Jason Perkail of Baltimore and Dimitri Furman of Gaithersburg are audiophiles, former DJs with a passion for high fidelity. They never thought they'd be manufacturers.
But one led to the other. In the space of five whirlwind months, they designed a high-end hi-fi system, raised nearly seven times as much money on crowdfunding site Kickstarter as they originally asked for and are now setting up a production facility in Gaithersburg.
Their company, Tubecore Audio, has 292 orders to fill for Kickstarter supporters who rushed to get a below-wholesale price for a product that will retail at $599. The men are negotiating distributor orders now, too.
"We just started talking about it and made it happen — a lot faster than I thought," said Furman, 36.
When people think of manufacturing, they think of old and big, not new and small. Tubecore is an example of micro-manufacturing. Perkail and Furman are Tubecore's total workforce. They plan to make a few hires in January.
It's a craftsman's setup, reminiscent of the days before the Industrial Revolution but with a high-tech twist. Manufacturing advocates expect to see more such firms.
"There's clearly lots of opportunity, because of a variety of new technologies, for people to get involved in very small startups in manufacturing that serve a niche market," said Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland. "People are out there, they're inventors, they're playing around, they have tools they didn't have in the past."
Very small businesses already account for a large chunk of manufacturing firms, if not employment or sales. Both in Maryland and nationwide, about 40 percent of manufacturers employed fewer than five people in 2010, according to the most recent Census Bureau data.
Their numbers appear to be trending up after taking a hit during the recession, said Carrie Hines, president of the American Small Manufacturers Coalition, a trade group for manufacturing extension agents that help firms.
"A lot of the clientele that our members work with are really mom-and-pop shops," she said. "They have an idea, they see a need … and they literally start in their garage."
That's pretty close to Tubecore's beginnings. It was born in a Rosedale-area commercial garage used by Baltimore Hackerspace, a gathering place for engineers and others who like to make things. The nonprofit has a laser cutter, a metal lathe, a 3-D printer and other tools for tinkerers — and hopeful entrepreneurs.
The hackerspace's members have formed two companies so far, both this year, with more in the works. Besides Tubecore, there's ubld.it, a firm that's run out of another Rosedale garage and makes build-it-yourself tech kits. First product: a hybrid vacuum tube audio amplifier.
The founders of ubld.it helped Tubecore with its electronics design, and Tubecore in turn helps with ubld.it's marketing. David Powell, a co-founder of both Baltimore Hackerspace and ubld.it, said the local resources run deep.
"If you have a product idea, it's just a matter of networking," said Powell, an Essex resident.
Some urban enclaves — including Brooklyn and Queens in New York — have seen a blossoming of small producers, said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York think tank focused on economic development and growth. This "burst of entrepreneurial manufacturing" hasn't generated big job numbers precisely because the outfits are so small, he said.
But some might break out and grow in a big way, he added. And he's glad to see new blood in an industry some had written off as dead.
"It's almost like manufacturing is sexy again," Bowles said. "Not the kind of mass-produced widget manufacturing, but niche manufacturing, specialty goods, maker products."
That's Tubecore's product. Wired magazine dubbed the Tubecore Duo, an amplifier with an onboard media center, an example of "handmade artisanal electronics."
Tubecore uses a computer numerical control machine — known as a CNC — to do the precision milling on the hardwood for the Duo's cabinet. But the assembly is done by hand.
Perkail, 32, the Duo's designer, said he was going for a retro feel — a solid-wood, 1950s look — with vacuum tube pre-amplifiers and other vintage tech that produce the high-quality analog sound he loves. You can plug in your record player, if you have one, and get "exactly what you would hear in a recording studio," he said.