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Of the many high tech industry sectors flourishing within The Corridor region, manufacturing may boast the most remarkable legacy. As an industry that has quite literally created the building blocks for historical milestones – from catalyzing the First Industrial Revolution to fueling the Space Race – manufacturing has played a key role in advancing mankind and its capabilities.

Challenging grim predictions about the decline of this sector nationwide, enthusiasts point to evidence that exports of U.S. manufacturing goods have actually quadrupled since 1990. Even amid the geopolitical uncertainty of modern times, manufacturing remains resilient – in part due to the industry’s remarkable power of adaptation.

Florida may seem like an unlikely protagonist in the story of an industry whose factories and industrial centers have historically been concentrated elsewhere. However, the state has rapidly emerged as a major character thanks to advancing technologies and improved, reimagined infrastructure. Today, manufacturing contributes $40 billion annually to Florida’s economy – and much of this impact originates in The Corridor.

A Storied Past

Manufacturing – which entails the production of finished and intermediary products ranging from microelectronics to medical devices – has evolved immensely since Ford installed the first moving assembly line to create the automobile in 1913. With a historically agricultural-fueled economy, Florida isn’t traditionally known as a key player in driving the growth of manufacturing, but the Sunshine State has been behind the sector’s development every step of the way.

 

Following the post-Civil War industrial boom, the state’s investment in transportation infrastructure served as a powerful economic booster. The new network of roads and rails allowed for the efficient shipment of agricultural products – and, simultaneously, established the system that would allow for the export of Florida-manufactured goods. Eventually, Florida would grow to boast one of the most extensive multimodal transportation systems in the world. With more than 20 commercial service airports, 15 deep-water seaports and two spaceports, the state serves as a natural hub for the creation and exportation of manufactured goods.

As housing, agriculture and tourism economies boomed in the early to mid-20th century, manufacturing further evolved to meet the needs of the growing population – a trajectory that showed no signs of slowing down. And, as was the case for the rest of the United States, Florida was tapped to meet the production demands imposed by World War II.

Later, the Space Race provided ample opportunities for aerospace and aviation materials manufacturers, inspiring innovative methods for producing materials more quickly and cheaply than ever before. Grasslands and orange groves evolved into centers of high-tech industry. In 1957, Lockheed Martin – then The Martin Company – built its Orlando plant in anticipation of increased activity at the Cape Canaveral rocket launch site. Jabil – now one of the world’s largest providers of electronic manufacturing services and solutions – moved to St. Petersburg in 1982.

As Florida’s wealth of opportunity continued to expand, challenges loomed on the horizon. While outsource manufacturing had existed in some form since the early 18th century, the surge in electronics production was accompanied by a similar uptick in outsourcing.

However, even as the trend toward offshore outsourcing continued, technologies developed that allowed manufacturing to maintain its resiliency and experience a new era of Renaissance in the United States. The invention of the first 3-D printing technology in the early 1980s served as a catalyst for the sector, with companies quickly seeking out ways to capitalize upon the opportunities afforded by the new, advanced state of manufacturing.

Advancements in Advanced Manufacturing

For a manufacturer to be considered “advanced,” two criteria must be met. First, the finished product must be technologically complex, requiring extensive levels of design. Second, the manufacturer must leverage advanced technology along key points of the production process. An advanced manufacturer might leverage computer-aided design (CAD) for a product’s design; high-performance computing for modeling, simulation and analysis; and, advanced robotics – such as cobots (collaborative robots) – for production.

Looking back at just the last 25 years, industry growth has been explosive – especially within the 23-county Corridor region. Shane Hunt, president of the Manufacturer’s Association of Central Florida (MACF), has witnessed this firsthand.

When his manufacturing career began in 1996, Hunt encountered his share of naysayers.

“The perception of most people who had never been in manufacturing was that manufacturing was something dirty – that it was smokestacks, pollution and poor treatment of employees,” Hunt said.

When he joined the team at HESCO/RLS, a DeBary-based designer and manufacturer of surge protection products, Hunt’s design and drafting toolkit included a pencil, paper and rulers. In the decades that followed, he would have a front-row seat to the technological revival that sparked the industry’s remarkable growth.

Manufacturing Today

So, what does manufacturing look like today? CAD allows manufacturers to create models with a high degree of precision and efficiency – a far cry from the hand-drawn product drafts of Hunt’s early career. Leveraging CAD in tandem with additive manufacturing – commonly known as 3-D printing – Hunt and his team benefit from the ability to fabricate functional prototypes at a fraction of the cost.

“From the design side, 3-D printing has saved us tens of thousands of dollars in prototyping,” Hunt said. “I used to have to pay between $6,000 and $10,000 for a company to build a tool for me to test. If that didn’t test – which, oftentimes, it doesn’t – I’d have to go back and pay for that tool to be adjusted. In 3-D printing, I can send them the same drawing and they can literally make it for $30 to $40 if they charge me anything.”

