During Youngstown, Ohio’s industrial heyday, the box-like building on West Boardman Street was home to the printing plant of the Vindicator, a venerable broadsheet that took on big business, corrupt politicians, and organized crime. Today it’s home to the future of American manufacturing—or the company behind at least one version of it: the JuggerBot Tradesman P3-44, a 3,400-pound, $225,000 3D printer built for industrial tasks such as turning thermoplastics into foundry molds. “The sheer volume of what you can do on these-style machines completely changes the game,” says Zac DiVencenzo, a Youngstown-area native who’s JuggerBot 3D’s president.
DiVencenzo grabs a felt-tipped pen, finds some empty space on a whiteboard, and begins charting up cost curves. He’s making an economic case for what’s known as additive manufacturing and for the bright future of his six-year-old startup, its six employees, and a former steel town of 65,000 people that’s been battling for decades to find a new place in a U.S. economy running away from it. “I’m just working to get Youngstown on the map,” DiVencenzo says.
For decades, this corner of Ohio has been held up by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Donald Trump as an emblem of industrial decline and what’s gone wrong in America. A succession of presidents has promised—and failed—to turn around Youngstown, which, despite all the political attention and federal dollars lavished upon it, doesn’t have a supermarket in the residential neighborhoods closest to downtown.
In his 2013 State of the Union address, Barack Obama singled out Youngstown as an example of one route to industrial revival. Four years later, Trump came to town. The jobs are coming back, he told a crowd of supporters: “Don’t sell your house.” In 1990 more than 61,000 people were employed in manufacturing in the Youngstown metropolitan area. When Obama gave that address to Congress, the number was 29,895. By March of this year, the number was 23,128.
Now comes Joe Biden with his plans for $4 trillion in new Big Government spending. The two packages on which he’s betting his economic legacy cover everything from roads, bridges, and 21st century energy infrastructure to bringing home semiconductor and pharmaceutical production, not to mention greater access to free education and child care for workers. His biggest long-term economic bet is that an industrial pivot—from an economy driven by internal combustion engines and fossil fuels to one powered by electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar cells—will generate enough jobs to make up for those lost when older industries faded away.
In Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning Valley (once known as “Steel Valley,” it’s been hopefully rebranded as “Voltage Valley” by local politicians), they’ve been betting on EVs for a while. This collective goal, together with the pivot envisioned by Biden and his advisers, may well be more grounded in reality than the hollow Trump-era promises to bring back steel that were showered on the region, says Albert Sumell, an economist at Youngstown State University.
But the history of grand revitalization plans doesn’t bode well for actually generating the jobs needed or being promised. “The fact is there’s the political narrative, and then there’s the economic reality,” Sumell says. “They’re never the same, and they are often just factually opposed to one another.”
JUGGERBOT, founded by DiVencenzo and a few friends out of the engineering program at Youngstown State, wouldn’t exist without Big Government. As a student, DiVencenzo interned at America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which opened in Youngstown in 2012 as part of Obama’s efforts to spur the creation of new manufacturing jobs. Today it operates out of a federally subsidized building attached to the institute, which is also an arm of the Pentagon-affiliated National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining. The company will derive half its expected $2.2 million 2021 revenue from government projects.
DiVencenzo says his plan is to move JuggerBot out of subsidized premises and away from government work within five years, by which time he’d like to have 40 to 60 employees. In the meantime, it shares space with other government-nurtured 3D companies, including Fitz Frames, which 3D-prints $95-a-pair custom eyeglasses using an app that registers facial measurements.
America Makes, which has 13 employees of its own in Youngstown, has received $195 million in federal funding since its inception. Much of that has gone to exploratory 3D printing projects such as seeing whether the technology could enable the manufacturing of now-obsolete parts for aging Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport planes. In 2019 the U.S. Department of Defense committed to $322 million in funding over seven years for America Makes.
There’s an inescapable contradiction in the mission of America Makes, whose network includes more than 200 companies in the U.S. and only 12 in the Mahoning Valley. It may be creating jobs in a new industry. Yet, given the realities of modern manufacturing, every productivity advancement created by an innovation such as 3D printing tends to mean fewer jobs overall.
That’s evident in Leetonia, a rural town 25 minutes south of Youngstown, where Mark Lamoncha is plotting the 3D printing future of his own family-owned company, Humtown Products, part of the America Makes network. In a former Mitsubishi tire-mold factory, five German-made 3D printers whir away 24 hours a day printing sand molds and cores for foundries that will use them to manufacture engine blocks and other cast-metal components.
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