For two years, Open Works in Greenmount West has offered well-equipped space for local artisans and entrepreneurs to build small businesses that create apparel, furniture, bicycles, pet backpacks, wall art and other goods.
Now the maker space across from Green Mount Cemetery is taking a bigger leap into commercial fabrication.
On the ground floor of a building that once housed a Railway Express Agency, Open Works has carved out space for a new contract services and teaching shop — a move intended to position the center to take on more contract work, and accelerate its goal of helping to rebuild the city’s once-mighty manufacturing economy.
“We sort of stumbled into building things for other people,” said Harrison Tyler, digital operations manager for Open Works. “That wasn’t actually initially in our plan, but we realized as a part of our mission of trying to make ‘making’ accessible to people, for a lot of businesses, architecture firms or individuals, the way that they need access … is just by hiring someone.”
Manufacturers such as Bethlehem Steel, Crown Cork & Seal, Solo Cup and General Motors once supplied tens of thousands of jobs in the Baltimore area. But manufacturing has declined for decades as companies embraced automation, moved or just shut down. In 2016, the most recent full year for which statistics are available, the city had 10,492 manufacturing jobs; it had 136,334 just 10 years earlier.
Any effort to engage people in learning about and doing manufacturing is important to Baltimore, said Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland. But he said more needs to be done to help existing manufacturers grow and to attract established manufacturing employers, which can offer good-paying jobs and benefits.
“I think what they’re doing [at Open Works] is great, giving people another avenue for opportunity,” Galiazzo said. “Maker spaces can be an important foundation for this movement. But by itself it’s not practical to expect that’s going to be the avenue for [the] growth of manufacturing in Baltimore city. We’re looking at a city that clearly has people that would benefit by an ambitious plan to grow manufacturing.”
April Danielle Lewis is membership manager of Open Works. Her grandparents were milliners. At 37, she has been watching the decline in manufacturing since childhood.
She says Open Works is playing a crucial role helping budding makers grow and contribute to a new economy of producers. As members gain skills in areas such as computer-aided design and laser cutting, she says, they are expanding within the maker space, hiring more workers and even moving to bigger spaces.
“These are seedlings we’re planting, and we’re giving them light or water, business resources or classes to improve skills,” she said. With enough support, “it can grow and spread its roots somewhere else.”
Open Works, run by the nonprofit Baltimore Arts Realty Corp., caters mostly to members — typically artists or business owners who pay membership fees to rent work space or use the machinery in its shops to work with wood, metal, textiles, digital fabrication and electronics.
The new workshop will allow the center to expand the commercial work it’s been doing for about a year, rather than working around members and equipment reservations. It features a full wood shop with an industrial-scale CNC router that can quickly turn out furniture, signs and other items.
Stanley Black & Decker, whose power tools division is headquartered in Towson, donated $25,000, half of it in hand and power tools. Construction giant Whiting Turner, also based in Towson, is also supporting it.
Stanley Black & Decker says it invested in the shop as part of a corporate goal of supporting innovation and entrepreneurship.
“The maker space is the beginning of that process,” said Tim Perra, the tool maker’s vice president of public affairs.
The company opened a maker space for its employees near its Towson campus last year and is investing in similar facilities around the United States and beyond, he said, toward a goal of helping 10 million makers globally by 2030.
Open Works launched in 2016 to make tools, technology and the knowledge to use them accessible by offering equipment, studio space and classes. It has about 250 members, some of whom rent space in a 125-unit micro-studio area.
The center also has seven shops stocked with tools and technology, meeting space, classrooms and a lobby open to the public with free Wi-Fi, a coffee shop and a coffee roasting business.
“All you need is an idea and we can make sure that you make it happen,” Lewis said.
Open Works has increasingly received requests for contract work, Tyler said, often from businesses whose projects are too small or unusual for other manufacturers.
The first contract came from Pixilated, a five-year-old Baltimore-based photo booth and events company. Open Works has been crafting customized photo booths that Pixilated has rented or sold to clients such as Under Armour, Google, CNN, Old Navy, Netflix, Whole Foods, Johns Hopkins, Marriott, GNC, Uber and others.
Pixilated approached Open Works with a concept for the photo booths, and Open Works’ staff helped design the hardware.
“As they’re growing their business, they just give us a call, and they tell us how many more photo booth boxes they need, and we manufacture them,” Tyler said.
Patrick Rife, Pixilated’s chief visionary officer, said it was important for his company to work with a city manufacturer, and one that could collaborate on design and production.
“We are as much of a startup as anyone else,” Rife said. “If we want cool, creative resources in the city, we need to make sure they can pay the rent too.”
The shop has also built signs, table signage holders and 3D-printed architecture site models. It is bidding on a job to build tables for the renovation of Broadway Market in Fells Point.
Open Works just received its first big new contract, a production order from national home furnishings retailer Room & Board to produce hundreds of wood stools, to be sold online and in stores starting in August
It’s part of the retailer’s Baltimore-based “Urban Wood Project,” which stemmed from an initiative by the U.S. Forest Service, Baltimore-based nonprofit Humanim and its social enterprise Brick and Board to sell reclaimed lumber from deconstructed homes.
Room & Board, a Minneapolis company whose nearest store is in Washington, agreed to buy the lumber, then looked for a manufacturer in a neighborhood in need of jobs and investment.
Room & Board was introduced to Open Works in December. The furnishings seller designed a product suitable for the maker space.
Working with Open Works fit the retailer’s mission of supporting such initiatives, said Gene Wilson, the company’s director of merchandise and vendor management.
“Ultimately, it’s about neighborhoods that are in disarray and trying to build better neighborhoods and trying to give people an opportunity to grow personally and build careers,” Wilson said. “If we can be successful at Open Works and expand what we do, it will make that organization healthier and expand their ability to impact the community.”
Room & Board, which expects to add new products to its OpenWorks contract, sees a market in reclaimed wood furnishings.
The retailer sells reclaimed wood products ranging from a $99 wall shelf to a $2,499 modern media cabinet.
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“There’s a market for that, certainly,” Wilson said. “This is about spreading the word on this cause and trying to use commercial business to help support an area in need.”
In another project, Open Works plans to transform old road signs donated by the city and state transportation departments into coasters or wall art. The products are to be sold in city shops. Proceeds will fund Open Works scholarships.
The new contract services shop, equipped with such wood shop staples as a table saw, band saw, drill press, sanding equipment and workbench, is to be staffed by some of the 18 shop technicians who now help members with shop equipment. It’s to be headed by Zach Adams, hired recently as contract fabrication manager.
Tyler, Open Works’ digital operations manager, said additional hiring will occur as business increases, with proceeds invested back into the center.
Helping Open Works commercial capabilities should give a boost to local manufacturing while offering a place where neighborhood residents can learn a trade, said Mike Murray, open innovation manager for Stanley Black & Decker in its Towson employee maker space.
“They’re a role model to show what you can do if given the resources and access,” Murray said. “They’re really showing what’s possible and allowing other small companies that are joining to see what they also could do. … Getting behind Open Works is giving them a little more power to be that role model.”