Youngstown's Story: Rust Belt Turns to 'Tech Belt' in the Name of Jobs
Michael Garvey was working as a clerk at the New York Stock Exchange more than 25 years ago, when he got a call from his parents back in Ohio.
Globalization was hammering the Rust Belt including their family business, then called Trumbull Bronze. Garvey's grandfather founded the company in 1918 to produce bronze castings for the U.S. steel industry. Unable to turn his back on his family legacy, he returned to Ohio, as the company's customer base of steel mills deteriorated. Faced with a fork in the road, the company reshaped their business strategy to focus on the measurement and validation of parts. That meant a wider customer base beyond heavy industry.
Over time the company was transformed into an advanced manufacturing facility, and in 2004, the company was rebooted as M7 Technologies. Today their advances include slashing the time to measure and authenticate parts down to roughly 30 seconds — from more than four hours. From an innovation and efficiency production standpoint, it's a manufacturing breakthrough.
Beyond M7 Technologies, Youngstown, where the company is based, is hoppin'.
There's a business incubator devoted to supporting startups. Startups in Youngstown! Instead of moving away for jobs, younger workers are sticking around and elbow-deep in cutting-edge manufacturing and technology work. In traditional manufacturing, the local GM plant is running three shifts. The older generation, meanwhile, is appreciating the remake of their community, firmly rooted in math and science — disciplines that can generate local jobs.
The goal is to create a version of Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle right in the Rust Belt. "We want to rebrand this area as the 'Tech Belt,' " said Scott Deutsch, a spokesman for a national technology institute in Youngstown.
Obama's Shout Out to Youngstown
President Barack Obama this week highlighted the innovation happening in Youngstown including M7 Technologies.
"Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything," Obama said. "There's no reason this can't happen in other towns."
3-D printing allows businesses to download designs from the Internet and transform the printouts — layer by layer — into three-dimensional physical objects. The applications are seemingly endless. Small firms are creating custom objects and spare parts for everything from toys to artificial limbs — all at a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing.
(Read More: 3-D Printing Sparks Innovation Among Small Companies)
In his address on Tuesday, the president was specifically referring to the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. Their members, spanning public-private partnerships, include M7 Technologies, small businesses and big firms such as GE Global Research, Northrop Grumman and 3D Systems.
"We're a national institute, so we're probably talking about few hundred regional jobs that will be created in the immediate near term as a result of the additive institute," said Deutsch, a spokesman for the technology hub.
Obama also announced the launch of three additional manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defense and Energy. There are discussions about creating a network of 15 such hubs.
Of course getting a Youngstown mention from the #POTUS is always welcome and "refreshing," said Garvey, chief executive and president of M7 Technologies.
(Read more: Obama's Boost Only Added to 3-D Stocks' Rally)
But the shout out underscores what he's known all along. That Youngstown — immortalized in a Bruce Springsteen song — had the talent and desire for reinvention, but just needed some investment. "It's something I always believed Youngstown had the capability of doing," he said.
For M7 Technologies' 30 employees, their goal is to create perfect components as efficiently as possible for end products that span defense and aerospace, automotive and even nuclear power plants. Today, "we literally have partners all over the world," said Garvey — not just aging steel mills.
With a foundation firmly planted in the future, M7 Technologies and the additive institute are working to migrate advanced manufacturing and technology to 3-D printing.
(Read more: Recycling America's Abandoned Auto Plants)
As costs continue to fall, 3-D printing is becoming accessible to more businesses including smaller firms. Some in the fast-evolving industry are even calling it a game changer for manufacturers.
"It really is a big deal and it could bring huge economic benefits," Andrew Sissons of the Work Foundation told CNBC's Louisa Bojesen late last year.
Technology and the global economy are continuing to evolve. But this go around, M7 Technologies and Youngstown are driving the next manufacturing revolution decidedly on U.S. soil — and creating American high-tech jobs. "It's almost like a phoenix moment," Garvey said.
(Read more: Midwestern Startups: The Rise of Silicon Prairie)