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NYC manufacturing goes through high-tech revival

If developed with care, New York's future in tech could involve more and better opportunities for the middle class

A Duro UAS underwater autonomous vehicle being tested at Governors Island in New York, recently.

New York

ON a crisp afternoon in late September, a submarine launched from Governors Island. The 45-kg unmanned vessel bobbed in the waves for a few minutes before dipping briefly underwater, then returned to the dock. Brian Wilson looked on like a worried parent watching a child swim alone for the first time. "There's no GPS underwater," he said. "It doesn't always know where it is." The submarine, designed and built by a Bronx-based company called Duro UAS, is called an "underwater autonomous vehicle", even though, for now, it's not quite autonomous, relying on a control cable linking it to an operator on shore.

Mr Wilson, the president of Duro, hopes to sell these submarines within a few years to harbour authorities, bridge engineers, environmental non-profits - what industry insiders like to call "blue tech".

To summarise: They're building underwater drones, from scratch, in the South Bronx. Who said manufacturing in New York is dead?

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Duro is far from alone. Honeybee Robotics is building equipment for Mars rovers in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Rosco Vision Systems makes rearview cameras for buses in Queens. Those giant video screens starting to appear in subway stations? Boyce Technologies makes them at a high-tech factory in Long Island City.

Industrial transformation

It's been a long time since "New York" and "manufacturing" sat together in a sentence that didn't include words like "decay", "pollution" and "job loss". But in recent years, the city has been quietly undergoing an industrial transformation. According to a report by the Industrial Trade and Assistance Corp, with research funded by Empire State Development, 2015 was the first year in decades that New York did not see a drop in manufacturing jobs. These jobs, however, aren't situated in the sweaty, iron-and-oil factories of old. They are high-tech and, so far, not automated, requiring sophisticated human skills to navigate innovations like 3D printing and computer-numerical-control milling - essentially, robotic drills and lathes - to produce small batches of precisely engineered products.

At Boyce's facility, which occupies an old fragrance factory, employees work alongside giant precision robots, making everything from customised nuts and bolts to their own circuit boards. "We really want to bring manufacturing back in America," said Charles Boyce, the president of the company.

If developed with care, New York's future in tech could involve more and better opportunities for the middle class, filling the gap between Google millionaires and gig economy workers with no benefits.

Companies like Duro and Boyce are committed to staying in New York and are willing to offer the sort of salaries and healthcare coverage needed to foster a new generation of high-skilled blue-collar workers. The question is whether the city is ready for a return to the factory floor.

Duro was founded in 2015 by Mr Wilson and Gabriel Foreman, who met while working at a consulting company in Manhattan. "The Port of New York and New Jersey is one of the best ports in the country," Mr Wilson said. The two men had seen friends play with aerial drones, and they wondered if there wasn't a way to make a drone that worked underwater. The challenges are more complex: For starters, an operator usually can't see a drone underwater, so it needs to be truly autonomous, using sensors to find its way. And it must be able to stabilise itself in powerful, unpredictable currents.

Several large companies, many of them defence contractors, already had products on the market. But for anyone outside the military or deep-pocketed energy firms, they are prohibitively expensive, often costing well above US$100,000. The duo founded Duro to develop a cheaper model that city governments and environmental groups could afford.

The obvious next step would have been to relocate to California, where the engineering talent and investor capital is. But they figured they would have a hard time getting noticed there.

In New York, real estate, labour, regulations - everything is expensive. But its colleges and universities have several strong engineering departments, and Manhattan is full of investors. Also, New York's unusual infrastructure has its own tech needs. Said Mr Boyce, whose company designs and builds communications equipment for New York subways: "Our focus is on public transit. Being in the middle of that, we can respond to urgent issues faster, and that gives us the ability to take work from larger competitors who are not as agile."

In the conventional narrative, New York is supposed to be a post-industrial success story, with old, dirty manufacturing having ceded the floor to high-tech and creative industries. All those once-empty factories in Brooklyn now house software startups and workshare spaces.

Image problem

Duro is something in between. But as a manufacturer, it still has an image problem, Mr Wilson said. And this affects its ability to properly recruit and train employees.Today's tech manufacturing positions require intense, extensive skills; you can't take over a computer-assisted laser cutter after a few shifts on the job. Mr Boyce said that it takes a year to train workers at Boyce Technologies.

"Manufacturing is not what it used to be, and the education system has to adjust accordingly," said Miquela Craytor, the executive director at New York City's Small Business Services. Both the city and state governments have made some efforts to change that. ApprenticeNYC, a city programme, helps train workers on high-tech machinery, while the state government has funded startups in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But for the businesses in need of a workforce, such efforts are not enough. "Their intentions are good," Mr Boyce said, "but they're crippled by bureaucracy."

One answer, at least for some companies, is to do it themselves. Soon after founding Duro, Mr Wilson and Mr Foreman started working with some of the city's high schools and colleges to build a worker pipeline. Boyce has similar programmes, and it has reached out to some schools. But for these companies to continue to grow, Mr Boyce said, they need serious assistance from the city and state - above all employment and training subsidies.

Despite the hurdles, New York's tech manufacturing sector seems to be flourishing. Boyce's revenue and employment are growing at double digits, and it has nearly outgrown its Long Island City facility. Duro will probably soon be seeking more space, once it brings its underwater drone to market.

And for now, at least, both companies are committed to staying in the city. "As we keep growing, we want to keep that growth local," Mr Wilson said. He's betting - and hoping - that New York will agree. NYTIMES