Sonoma County exploring ways to upgrade manufacturing technology to boost local innovation
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 Specialties, 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.