CEO Roundtable: Portland’s ‘makers’ occupy unique niche in manufacturing world

Portland Business Journal | By Wendy Culverwell

Photo by Cathy Cheney

Ben Rivera, president of Portland’s iconic Leatherman Tool Group, wore an unusual watch band when he joined manufacturing executives for a discussion about Portland’s growing maker movement.

Called the Leatherman Tread, it consists of 10 links embedded with the company’s famous tools. It was borne of an experience at Disneyland when security wouldn’t let Rivera carry a traditional Leatherman tool into the park grounds.

So Leatherman’s Innovation Lab set out to create a security-friendly version of its ubiquitous tool.

It’s just one recent example of innovations coming out of Portland manufacturers fueled by creativity, hands-on expertise, and a passion to solve life’s challenges.

The Portland Business Journal convened a group of leaders in the so-called “maker movement” to discuss what being a maker means to them and to their employees.

“Maker” refers more to the passion behind the business than its size or even its product, participants agreed. Leatherman, with more than 400 manufacturing employees, is on the large end of the scale. But the community counts Hillsboro stop-motion animation company LAIKA Entertainment, producer of “Coraline” and “Box Trolls,” as a peer together with countless breweries, craftspeople and other tinkerers.

At LAIKA, 65 people work in rapid prototyping. It takes a wide range of skills to imagine the characters that inhabit LAIKA films. They have to be designed, printed on 3D printers and transformed into the animated characters that appear on screen, said Brian McLane, LAIKA’s director of prototyping.

At first LAIKA turned to traditional animation experts but soon found it needed a broader set of skills. “There’s not a common path. We have philosophy majors sitting with computer programmers and English majors,” he said.

Jon Blumenauer, CEO of The Joinery, said the woodworkers who build the Portland company’s high-end furniture by hand don’t spend a lot of time defining their work, but passion is unquestionably part of it. “I don’t think they’re too worried about what other people think,” he said.

“Maker is a buzzword,” said Stefan Andren, an industrial designer who founded KrownLab to commercialize sliding barn door hardware he designed for his own home. “It should be cool to work in manufacturing. We’ve surrendered manufacturing knowledge over the years. Maybe the maker movement is a grassroots way to get that back,” he said.

Finding workers is not a challenge, but finding young workers who understand how things work can be. Maker executives say the loss of shop classes coupled with high-tech gadgets has created a generation that isn’t sure how things actually work.

The kind of know-how that comes from growing up tinkering with the family car with your dad is missing, said Jason Lacey, vice president of operations for Schoolhouse Electric.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry takes that as a challenge, said Andrea Middleton Edgecomb, events director. Its Portland Maker Faire is growing every year as more makers and more families come together.

Read the entire story at Portland Business Journal | By Wendy Culverwell | Posted Jul 10, 2015, 3:00am PDT


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