In Satellite Beach, companies like Rapid Prototyping Services cater to the needs of manufacturers like Hunt, producing affordable, high-quality 3-D prototypes with a 24-hour turnaround time. And, while CAD and additive manufacturing, which are leveraged by companies like Merritt Island’s Craig Technologies and Tampa’s Chromalloy, are undeniably powerful, they are just two of the innovations being developed in The Corridor’s advanced manufacturing sector – one that often defies expectations.

Multi-Industry Innovation

From life sciences to microelectronics, advanced manufacturing breeds innovation across a variety of industries. In Ocala, Artemis Plastics illustrates this with its production of critical materials used across medical, defense industrial and consumer industries.

The same is true for BRIDG, a microelectronics fabrication facility in Osceola County. Born from a partnership between Osceola County, the University of Central Florida and The Corridor Council, BRIDG is the epitome of advanced manufacturing in the 21st century. Here, modern-day manufacturers are easy to spot … as long as you are looking for someone who looks more like a Ghostbuster than a traditional assembly line worker in blue overalls. In cleanrooms with state-of-the-art workspace and air so pure you could count the number of particles per cubic foot, these manufacturers are managing a diverse range of manufacturing projects, from customized flat panel display technology to sensors that detect pests inside the home.

Public-private partnerships like the one from which BRIDG emerged are popping up across the state to ensure The Corridor’s continued standing as a catalyst for advanced manufacturing research and development. For instance, FloridaMakes, an industry-led organization for the advancement of Florida’s manufacturing sector, announced in June a partnership in which it will invest $500,000 to support The Corridor Council’s Matching Grants Research Program (MGRP).

Established to further the development of advanced manufacturing technologies for commercialization, the partnership launched a pilot phase at the University of Central Florida. Upon completion of the pilot, FloridaMakes is anticipated to grow its support of MGRP projects across all three campuses of The Corridor Council’s partner universities, including the University of South Florida and the University of Florida.

21st Century Manufacturing Workforce

The evolution of Florida’s manufacturing industry has been made possible by a thriving pool of advanced manufacturing professionals who choose to do business in The Corridor region – and for good reason.

The state’s 19,000 manufacturers employ roughly 360,000 people who earn, on average, more than $54,000 annually – about 23% higher than the state’s average wage. In Brevard County, where a robust aerospace and aviation industry plays a significant role in the local economy, the average manufacturing wage is 79% higher than the nationwide standard.

Opportunity is also abundant in Gainesville, which boasts an above-average rate of advanced manufacturing employment compared to the rest of the nation, despite being home to only 2% of the state’s population. The Central Florida region’s advanced manufacturing sector represents a much higher share of manufacturing employment than it does in the national or state economies, contributing to regional innovation and higher wage jobs.

Yet, for all the industry’s opportunity, a persistent challenge remains. Employers have encountered a skills deficit, owing largely to outdated perceptions of manufacturing that discourage students from pursuing careers in the industry. Luckily, numerous institutions have risen to the occasion, actively participating in the education and development of the sector’s next-generation workforce which is emerging in-state colleges and universities in all reaches of The Corridor. From technical certifications to doctoral programs, there are opportunities for engagement at every touchpoint of an individual’s educational and professional journey.

At State College of Florida (SCF) in Bradenton, the Engineering Technology and Advanced Manufacturing (ETAM) program creates a talent development pipeline to meet both the short-term and long-term goals of local manufacturers.

“We’re creating a workforce now of ‘super-technicians,’” said ETAM principal investigator Eric Roe in a video produced by SCF. “They’re handling it all, from production to quality to maintenance – and that skill set is dramatically different than what manufacturing looked like even 10 years ago.”

Looking Ahead

Outside the classroom, professional associations across The Corridor are working to bring the tools of tomorrow to the manufacturers of today. Through associations like FloridaMakes and MACF, Hunt estimates his company has received close to $100,000 in training grants for his staff to hone their skills and ensure they’re equipped to navigate the latest technology.

“We’re just getting better and better every year,” Hunt said. “If anybody gets involved with these groups, they’re going to see a shortened learning curve.”

Automation, the process wherein manufacturing procedures run autonomously through computer programming, is also on the rise and furthers that shortened learning curve. The benefits of automation – programmed and supervised by skilled technicians – are significant. Rather than replacing employees, automation reduces human error, enhances safety and improves efficiency.

“Some form of automation is critical in order to compete against other states and against our competitors – being able to replicate the same processes over and over precisely and taking out some of the human error in the process,” Hunt said. “It isn’t to replace the employees, but rather to make things more quality-centric. It’s part of a bigger picture of continuing to work on lean practices, improving quality consistently and never settling for the processes we have in place.”

For innovators like Sean Dotson, president and CEO of RND Automation – a custom automation and machine design company based in Sarasota – work in a field that never settles provides immense creative liberty.

“Every machine is unique. Every machine is custom,” he said. “There’s always some new problem to be solved, some new mechanism to be designed, some new way to deploy a robot. It’s never the same thing over and over. It’s always something fresh.”

With a deep understanding of the past and sights set firmly on the future, there’s a reason Florida has been recognized as one of the best states for manufacturing. Now, with educational institutions and professional associations within The Corridor coming together to inspire the next wave of advanced manufacturers, the region is poised to emerge as a major industry player on a national and international stage.

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