Sarjoun Skaff, Suzy Teele, Mike Formica and Afshan Khan talk advanced manufacturing at Caffeinated Innovation. Photo by Sandra Tolliver.

When Sarjoun Skaff commercialized his Bossa Nova Robotics in 2013, he couldn’t find anyone in Pittsburgh to build the service robots he created to scan shelves for some of the world’s largest retailers.

“We looked everywhere and actually found that leadership in California. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best that we could find,” Skaff told a coffee klatch assembled at Innovation Works. The crowd was there to talk about why Pittsburgh isn’t at the forefront of manufacturing the robotics and high-tech products that researchers create here.

Tech companies need to embrace manufacturing and commit to it as part of a long-term strategy, says Mike Formica, an entrepreneur in 3D imaging, industrial automation and autonomous vehicles, and a panelist for the Caffeinated Innovation conversation with Skaff and Suzy Teele, who heads marketing and communications for the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute.

The commitment to manufacturing starts with the tech company executives who might look overseas for their manufacturing, and should include engineers who want to be in advanced manufacturing, but may have never touched a machine tool, says Formica, CEO of NuCo Tech Group, who recently sold threeRivers 3D, the company he founded 10 years ago to design and build 3D scanners.

“Not only can you make it, but you should make it,” he says. “We build everything in-house — all the assembly, testing and engineering are done in-house — and 55 percent of the parts and materials we use are from Pittsburgh. People might be surprised by that.

“All the parts are here — we have the outer ring, but we don’t have the inner core. Advanced manufacturing is wires, motors, gear boxes, metalwork and plastic, but there’s no one in the city to put all that together.”

Afshan Khan, manufacturing program manager for Innovation Works, says the region has expertise and resources to meet the increasing demand for robotics and high-tech manufacturing, but needs to overcome barriers.

It’s a perception problem, Formica and Teele agree.

“One of our biggest challenges is attitude,” Teele says. “I grew up in New Kensington in Aluminum City Terrace, which was housing that Alcoa built for its workers, so manufacturing is in my blood. I remember the 1970s when we had 26 percent unemployment … and my dad would say to me, ‘Pick any career except manufacturing.’ As adults, we now tell our children, ‘Pick any career except manufacturing.’ We’ve lost that tradesperson mentality in the U.S., but that perception is inaccurate.”

The topic of advanced manufacturing drew a crowd for coffee and conversation at Innovation Works. Photo by Sandra Tolliver.

With much of the Pittsburgh region’s heavy industry gone, it’s important to teach young people that “this is what manufacturing looks like today,” she says. “That’s got to be everybody at every level: We’ve got to say, ‘Manufacturing is cool, manufacturing is good, and we’ve got great jobs in manufacturing.’”

Startups with interest in growing quickly should remember that manufacturing is “a huge investment financially and in time,” says Formica. “It’s a long-term investment.”

He believes Pittsburgh needs an anchor company to drive demand for advanced manufacturing, a company to bridge the gap between researchers and laborers.

“We need to show what we’re capable of doing,” he says. “Autonomous car [research] is like a science project. We need somebody producing thousands of robots. We need a shining example.”

Khan, a former manufacturing company CEO, runs the Innovation Works program called Scalable Innovation that links startup companies designing physical products with manufacturers that can produce them.

“There are misperceptions about manufacturing and I hear that from a lot of different places,” she says.

The ARM Institute, a public-private partnership founded by Carnegie Mellon University, focuses on finding funding for apprenticeships to encourage young people to choose manufacturing careers, Teele says. Many small and medium-sized manufacturing companies say it’s difficult to find talent.

“It starts with education and a commitment to teaching kids that these are not careers of the past but an opportunity to learn and grow,” says Teele.

Engineering know-how, supply chain, quality, safety are important factors as well, says Skaff. “All of these things need to come together to take robotics manufacturing to the next step.”

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.