Take a city of enthusiastic makers, mix in a strong pipeline of young innovators and a region known for its manufacturing prowess, and you’ve got all the necessary ingredients for a micro-manufacturing movement.

This month the wheels of maker progress burned bright with the launch of a new initiative that has raised the bar for the maker industry in Pittsburgh and across the country. Etsy, the Brooklyn-based online marketplace with a global community of 1.6 million active sellers, rolled out plans for its manufacturing initiative, Etsy Manufacturing, at the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District.

Pittsburgh is among the first wave of cities to offer a new model in manufacturing, one that identifies responsible, smaller-scale manufacturers and brings them together with makers, artists and innovators to make goods on a larger scale.

Emily Smith of Etsy moderates the panel. Photo by Rob Larson.
Emily Smith of Etsy moderates the panel. Photo by Rob Larson.

“We’ve realized just how much energy there is in Pittsburgh for making,” says Emily Smith, senior program manager for Etsy Manufacturing. “There’s such a rich history here of manufacturing. We want to reimagine commerce around the world, starting at a local level.”

As the program ramps up in the coming months, beta-style, Etsy will invite manufacturers from four industries throughout the U.S. and Canada—printing, apparel and textile, machining and fabrication and jewelry and metalwork—to apply for partnerships with Etsy designers. Other industries will follow.

Initially, the initiative will be offered at no cost to the Etsy designers who partner with manufacturers during the beta period, although a fee-based transaction service between partners may be instituted at a later date.

“There couldn’t be a better place for this to happen,” says Bob Hurley, director of economic development for Allegheny County. “Etsy offers the opportunity in helping to connect those who want to stay engaged in the creative process. We want to help people create and get back to being a baseline manufacturing community.”

Sold-out crowd at the EIC. Photo by Rob Larson.
Sold-out crowd at the EIC. Photo by Rob Larson.

In support of the initiative, Bridgeway Capital and SMC Business Council announced two special grant programs for Etsy designers and manufacturers while the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at Pitt is offering technical assistance and support.

Bridgeway, a nonprofit community development fund, has received $10,000 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation for loans that will assist small businesses looking to invest in new equipment or facility expansion as part of Etsy, said Mark Peterson, Bridgeway’s president and chief executive, at the event.

Makers and maker studios at the Etsy Manufacturing event applauded the initiative. During a panel discussion, several noted the challenges that need to be addressed in helping makers scale their businesses and encouraging them to stay in Pittsburgh.

Les Gies of Tech Shop works with dozens of ambitious makers and artists who come through the Bakery Square shop to use the tools and build prototypes. They all envision taking that next step, he says.

“There are a lot of manufacturing resources around the city,” says Gies. “We’re starting to see demand and see that demand grow. The question is will that manufacturer be there for them?”

Thread CEO Ian Rosenberger, whose social enterprise spins recycled plastic trash from Haiti into thread at a manufacturing center in South Carolina, says that finding responsible manufacturers who care deeply about maker products is important. At the same time, consumers must understand that unique, one-of-a-kind items—original maker goods—often cost more to make.

Ian Rosenberger of Thread with Les Giles, Melissa Frost, Chris Mosites, Heather McElwee and Emily Smith.
Ian Rosenberger of Thread with Les Gies, Melissa Frost, Chris Minnerly, Heather McElwee, and Emily Smith on a panel.

“The trick is to scale in a way that makes it authentic,” says Rosenberger. “I like things that are original. For me, that’s really important. When we buy things (non-maker goods), we need to pause and ask how can the price of this product be so low? If something is cheap, it’s because somebody someplace is being taken advantage of.”

Maker-manufacturing collaborations in Pittsburgh are already underway. Last year, artists at the Pittsburgh Glass Center partnered with a development firm, The Mosites Company, to create hand-blown glass pendants. The unique fixtures now hang over the kitchen islands of the Eastside Bond Apartments in East Liberty.

The fixtures were custom-made by 10 artists artists at the Glass Center as part of a pipeline of projects offered through Bridgeway Capital’s Craft Business Accelerator.

“There were challenges and a lot of back and forth,” says Heather McElwee of the PGC. But in the end? “It’s all about creating a pipeline for makers.”

“There’s something unique about being able to offer handmade elements instead of something from Home Depot,” says Chris Minnerly of Mosites. “It was a constructive process for us both.”

The Etsy event attracted local makers who expressed excitement that the region’s strong maker culture has been recognized beyond our borders.

Networking post-event at the Energy Innovation Center. Photo by Rob Larson.
Networking post-event at the Energy Innovation Center. Photo by Rob Larson.

“Pittsburgh has always been supportive of the maker movement,” says Tricia Brancolini-Foley, director of Handmade Arcade. “It is reflected in the popularity and growth of our event, Handmade Arcade, and the number of craft artists who make their home and living in this city.

“Many makers and artists are in a position where their businesses are ready to grow. Etsy’s idea of creating a platform where manufacturers and makers can connect is the next step for them. It is really exciting to see artists we’ve known for 12 years grow from home businesses, to brick and mortar shops to needing manufacturers.”

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.