A manufacturing accelerator has opened with the help of the SEED Enterprise Center after completing a successful pilot program there.
The Workbench wants to make it easier for people with a good idea for a product to create a prototype of it, design production for it and plan how they will use it to build a business, said Jon Rehwaldt, founder and CEO.
Through the work space and programming that Workbench provides at the center, members will have the initial training, equipment and expertise required for that, he said.
“We are donating the space and utilities for the first year,” said Trois Hart, director of SEED Fort Wayne. “Our goal is to support the acceleration of innovation that leads to product manufacturing and jobs.”
The Workshop was founded early this year after a period of research last year. Its pilot program began last March.
It started working with its first client, DeLury Enterprises, in April on a medication compliance tracking device. It also has been helping Glasses Gripper design production for an assembly assistance product, which the company plans to begin manufacturing at Workbench before the end of the year.
Workbench “was developed after a number of thought leaders spoke with me about the need for more startups in the manufacturing sector in our region,” Rehwaldt said.
“As advanced manufacturing claims more jobs from large facilities around the country, it’s important to encourage the more robust small manufacturing sector,” he said.
“It is also important to make advanced manufacturing tools and techniques available to those startups so that they have the capacity to plan for the future and take advantage of automated equipment and processes.”
The Workbench has an electronics bench, vinyl plotter, 3D printers, a softlab for fabrics and general shop tools. Because he is building it based on member needs, Rehwaldt said he also is collecting quotes on a CNC router that an oncoming client will be using.
“We provide training on all the equipment when a member needs it, and aid them in its use and maintenance,” he said.
“We have a network of experts in CAD and CAM, as well as industry experts who consult for us and our members on specific projects,” Rehwaldt said. “For anything that is (currently) outside the scope of our facility, we contract local shops to provide services like water cutting, welding, and injection molding.”
Many other areas of the country have seen increases in startup formation, deal flow and business investment result from the development of manufacturing accelerators, which also have helped them attract and retain skilled talent, he said.
“A lot can be done by a curious and motivated maker these days, but when it comes to products that require skillsets outside of the inventor or designer’s wheelhouse more resources are required. Especially when you start to consider how to move from manufacturing one-off products and think about how to scale production for growth,” Rehwaldt said.
He estimates an initial prototype and production design could cost $5,000 — or 10 times that amount — depending on the nature of the product.
“When you begin to add in technology aspects, such as IoT (Internet of Things), those costs skyrocket,” Rehwaldt said. “Our goal is to bring those costs down and get founders familiar with equipment and processes that might be outside a startup budget, but accessible after an initial investment round.”
“Some of our clients are full time members, working on their full production stack here at the space. Others come in for component design and prototyping and then move the production out to a local manufacturing facility,” he said.
“We really want to be a resource no matter where you are in the process, so next steps are very important to us. We encourage our clients and members to ask what they don’t know so we can help them find resources, or provide them ourselves.”
Many of the meetings that Rehwaldt has with Workbench members involve brainstorming. In considering their product and business development options, they can learn about early-stage community resources, such as the Build Institute at SEED or MasterMinds at the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, he said.
Those programs can help aspiring entrepreneurs “figure out the basics of how a business is run before we start working on a product for them,” Rehwaldt said. “We are here to help everyone who has an idea find out if it could be a business, and then get them there.”
Next year, Workbench plans to begin a Factorium program, which will take members through production design step-by-step in a way that provides them with cost estimates good enough to use seeking investment.
“We are aiming at individuals with ideas, no matter who they are or what experience they have. Those we are best equipped to help are people with ideas for physical products that can be made in a shop style facility,” Rehwaldt said.
“Our space might not be the best fit for those with ideas for restaurants, services, or software products, but we can move them along to a resource that can help them too,” he said.
Workbench would like to help 20 companies start during the first 12 months of its public operation, and see at least half of them bring a product to market, Rehwaldt said.
“The impact that 20 new companies could have on Fort Wayne is immense. By far, startups account for the largest section of job growth, and are able to sustain a much higher growth rate than larger companies,” he said.
“After initial investment, startups also pay more to employees than our regional average, and wealth creation on exit has a large impact as well. Even a startup that doesn’t succeed gathers expertise and motivated people into a dense community of starters. Everyone wins when we have more startups.”
Membership applications and more information on Workbench are available at its website, theworkbenchfw.com. Tours of Workbench are available at the SEED Enterprise Center, 1830 Wayne Trace in Fort Wayne, upon request.