On the sixth floor of a Pigtown warehouse, designers, engineers and other workers are developing and building a slew of different inventions, from medical devices to an electric skateboard.
The company, Harbor Designs and Manufacturing, works with startups, private companies, universities and independent inventors to turn product ideas into production-ready blueprints, and then, if the clients want, puts the products together right there.
The eight-year-old company recently expanded from a much smaller space at 1100 Wicomico St. to the 45,000-square-foot sixth-floor space, which it will officially open Tuesday. Until now, the company didn't have the space to accommodate the demand it sees for contract design and manufacturing in Baltimore, said Kevin Barnes, Harbor Designs' CEO.
Barnes' son, Josh Barnes, the firm's vice president of operations, said the new space will allow for a large-scale product assembly system — and a rapid expansion in hiring.
Harbor Designs, which employs about 20 people, expects to be able to hire as many as 200 people as it grows into its new space, which is in the city's Economic Empowerment Zone.
"One of the things that is part of our mission statement was to develop a facility that would hire local populations," Kevin Barnes said. "One of the reasons we set this up in a hub zone is that we could bring local people in, allow them to put products together to their skill level, and hopefully increase their skill level so they can move up with the company as the company grows."
The company has invested $300,000 in the new space and has received about $1.5 million in loans, grants and investments from other partners, including the Maryland Department of Commerce, the Abell Foundation, TEDCO, the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, the Baltimore Development Corp. and the city.
Josh Barnes said the company has gotten such support because it represents a return of manufacturing to Baltimore, once a center for such large employers as Bethlehem Steel, Crown Cork & Seal and Allied Chromium.
Universities, entrepreneurs and inventors have research and ideas for products — and they want to see them made in the city, Josh Barnes said.
"What the local ecosystem has realized is that there is a lack of contract manufacturing in the area to be able to respond to those kinds of projects," he said. "We've built this with that in mind, so that we can actually take their ideas all the way through production."
Right now Harbor Design's main manufacturing project is a machine created by Columbia-based company FLAVORx that converts concentrated medicine powder into bottled, flavored medicine to be sold at pharmacy chains such as CVS and Walgreens.
It is in the midst of a pilot run of the FLAVORx products: 100 automated mixing machines and 1,000 manual ones. With a sleek, blue-lit glass front, a bar code scanner and a touch-screen interface for pharmacists to choose flavors, it resembles a small, high-tech soda fountain.
Other products being developed include the Thor Electric Longboards, a battery-powered skateboard capable of speeds up to 22 mph.
Jamie LeRoy, Thor's founder, said TEDCO, a state agency charged with helping commercialize technology, placed him in touch with Harbor Designs after he won an engineering contest. The firm is helping him design and launch a product line that includes three models.
The 23-year-old mechanical engineer who grew up in Ellicott City and lives in Pigtown has another job and didn't have the time or money to produce his boards — just the design.
"They helped me finish my product, refine it and bring it to market," LeRoy said.
The Baltimore Development Corp. provided Harbor Designs with a small loan as part of its $750,000 micro-loan program, spokeswoman Susan Yum said. The BDC program has spurred $2.5 million in outside investment and the creation of more than 300 jobs, she said.
"If we help businesses in the city grow," Yum said, "the city can add new jobs faster than trying to attract new businesses to the city."
At Harbor Design, designers Shannon Wheeler, Casey Fittz and design engineer Doug Pemberton sit in a glass-walled office working on products such as a display monitor for passenger trains, and a "Core Putter" device that straps to a golf club to teach golf students how to putt properly.
The design phase can take anywhere from a few months to several years, Pemberton said, depending on the complexity of the product and how much development the inventor has done already. The cost varies too based largely on the same factors, production manager Dennis Hicks said.
The challenge for Fittz isn't designing the products — it's designing them for mass production, which requires simple parts that aren't too expensive to make.
"You can make one," he said, "but making 1,000 you can manufacture and sell is the hard part."