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Digital fabrication company brings advanced manufacturing to UMBC

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It's Tuesday morning and the whir of machinery fills the room at the newest company to join the south campus of BWTech Research and Technology Park at UMBC.

Technician Steven Turrentine, 50, of Catonsville, has just programmed an infrared laser machining system to create holes a fraction of the size of a human hair, in a ring made of a plastic polymer. The rings are for an oxygen tank, but the system can also create polymer tubes and other shapes for use in medical devices.

Potomac Photonics, which makes the tiny objects, also manufactures small microfluidic chips that can detect concussions for a contract with the U.S. Army.

Potomac is the first advanced manufacturing company to join BWTech at UMBC.

Advanced manufacturing is defined by the state of Maryland as a family of activities that depend on the use and coordination of information, automation, computation, software, sensing, and networking. It can also make use of cutting edge materials and emerging capabilities enabled by the physical and biological sciences.

The microfabrication company, which specializes in creating tiny parts with lasers and 3-D printers, moved from its previous location in Lanham to take advantage of the resources offered by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Mike Adelstein, president of Potomac Photonics.

It's now situated in a 9,000-square-foot space, with numerous rooms that house digital production facilities. The machines, which produce devices and parts used for pharmaceutical testing and medical devices, are operated by a number of technicians and engineers.

The business is one of 118 companies located on the two campuses of the research and technology park. One of the campuses is a 165,000-square-foot building at 1450 S. Rolling Road. The other 41-acre campus is at 5523 Research Park Drive.

The innovative companies in the fields of cybersecurity, life sciences, biotechnology and clean energy have a significant impact on the state and local economy.

A 2006 economic impact study commissioned by UMBC found the businesses generate $100 million in annual income and more than $200 million in business sales for the state. That study, the most recent available, is in the process of being updated, according to Ellen Hemmerly, executive director of BWTech at UMBC.

The research park creates communities around particular industries, whether it's the life sciences or cybersecurity, Hemmerly said.

About two-thirds are part of an incubator program, which helps fledgling startup companies to grow. Other more established companies like Potomac Photonics, are located at the park, too.

"The incubator is a huge asset for Baltimore County and for Maryland," said 1st District Councilman Tom Quirk. "The research park is absolutely instrumental in supporting the local economy and is at the heart of economic growth."

Hemmerly, a Catonsville resident, said the research and technology park wants to attract companies who will collaborate with the university.

"What we're looking for is to add value to the companies and also have the companies add value to our students' educational experience," she said.

Many companies offer internships and research opportunities to students, which is beneficial for both parties, Hemmerly said.

Sally Griffin, president of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce, said the business community welcomes companies located at BWTech at UMBC.

"Any time you have people that will come back into the community, it's a good thing," Griffin said. "We love our relationships with the colleges. They bring business, whether they eat, shop, play or buy homes in Catonsville."

Terry Nolan, of the Arbutus Business and Professional Association, agreed.

"Whenever you have forward-looking ideas, an educated workforce and higher than average salaries, it's a good thing for the community," Nolan said. "We welcome the opportunity to have them patronize our businesses and for them to hire members of our community."

Adelstein said it's good to be back in the area. He joined the company as a sales administrator a year after graduating from UMBC in 1996 and worked his way up, eventually buying the company with Paul Christensen, a founder of the company.

"We want this to be a company owned by its employees," Adelstein said. "We want the company to make an impact and work on things that make a difference."

Adelstein said the move to UMBC will help the budding business grow. It currently brings in $3 million of revenue a year.

"It's a growth mechanism for us because we will have access to great talent at both UMBC and [the Catonsville campus of Community College of Baltimore County]," Adelstein said. "We're also around a lot of start up [companies] that are going to require our services."

The company hopes to provide its digital fabrication services to other life science companies in need of tiny manufactured parts.

Presently, the company fabricates parts and devices for companies domestically as well as internationally. The company has filled orders for clients in places like Israel, Finland, the United Arab Emirates and Denmark.

"It really puts Catonsville on the map from that [global] perspective, to have this type of technology here," Adelstein said.

Potomac Photonics is the third university-related 3-D fabrication lab located in the county, along with the CCBC Fab Lab on the South Rolling Road campus and Towson University Object Lab.

"Potomac Photonics is a great addition to Baltimore County's tech community. Their engineers and skilled production team are advancing digital manufacturing and contributing to a revolution in medical treatment and diagnosis," said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "[The county's] tremendous pipeline of university talent will be a huge asset as the company grows.

"We're excited that any kind of new company can come to Baltimore County, but also one that is a manufacturer for the future, as opposed to the old way of doing things," Kamenetz said.

Carl Livesay, manufacturing and program manager at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said the state cannot specify how many jobs companies like Potomac Photonics will create.

"It's too soon to tell how many jobs [additive manufacturing (industrial 3-D printing)] will create," he said. "But there are no significant barriers to entry for manufacturing at this time."

Still, he expects the industry to grow.

"We're going to see new jobs. They'll be higher technology, higher wage and higher skilled positions," Livesay said. "The impact of the industry is going to be a lower total cost of manufacturing, greater flexibility of engineers to order products, faster time to market for new products and shorter lead times."

Adelstein said digital fabrication makes the process of producing objects much more accessible — especially for those looking to bring an idea to life.

Gone are the days of giant factories with assembly line production, Adelstein said.

"The ability to just take a drawing from a computer and send it to a system and get it made quickly — that's where manufacturing is going. It's going to be much more customized and there's going to be a smaller footprint," Adelstein said.

Digital fabrication also means very little pollution, a sharp contrast with the manufacturing plants that produced smoke and various types of waste.

"It's a much cleaner technology," Adelstein said.

Adelstein said he hopes his company will inspire high school and college students to become interested in manufacturing and engineering.

The company currently has 20 employees and is looking to hire more to handle its projected growth.

Entry level technicians start at $13 an hour and the jobs don't require a college education.

Those technicians have the opportunity to earn more if they're promoted to engineers, a pay grade salaried between $60,000 and $70,000 per year, Adelstein said.

"If you're passionate about the technology, and you have a good work ethic, you can grow here," Adelstein said.

Adelstein said everyone running the company now began at the entry level.

He expects their new hires to be from a variety of backgrounds — from the colleges in the area to tech enthusiasts to those with an interest in manufacturing.

"We hope to continue our path, which is to create new manufacturing technologies that can keep us ahead in the game of manufacturing and bring jobs back to the U.S.," Adelstein said.

However, Jeff Fuchs, chairman of the Maryland Advisory Commission on Manufacturing Competitiveness, said advanced manufacturing also poses challenges for the state, because many of the positions require more specialized skills that are constantly evolving.

"The challenges are pretty significant. It's not employees who are going to be doing the same thing every day. Now, they need to be part of problem solving: They need to be thinking and have specialized training," Fuchs said.

While advanced manufacturing shows a lot of promise, he predicts that it will coexist with traditional manufacturing.

"It's a long development pathway, and who knows whether advanced manufacturing techniques will ever be able to do what traditional manufacturing can do?" Fuchs said. "There are going to be some things that advanced manufacturing is very good at, but we won't see an evaporation of these companies that do things in a traditional way."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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