By Eric Peterson | Dec 23, 2019
Now in its third year of publishing newsletters in California, CompanyWeek has profiled close to 200 manufacturers based in the Golden State.
The common thread is persistence. It's rare to talk to the CEO of a California-based manufacturer and not hear a tale of adversity, whether it's one of overregulation or the high cost of doing business or increasingly stiff competition from all over the world.
But there's a difficult-to-define aspect to manufacturing in the state that hinges on superlative talent pools and supply chains, not to mention a market that's nearly 40 million consumers strong. These are things, as they say, that can't be taught. No amount of economic development would replicate such strengths in another state.
Taken together, California's critical masses in workforce, materials, and market create a platform that fosters both innovation and scale. Here are 10 profiles of companies that CompanyWeek published in 2019 that highlight the diversity and ingenuity of manufacturing's many sectors across the biggest economy in the union.
As 3D printing transitions from prototyping to production in a big, cross-sector way, few manufacturers are positioned to ride the wave like Carlsbad-based Forecast 3D.
The first mover has been in business for 25 years now, and that head start is reflected in the company's materials catalog and portfolio. Under the watch of founding brothers Donovan and Corey Weber, Forecast 3D makes parts for clients in the aerospace, automotive, and medical industries; end products have included fuel tanks, protective boots, lab equipment, battery packs, and even artistic sculptures.
"We started out of our garage, and kept our focus on craftsmanship and customer service," says Corey. "We purchased some of the latest HP 3D printers and we've grown organically over the past 25 years. The HP equipment has kept up with new materials and processes, and the cost has come down."
In Anaheim, snowmobile giant Polaris has brought two electric vehicle (EV) acquisitions together under one roof: Taylor-Dunn and GEM.
The former, a longstanding manufacturer of electric vehicles for indoor and campus applications in Southern California, started making EVs decades before Tesla, and its products are now ubiquitous at airports, arenas, and college campuses nationwide.
The Taylor-Dunn tagline was once "airports to zoos," but the operation now serves markets ranging from manufacturing and warehousing to airports and college campuses to public transit. "Add GEM to the mix and you get a street-legal version," says VP and GM Keith Simon. "You've got a full portfolio of products that work well around city centers for shuttle service and delivery of goods."
The Hayward candy company got its unofficial start with the invention of the Rocky Road bar by the founder more than a century ago. Annabelle's first candy factory opened in 1950.
Today it still manufactures the original Rocky Road bar, along with nostalgic favorites like Big Hunk, Abba-Zabba, and Sour Taffy. "We've managed to stay in business because we have great products that people love, and because we take really good care of our customers," says CEO Gary Gogol.
Founder and CEO JD Lorenz's Carlsbad factory takes an aerospace-grade approach manufacturing body jewelry.
Founded in 1991, the company joined the CNC revolution in 2007 and never looked back. Lorenz says automation has helped the company with efficiency and quality, not to mention workman's comp issues.
The jewelry is made from "implant-grade” stainless steel and titanium. The company pioneered jewelry made with 6al-7nb titanium used in medical implements by manufacturers in the European Union in 2017. "We're still the only body jewelry manufacturer in the entire world using this material," says Lorenz.
President and CEO Jim Quinn sees San Francisco-based Plethora as machine shop that's built for a new millennium. With an on-demand approach to CNC machining, the company brings a tech mindset to manufacturing.
Plethora's strategy is to lead the fragmented CNC industry through innovation: "What sets us apart is the core algorithm that we use," says Quinn. "We have Ph.Ds in mathematics and materials sciences working directly with machinists to develop this software."
Parts "are instantaneously designed for manufacturability," he adds. "[Designers] get feedback instantaneously. They can also get pricing and delivery date."
When CEO (that's Cosmic Engagement Officer) David Bronner began working for the family business in 1997, the Vista-based company's sales were $5 million. They hit $122.5 million in 2018.
David attributes the success to deep family roots (as well as mind-opening psychedelic experiences). His grandfather, Emanuel H. Bronner, started making soap in California in the 1940s -- while preaching about the need to unite humankind that remains core to branding and packaging today.
Making more than 17,000 different brushes for every industry imaginable, Gordon Brush is the leading brush manufacturer in the U.S. The City of Industry-based company's catalog typically grows by about 20 brush styles a week.
"If a brush exists, we have it," CEO Ken Rakusin. "If it doesn't, we'll make it. What most people don't realize is that almost every single type of industry needs brushes for one reason or another.
The San Francisco startup is developing hardware that Chief Visionary Esponnette describes as a 3D-knitting machine. "The input is yarn and the other input is the customer's scan." The output: jeans that fit perfectly and reduce manufacturing waste to next to nil.
Esponnette says about 15 percent of fabric is wasted during apparel manufacturing. The only reuse involves downcycling it into fillings and rags, but even that is the exception to the norm. "It usually goes to the landfill," she says.
Few manufacturers have as colorful a backstory as Greneker's.
The Los Angeles-based manufacturer's namesake founder, Lillian Greneker, invented the posable mannequin for theatre promotion in New York. She also invented thimble-mounted fingertip tools (screwdrivers, paintbrushes, and the like) but they "did not catch on," according to her New York Times obituary, and she invented self-sealing gas tanks for the Navy during World War II.
Today, the company leverages 3D modeling and printing to make largely custom mannequins for some of the world's biggest athletic apparel brands. That requires heightened attention to the mannequin's pose, says President and COO Steve Beckman. "If we weren't authentic, the customer would pick apart what we did very quickly."
Co-owners Andrew Freeman and George Frangadakis make some of the freakiest and creepiest masks in the business, such as the Hellhound,the Immortal, and a whole circus of demented clowns.
While they got into mask-making when digital technology pushed out practical effects, Hollywood has come around in recent years, as Immortal has recently provided masks, props, and costumes for such productions as Bright and Titans, as well as a slate of undisclosed projects.
"The dawn of the digital era is what beat us up 10 years ago," says Frangadakis. "There's been a big resurgence in the need for practical effects."
Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek. Email him at email@example.com.