Usually I use this space to focus on the city's apparel/fashion industry, but as that community considers its economic future, it makes sense to take a broader view of manufacturing as a whole. Certainly there are different sets of problems, but there are also shared solutions and potential models for success.
The typical saga of an American manufacturing company: They began strong, faced devastation as jobs disappeared over the horizon, and—if they were lucky—ended with a forward-looking glimmer of hope. Portland's Axiom Custom Products is not one of those cases. It's a local success story that's been around for almost 20 years, making it part of a newer wave of maturing businesses whose roots weren't deep enough to be truly unsettled by the fallout of NAFTA.
Founded in 1996 by Woody Stratton, Axiom started out as a cabinetry business, and has since grown into a diversified one-stop manufacturing/design/fabrication studio. They recently relocated from an overstuffed space under the St. Johns Bridge to a 95,000-square-foot space abutting the Columbia Slough, where they employ nearly 100 people to tackle an eclectic range of custom projects. Unlike many of their peers, they don't require minimums for their orders, and Director of Business Development Tacee Webb—just a year into her position—has begun to explore Axiom's potential as a resource for the small local manufacturing companies who are beginning to mature themselves.
Axiom has huge, international clients, but they work with anyone. They also don't try to limit their focus. Their one specialty might be taking on the jobs other shops don't want to deal with—the weird, challenging stuff. They do large-scale sculptures for fine artists and retail corporations, tiny projects for small businesses and backyard inventors, and specialty cabinetwork, still.
They've had a website for less than six months, and employees got their first business cards the day before my visit. Yet, you've almost certainly seen their work: That bonkers tiger (lion? panther?) that Katy Perry rode during the Super Bowl halftime show? Yep, that was Axiom (designer Michael Curry is one of their best clients, as is Disney).
Giant sneakers for Adidas? Axiom. Larger-than-life sculptures of basketball players for NYC's Niketown? They did that earlier this month. If you've ever been inside Bamboo Sushi or Produce Row (RIP), you've been in environments they helped create. And not all of their projects are that glamorous. It's corny, but one of their keys to success literally seems to have been a "can do" attitude toward whatever (and commitment to deadlines).
Another key: the sheer number of services they provide under one roof. They can do virtually anything with wood, and in addition to their vacuum former they have multiple CNC machines, a seven-axis robotic arm, 3D printers and scanners, painting and powder-coating capabilities, a metal shop, an in-house mural artist, and an electronics department that does everything from experiential installation and performance lighting to signage. They'll do upholstery, custom lighting fixtures, countertops, staircases, resin casting and pouring... the list goes on.
And despite all that, most people in the city have never heard of Axiom. That might start to change. Webb is considering hosting an open house for small furniture makers in the area to announce their presence, and she's even harboring a fantasy about throwing a concert on the Slough, right behind Axiom's workshop. It's awesome to see companies driven by process and teamwork be able to grow in the US'—in Portland's—changing economy, and we should be glad to know them.