By Dusty Weis, Association of Equipment Manufacturers

Jeff Garascia’s design team had a super-powered bagel toaster, a deadline and a big problem.

“We developed some new technology that can actually toast a bagel as quickly as six seconds,” says Garascia, the chief innovation officer of Marmon Group. “The problem is that if you don’t turn it off at the right time, your bagel, instead of being toasted, will be charcoal.”

Like many innovations in the modern world of manufacturing, it was a challenge custom-fitted for a smart technology, “Internet of Things” solution. But like many manufacturers, Garascia’s organization doesn’t consider itself to be a “technology company,” per se —“We make toasters,” he says, bluntly. And the company doesn’t maintain a deep pool of cutting edge technology talent.

Instead, Marmon has launched a partnership with a Chicago business incubator and makerspace called mHub. And at AEM’s recent Thinking Forward event on the site of this facility, members learned about this pioneering initiative and how they might mimic it to inject new creativity into the equipment manufacturing industry.

“I think partnering with a makerspace makes a lot of sense,” Garascia says in the latest Thinking Forward Podcast. “It provides a lot of flexibility, it gives you access to a different set of talent than you would probably hire on your own, and it provides a different, interesting environment for your employees to come to from time to time.”

And, by bringing in a fresh set of eyes and a diverse collection of skillsets, it also solved his toaster problem in one month flat.

A Community of Innovators and Builders

mHub is a unique hybrid of two distinct trends that have taken root in cities nationwide—business incubators and makerspaces.

Business incubators help startup companies get off the ground by providing office space, training and services, usually at a cost or subscription fee. And makerspaces are collaborative workshops where members can use or learn about collections of tools that would normally be too expensive for individuals to purchase on their own.

Combining these two concepts, Bill Fienup co-founded mHub in Chicago as a solution to his own frustrations as an MIT-educated entrepreneur.

“I felt myself sort of spinning my wheels alone in my apartment trying to come up with the next big innovation,” Fienup says. “Some other entrepreneurs were having similar challenges, so we teamed up and rented our first space.”

“The hope was to share some tools and resources, but it turned out that the community was the biggest asset,” Fienup says. “As we grew, having all those brains and skillsets in one room is what benefited everybody the most.”

Having officially opened its doors just over a year ago, mHub can already boast 860 paying members. Fienup says that mechanical engineers make up the plurality of the community, but there are also lots of business strategists, electrical engineers, computer scientists and designers, in addition to physicists, theoreticians and people from varying backgrounds who simply fit the bill as “technology enthusiasts.”

The common thread linking these members is often an interest and expertise in new and emerging technologies, including the Internet of Things, Smart Cities and sensor networks.

An As-Needed Source of Technology Talent

So that brings us back to Garascia’s toaster problem. When toasting a bagel in six seconds, he says the smallest variables make the difference between delicious and disaster.

“That’s why you can toast a bagel on Monday and it’s perfect, but with the exact same settings it’s either underdone or overdone on Tuesday,” Garascia says, “And you’re like, ‘Wait, what the hell happened?’”

His team suspected they could solve the problem with sensors, microprocessors and some Internet of Things magic, but they didn’t have the expertise to design the solution themselves. So, as a primary sponsor of mHub, Garascia reached out to Fienup and asked him to assemble an Avengers-style dream team of smart technology super heroes.

At mHub, Fienup maintains a database of each member’s skillsets and areas of expertise for just such an occasion. And, in the case of the ultra-fast bagel toaster, Garascia says this process resulted in a successful working prototype in less than a month.

“With hundreds of people to pick from, we can curate the optimal team,” Fienup says. “If it’s a mechanical engineering challenge, we’ll put physicists and materials experts in the same room, because that diversity of thought really creates the best opportunities for innovation.”

These team members are compensated for their time by the project sponsor, and are required to sign the sorts of non-disclosure agreements and intellectual property waivers one would expect for contract work. But Garascia says that Marmon’s partnership with mHub has been so successful at solving their technology challenges, they’re looking to sponsor similar initiatives in other cities around the country.

“That’s something we’re looking to expand upon, is to leverage more ad hoc talent rather than always building it into the organization,” Garascia says.

“Playtime” and the Process of Innovation

Garascia’s company likes that they’ve found a solution to their IoT talent challenges, but the engineers and entrepreneurs who call mHub their home like having a source of extra income and the opportunity for work that’s a change of pace from the tribulations of an entrepreneurial startup.

With approximately three-quarters of mHub members operating companies that are “pre-revenue,” Fienup says contract work helps these entrepreneurs “extend their runway” and pay the bills while continuing to pursue their passions. It also gives the budding businesses the opportunity to work with $5 million worth of high-end manufacturing tools that wouldn’t be available to them if they were working out of their garage.

At mHub, that includes a top-of-the-line electronics lab, CNC machines, injection molding, laser cutting lab, textiles lab, 3D printing lab, metal shop, wood shop and environmental testing lab.

“It would be a waste of capital for someone who’s bootstrapping to purchase all this equipment, especially if you’re only going to use it a few times,” Fienup says.

But it also fosters an attitude of creativity and playfulness, according to mHub member and engineer Henry Africano. He points out that, in a corporate setting, an expensive tool is treated like an investment, and is scheduled for work in such a way as to return that investment.

“But here, anyone has access to play with the equipment,” Africano says. “It promotes creativity and a lot of thinking that would otherwise just stay in a notebook.”

Africano says he has enjoyed the opportunities to troubleshoot creative solutions to manufacturers’ problems, finding it gratifying to see his ideas become reality. And he finds mHub’s freewheeling pace and community of creative support to be a good fit for his entrepreneurial aspirations.

“Sometimes corporate environments aren’t the best friends to innovation, just from the natural flow of the space,” Africano says. “But, here, it’s a lot more of a freestyle work environment. We work through things pretty quickly.”

How Equipment Manufacturers Can Access IoT Expertise

Most often, companies like Marmon Group that have partnered with mHub wind up being repeat customers, according to Fienup. And Garascia, who has renewed Marmon’s sponsorship of the incubator and makerspace, puts it even more bluntly.

“We’re pretty dedicated capitalists at Marmon,” he says. “We’re not doing this as a charity, we’re doing it because we think it helps us make more money.”

Indeed, among the AEM members who toured mHub and heard from Garascia at a recent Thinking Forward event, there were a number of nodding heads in the audience. One of them belonged to Scott Radtke, the director of engineering at the United Group, a Chicago-area company that builds seats for industrial and business applications.

“The fabrication and so forth, we have that taken care of,” Radtke says. “But it’s the electronics side we’re looking toward—sensors, connectivity and that type of thing are what we want to explore.”

And for many manufacturers, business incubators and makerspaces might offer the opportunity to dabble in that realm—without having to go all “Silicon Valley.”

“That’s becoming a more important part of our business, but it’s still not part of our core,” Garascia says. “So, in some ways, having the ability to work here on a project basis might be better for us than it would be to hire people to fulltime positions.”

AEM members learned about this and other topics at a Thinking Forward event at the mHub innovation center in Chicago on May 8.

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