Abram Olmstead  | August 7, 2013

Maker Movement Spurs a Manufacturing Turnaround in Pittsburgh

Today, the skies over Pittsburgh no longer glow red from the steel mills. But for a growing number of amateur tinkerers and entrepreneurial engineers, manufacturing is still very much on the mind of Steel City.

Take Scott Ardisson, a local computer technician who earlier this year decided he wasn’t going to buy his wedding band, he was going to make it. Ardisson spent nights at a workspace called TechShop on the East Side of Pittsburgh where he built a kiln to do the casting.

His work drew the attention of Matthew Stanton and Hahna Alexander, fellow members of the workshop and recent engineering grads from Carnegie Mellon. Ardisson agreed to let the two use his machine to build a part for a device they were creating—a shoe insole that generates energy from a user’s movements and can deliver the energy to charge electronics.

The prototype for the insole led to Stanton and Alexander raising more than $150,000 to build their newly formed company, SolePower. “The more we can do ourselves during the prototyping phase,” says 23-year-old Stanton, “the better positioned we’ll be when we move to mass manufacturing.”

Whether SolePower succeeds and the company decides to produce its gadgets locally remains to be seen. But there’s no question that a wave of young companies creating high-tech physical goods is emerging in the region, decades after thousands of manufacturing jobs left the Steel City.

“This is exactly where Pittsburgh has historically excelled,” says Terri Glueck, director of community development and communications at Innovation Works, the parent company of AlphaLab, a local startup accelerator that’s seen more than 50 early-stage companies complete its 20-week program.

Between 1970 and 2006, the city lost 40% of its population due to the decline in steelmaking. But Glueck explains that instead of shrinking away, Pittsburgh doubled down and invested in its future, forging a new identity as a technology hub. “We make physical stuff and we have great software development,” she says.

AlphaLab, which receives half its funding from the state, announced earlier this year it was launching an accelerator focused exclusively on startups that produce physical products. And instead of building its own prototyping equipment, the new accelerator, called AlphaLab Gear, set up a deal with the nearby TechShop to offer its portfolio companies access to the 17,000 square-foot facility.

TechShop, a chain with six locations in the U.S., stands as the retail embodiment of America’s growing “maker” movement, a subculture of do-it-yourselfers who make everything from drone planes to 3-D printed sculptures. Members generally pay around $125 a month for unlimited access to laser-cutters, injection molders, sand blasters, and pretty much anything else they would need to turn an idea into a real product.

They may have contributed to a recent spike in hardware startups in the U.S. Such projects have raised close to $23 million on Kickstarter thus far in 2013, compared to $9.75 million in 2012.

“In the same day you can talk to an architect, an artist, a design consultant, and a startup,” Matt Verlinich, a general manager of Pittsburgh’s TechShop, says of the workshop’s 400 members.

For veterans in Pittsburgh or locals with a degree in engineering who have found themselves unemployed or in a non-engineering job, membership is free, thanks to grants from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Defense last year invested $3.5 million into TechShop, a sizeable chunk of which went into opening new locations in D.C. and Pittsburgh.

“There’s a lot of federal money flowing into Pittsburgh to support advanced manufacturing,” says Glueck, adding that the city’s recent hardware boom harkens back to its days as a steel and coal hub.

While the link between fresh-faced college kids making futuristic battery sneakers and old school foundry workers pouring steel isn’t obvious, nearly everyone in town, Glueck included, will tell you that “the spirit of manufacturing still runs through the city’s blood.”