Manufacturing makes a Bay Area comeback


About 20 years ago, manufacturing in the U.S. was in its prime. In Sonoma County, it supported 10,000 jobs.

Then came competition from China and other countries with far lower wages. Workers there are demanding and getting higher pay. The result is a surprising turn-around in the Bay Area.

"Our pricing is actually more competitive, competitive or more competitive than they are overseas now," Protofab president Mike Maendl said.

The new trend has allowed his small factory to go from one to 16 employees.

"Rather than the customer re-investing into having an overseas manufacturer bring those parts to life, they're already to life in our facility," Maendl said.

A new generation of advanced technology machines is making that possible. A single unit can represent an investment of $500,000 or more, but it has boosted productivity while lowering costs.

"The very largest corporations are, they're really sitting on their investment capital right now because it's an uncertain environment. The small manufacturers don't have that luxury, they have to make the bet and the investments, if you will, so they're doing that, and that's what helps the larger economy," 101MFG president Dick Herman said.

Icore international in Santa Rosa makes precision conduit and cables for aerospace and defense customers.

It has added 40 employees in the past two years.

The challenge now is finding machinists with skills to run advanced technology, and Petaluma High School has geared up its training to provide skilled workers.

"Everything is getting more mechanical now, and they all need more advanced parts, and you need these machines to make advanced parts,"high school junior Lee Carstensen said.

There's optimism the trend of a manufacturing comeback will continue.

Becoming a machinist is not an easy process. When young people are ready to become apprentices, they will have to go through 8,000 hours of on-the-job training as well as that four-year apprenticeship.

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