, CEO of Liberty Diversified International, and Bill Gray, president of Uponor North America, along with the Manufacturers Alliance and Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association for encouraging us to do what we do best: bring business communities together and share their stories.