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Baltimore area has high share of high-tech manufacturing jobs

The molten metal pouring from the foundry at Danko Arlington Inc. in Baltimore harks back to the early industrial era. But across the street in one of the company's other buildings, workers operate an X-ray machine, a laser probe and a 3D printer that seems plucked straight from science fiction.

"We're trying to do pioneering things here," said John D. Danko, whose grandfather started the company 92 years ago.

He's not alone. A new study suggests that manufacturers in the Baltimore region are disproportionately high-tech — and calls on leaders to build on local strengths, rather than writing the long-shrinking sector off as a dying field.

The Brookings Institution report, which is being released today, classifies 27 percent of the region's manufacturing jobs as "very high-tech," compared with 16 percent nationwide. A fifth of the area's manufacturing jobs are in computers and electronics, the Washington think tank said.

That's partly driven by the region's reliance on defense contracting. Northrop Grumman Corp.'s electronic systems sector — which makes radar, navigation systems and other cutting-edge equipment — is based in Anne Arundel County. Lots of smaller companies, including Danko Arlington, make parts for the military as well.

But local manufacturers think they're all pretty high-tech these days. If they didn't innovate, they say, they couldn't survive.

The Domino Sugar refinery in Baltimore, for instance, has saved money using computers running "process control" programs that improve efficiency in such areas as energy use.

"Since we're spending $1.8 million a month on fuel, it's really important," said Stu FitzGibbon, the refinery manager.

The Brookings study, which looks at manufacturing in metro areas across the country, concludes that what is made in America varies widely by region. The report suggests that state and local leaders must take the lead to help manufacturing thrive because it's not monolithic nationwide.

What would work for Detroit, in other words, wouldn't necessarily do much in Baltimore.

"If you're really going to promote manufacturing in an effective way, you need to understand what assets a community starts with," said Susan R. Helper, a co-author of the report and an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Brookings has been advocating for more efforts to expand domestic manufacturing because the sector pays well, and still offers career opportunities for skilled and unskilled workers without college degrees. In an April report focusing solely on Baltimore's economy, Brookings argued that manufacturing was among the industries the region should help grow.

The average manufacturing wage in the Baltimore area is nearly $72,000 a year — and more than $110,000 a year in very high-tech manufacturing industries.

"If the goal is to have shared prosperity, it's not enough merely to provide good opportunities for college-educated, white-collar professionals," said Anirban Basu, a Baltimore economist who agrees with Brookings' expand-manufacturing sentiment.

But for many, many years, the sector has shed jobs. To the cheaper South. To foreign countries. To automation.

Statewide, there are 68,000 fewer jobs in manufacturing today than there were two decades ago, a drop of almost 40 percent.

It's to the point that local manufacturers feel forgotten by government officials, as if the sector had actually disappeared. What have local leaders done about manufacturing "given the awful decline that's occurred?" asked Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland. "The answer is 'not enough.'

"There's some common-sense things that we ought to agree on doing to secure manufacturing, to stop it from eroding," Galiazzo said.

He suggested economic development officials call manufacturers just to ask: What could we do to help you add jobs? It's a particularly important question now, as defense contractors gird for cutbacks.

But Galiazzo is excited by the possibilities for the emerging manufacturing technology that Danko Arlington is using: printers that produce in three dimensions rather than two — literally printing out prototypes or finished products.

"The definition of manufacturing 10 years from now is going to be really, really different," he said.

Danko Arlington uses its 3D printer, purchased about a year ago, to make mold forms. Those are pressed into sand to make the molds into which workers pour molten aluminum. The printer makes plastic prototypes in a few days, rather than the weeks it takes to program and run the robotic cutter that make the forms from wood.

The large printer hummed Tuesday as it laid down layer upon layer of plastic.

Elsewhere in the company's complex in the Park Heights area, a radiographer examined X-rays to look for bubbles or other problems in finished products. Another employee scanned products with a laser — useful for reverse-engineering parts — and scrutinized them on a screen. And, at the other end of the technology continuum, workers pressed down pumpkin-colored sand with gloved hands and poured liquid aluminum from a rumbling furnace into the resulting molds.

The 3D printer isn't taking anyone's job away, said Danko, the firm's president, because the mold forms have long been made robotically. In fact, he's thinking of reviving the company's apprenticeship program to help train "hybrid" workers with skills in both information technology and tool making.

He hopes innovation will help old foundries like his expand. "Once we do that," he said, "then we're able to hire."

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