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Sonoma County exploring ways to upgrade manufacturing technology to boost local innovation

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Dustin Holbrook, an 8-year employee of P&L Specialties stands at a computer screen, tracking the preprogrammed path of what is essentially a liquid blade made of water and garnet that cuts through a sheet of metal as if it were wood.

Blasting at 50,000 pounds of force per square inch, and with extreme precision, the abrasive water jet cut out door frames for a local designer and builder.

Holbrook, who only six years ago was working on P&L’s production line, had to learn quite a bit of computer-aided design to operate the machine, which is primarily used to cut metal sheets and pieces the Santa Rosa company uses to make its crush pad equipment for wineries.

Back then, Holbrook was using a saw and tape measure rather than a $300,000 computerized water jet. But even with high-tech machining, Holbrook maintains a human touch.

“I can tell how it’s running by listening to the machine,” he said as the jet nozzle, submerged in a large basin of water, hummed across the sheet of metal.

The barrel washing, grape conveyors, sorting tables and grape hoppers P&L has been making for decades are not what you would consider the sort of high-tech equipment associated with places like Silicon Valley. But the processes used to fabricate and assemble them are anything but low-tech.

Whether it’s making wine grape hoppers or producing anti-reflection coatings for a cancer doctor’s super-high resolution imaging display, those who make things in Sonoma County say a fertile business landscape that bridges high-tech and manufacturing is crucial.

As a result, county economic development officials and industry leaders are exploring the creation of a manufacturing alliance or business cluster that would bring together local manufacturers to help identify common needs and exchange ideas. Potentially staffed by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, the alliance would assist local companies in addressing the manufacturing industry’s biggest challenges: continuing to implement advanced technology which is key in all manufacturing being the most critical thread tying together all the hurdles.

To that end, among the most common obstacles are employment recruitment and retention, internal training and retraining in order to adopt new technology in manufacturing processes. Equally important is the need to address the local housing crisis that pushed rents and home prices for workers and potential hires to levels comparable with other Bay Area communities and thus has made Sonoma County less appealing.

“Manufacturing and technology are key to our future — they foster innovation, economic diversification and provide good jobs with benefits,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the economic development board.

Stone said the idea of forming a manufacturing alliance came out of focus groups with manufacturing representatives that were convened as part of the five-year economic development plan called Strategic Sonoma.

Ed Barr, president of P&L Specialities. Barr, who has a background in aviation manufacturing, acquired P&L Specialties in 1999 and has since bought related companies TomBeard Company and Revolution Equipment Sales.

Barr said when he joined the local Workforce Investment Board 16 years ago to help improve vocational and secondary education related to manufacturing, he did not anticipate the cost of housing reaching a pricing level on par with East Bay and South Bay communities. That makes it a lot more difficult to attract outside workers who may be looking for more affordable housing than they might find in Oakland, San Jose or San Francisco, he said.

Educating and training Sonoma County residents like Holbrook with existing ties to the local community could lead to a more stable workforce.

“They have reason to be here,” Barr said. “I would focus on enhancing our educational opportunities, whether vocational, at (Santa Rosa Junior College) or postsecondary at Sonoma State. See what we can do to grow our own workforce.”

Holbrook, a native of Santa Rosa, said he’s thankful for the opportunity Barr gave him to train to operate the water jet cutter. He’s become proficient in the machine’s proprietary OMAX computer-aided design software, which can easily convert other computer designs, including AutoCAD and Solidworks.

“It was a little intimidating at first, to tell you the truth. I didn’t even know what a water jet was,” said Holbrook, who now has no trouble visualizing and executing cuts as narrow as four-thousandths of an inch.

The total number of manufacturing jobs in Sonoma County, nearly 25,000 positions as of November 2018, make up only 11.7 percent of the county’s total workforce of a little more than 211,000 people, according to federal labor statistics compiled by Moody’s Analytics.

That share of the total county workforce has declined significantly from a high of 16.7 percent in December 2000. High-tech manufacturing, excluding high-tech services, plunged from more than 10,300 jobs in December 2000 to about 4,200 in November 2018. The job losses are primarily a result of local medical device and electronics testing companies shedding thousands of jobs in the past two decades.

Meanwhile, during that same period the total number of local food and beverage manufacturing jobs went from 8,800 to 14,100 positions. The food and beverage manufacturing sector now comprises nearly 57 percent of all local manufacturing jobs, compared with only 28 percent at the turn of the century.

Last year, for the first time, more than $1 billion of computer- related equipment was exported from Sonoma County, “a remarkable achievement for a semirural county like Sonoma,” Stone said.

“As they export products, they bring new money into the county,” he said. “This new money translates into a better standard of living and opportunity for local residents.”

A key factor in growing the local manufacturing industry, especially the high-tech sector, is cultivating manufacturing and engineering offerings at local colleges and universities, said Farid Farahmand, chair of the Sonoma State engineering department. Farahmand said the SSU engineering department remains small compared with other Bay Area universities.

Sonoma State’s engineering program only offers undergraduate and graduate courses in electrical engineering. The school has about 150 undergraduates and 20 graduate students in engineering.

Compare that to San Jose State University, which has engineering undergraduate and graduate programs in aerospace engineering; aviation technology; biomedical engineering; chemical and materials engineering; civil and environmental engineering; civil engineering; computer engineering; electrical engineering; industrial and systems engineering; and mechanical engineering.

At San Jose State, there were 7,171 students enrolled in the school’s Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering last fall. The school’s industrial technology program, which includes concentrations in manufacturing systems and computer electronics and network systems management, now has 349 students enrolled. No wonder the university’s tagline is “Powering Silicon Valley.”

Local companies often find themselves competing for the same pool of local employees unless they recruit from outside the county.

Farahmand said large manufacturers in Sonoma County are struggling to attract and retain talented employees from other states. Many of these people have no ties to the local community and some often use a Sonoma County technology job as a stepping stone to their next job elsewhere in the Bay Area.

“They come here for two years, then they leave,” he said, adding that county residents educated locally are more likely to stay here. “If an institution can locally train, these students tend to stay.”

Farahmand said Sonoma State is well-positioned to collaborate with the county’s manufacturing alliance to help grow the college’s engineering programs. Stone said Sonoma State’s engineering program, started 20 years ago, was the product of manufacturers and tech firms persuading the school to start a program.

“Now this new (manufacturing) alliance can build on this and work with SSU and SRJC (Santa Rosa Junior College) to enhance and diversify courses to meet emerging needs,” Stone said.

Tom Chambers, vice president of operations for Mac Thin Films, a Santa Rosa optical coating company, said local manufacturers are crucial to the economy, whether they are involved in optical coating, cannabis, medical devices, fabricators or the wine industry. He said although product lines vary greatly, all producers would benefit from coming together and focusing on the common issues.

The county is planning to convene a luncheon this month with local manufacturers to further explore the formation of the alliance.

Chambers, a former Healdsburg mayor and city councilman, said there have been efforts in the past to bolster manufacturing through the formation of industry groups. He said he’s eager to see what new angle or approach the proposed alliance might take.

“Having a unified group that reaches broadly across the county will hopefully provide support for large, small and startup businesses and provide advocacy for manufacturers,” Chambers said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.