Triangle Chatter

@Manufacturing Works

Institute for Emerging IssuesTed Hall, a neuroscience professor at Duke University, built plywood boats as a hobby. He found that cutting panels for curved hulls with hand power  tools incredibly frustrating, and considered purchasing a computerized cutting tool called a CNC router. The entry-level machine cost $40,000. To circumvent the cost barrier, Ted decided to make the tool himself in a practical and affordable way. Fifteen years later, his business, ShopBot Tools is placing CNC routers in nearly 6,000 small businesses and manufacturing shops in the U.S. and around the world. The routers cost as little as $5,000.

Photo courtesy of ShopBot ToolsShopBot Tools relies on modern technology to cut, carve, drill or machine different products from all kinds of materials. Manufacturers use included software to custom design parts on a computer. The computer controls the cutter to precisely cut the parts, which can be repeated once or thousands of times. Inspired by the tool’s success, Ted created an online community, 100K Garages, in which digital fabricators connect with one another for project inspiration, best practices and other forms of collaboration.

ShopBot Tools is the face of today’s manufacturing. Labor-intensive practices have been replaced with innovative technological processes and a highly skilled workforce. Companies integrate themselves horizontally, working across multiple sectors and platforms to create the best product. North Carolina is the fourth largest manufacturing state in the country, and it ranks first among southeastern states in terms of manufacturing employment.

Between 1992-2010, the number of manufacturing enterprises in North Carolina grew by 33 percent, climbing to a total of 23,308, with an increasing trend towards smaller enterprises. Although there are now more enterprises, each of them have fewer jobs available. While this new manufacturing revolution may not create the same quantity of jobs, it is increasing the quality of jobs and, in turn, the wealth of the communities it supports.

 And manufacturing isn’t just creating jobs; it’s bolstering our overall wealth. Nationally, for every $1 put into manufacturing, $1.35 is generated elsewhere in the economy.

New manufacturing has tremendous potential for our state if we can take advantage of it properly. The Institute for Emerging Issues convened working group members from manufacturing companies, economic development organizations, state government and chambers to develop public policies that will bolster manufacturing in North Carolina. Here is what they envision:

Manufacturing is in the midst of a generational change, disrupting the economic and cultural fabric of North Carolina. At the same time, we remain the fourth most productive manufacturing state in the country.  North Carolina’s manufacturing sector leads a vibrant innovative economy, with networked communities, a growing entrepreneurial and maker culture, and a strong commercial finance sector. Through strong statewide leadership, North Carolina will emphasize the critical importance of tradition and next generation manufacturing to its core economy. North Carolina commits to investment in strong supporting institutions, a highly skilled workforce, developing globally and locally networked communities, world-class infrastructure that creates logistical advantages and the agility to respond to the technological pace of change.

So how do we make this vision a reality? Watch this video with former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson to see what makes manufacturing cool, especially for today’s youth, and how we can get people excited about the new opportunities this sector brings.


The Institute for Emerging Issues wants to help rebrand manufacturing’s image and help communities understand why and how to maximize this sector’s opportunities. The 28th Annual Emerging Issues Forum, @Manufacturing Works, on February 11-12, will bring attention to the new manufacturing economy in North Carolina. Register here, and join us  for this vital conversation.


Author: Diane Cherry, Environments Policy Manager, North Carolina State University's Institute for Emerging Issues

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