Mike Thomas strode across the dark conference room and pulled the blinds on several huge windows to reveal the Snowy Range rising high above Laramie.
The tall, lean executive for HiViz Shooting Systems, a Wyoming firearms accessories manufacturer, turned to make sure the dramatic reveal had the proper effect and then offered a huge smile.
“We like to sit our clients on the other side of that conference table so they can enjoy the view while we talk,” Thomas said.
Businesses tied to the energy sector still comprise the bulk of Wyoming’s manufacturing industry, but companies like HiViz are a vital and growing part of the state’s economy.
Firms like HiViz are advanced manufacturers, a sector that creates well-paying, tech-oriented jobs. Advanced industries invest in research and development and employ 20 percent of its workforce in science, technology, engineering and math related fields, according to the Brookings Institute.
Businesses in every corner of the state fit that bill, from pharmaceuticals maker Cody Labs in Cody and aircraft accessories builder Kennon in Sheridan, to robotics inventor Square One Systems Design in Jackson and firearms parts manufacturer Magpul Industries in Cheyenne.
In all, advanced manufacturing employed 4,700 people in Wyoming last year, a 4.3 percent spike since 2010.
HiViz growing fast
The view from HiViz headquarters, built with the assistance of a Business Council grant and loan, is spectacular, but it’s the company’s customized, precision gun sights and top-notch service that has everyone from U.S. gun makers like Smith and Wesson and Mossberg to international heavyweights like Beretta and Heizer insisting this small Wyoming company make equipment for more and more of their gun models.
Escalating demand has HiViz thinking bigger.
“This is a great facility, but we’ve expanded to the point where we need a new one,” Thomas said. “We had nine people when we moved to Laramie. Now we have 45 employees working two shifts and we may need to go to a third.”
HiViz’s workforce is tasked with everything from manual assembly and administrative duties to operating high-tech machinery and designing and building new prototypes.
The varied disciplines necessary to make an advanced manufacturing company like HiViz succeed is one of the reasons the sector is a major contributor to the economy, say industry experts.
“There tends to be an image out there that manufacturing means standing at an assembly line stamping something for eight or 10 hours,” said Gustave Anderson, business development director for Manufacturing-Works. “It’s inaccurate.”
Advanced manufacturing companies generally create positions for high school graduates and Ph.Ds. alike, he explained. The diversity of the workforce makes these businesses vital to the growth of local economies, and their presence in a community filters down to other industries like retail and services.
The magnified effect the advanced manufacturing industry has on the economy is why the Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency, and its partners work hard to help startups in that sector succeed.
State resources help startups succeed
Manufacturing-Works helps businesses grow intelligently, improve the efficiency of their processes, streamline their supply and distribution chains and navigate the challenges of importing and exporting materials and products.
The Business Council has grant and loan programs available to assist with publicly-owned infrastructure construction and equipment purchases to help companies expand fast.
“We go at a fast pace and, as a small company, we have to,” said Adam Johnson, director of engineering at McGinley Manufacturing, a partner company of McGinley Orthopaedics Innovations. “There are a lot of big orthopedic companies we are competing against, so we simply have to be faster than them”
The cramped office where Johnson talked about McGinley’s rapid growth in the past 18 months spoke to the startup’s early success louder than he could have.
A few desks are pushed toward the front of the building to make room for additional manufacturing equipment in the office because half the workshop floor is full of work bays designed to build and repair huge parts used in mining equipment.
The other half is crammed with computer numerical control, or CNC, machines. The machines use software to precision cut metal into components for McGinley’s signature product: the IntelliSense Drill.
Johnson was the company’s only employee at the dawn of 2015. McGinley Orthopaedics operated solely out of a small office in the Casper branch of the Wyoming Technology Business Center, a business incubator and another Business Council partner.
Today, McGinley has expanded to Glenrock with the help of a Business Council grant and employs nearly 30 people to design, engineer, build parts for the IntelliSense Drill and perform various administration duties. Some of those employees were hired from the region’s hard hit energy industry.
The drill is revolutionizing orthopedic surgery, Johnson explained. It uses sensors to automatically stop the tool once the bit has gone through the bone. It then provides an exact measurement so the surgeon can use the right screw to attach the metal plates that hold a bone together while it heals.
Until now, the entire process was done manually, by feel and guesses.
The IntelliSense Drill is now undergoing trials in operating rooms around the country, and new products are already in the works.
A trained and ready workforce waiting in the wings
“There’s a lot of talent in Wyoming, and I’ve been trying to get manufacturers here to realize they can do more than just the energy industry,” Johnson said. “They can make all sorts of different parts, no matter what the shape or use is. There’s talent here that hasn’t been tapped, and we’re trying to bring some of that right here into our shop.”
Back in Laramie, Thomas shared Johnson’s enthusiasm.
“Wyoming is a great place to do business. Compared to Colorado, it’s phenomenal,” Thomas said. “One thing that can’t be underestimated is our ability to hire locally. The quality of people here who we can train quickly, and who can be productive rapidly, they are solid folks.”
Many of HiViz’s 45 employees are hires straight from the University of Wyoming, Thomas added.
However, it’s not just the university training talented workers. Anderson of Manufacturing-Works said it starts in high school with wood and auto shop, or culinary and sewing classes. High school is where a love of hands-on work and the joy of creating something new from raw materials is formed.
At the community college level, skills like machining and welding are solidified and refined.
University graduates can learn about strategic sourcing, decision science, engineering, computer science and other subjects necessary to the success of an advanced manufacturing business.
Once those students graduate, companies like HiViz, McGinley and a slew of others across the state are providing job opportunities that haven’t always been available in the past.
“There’s no reason you can’t succeed here, especially because there are a lot of people here to support you,” Johnson said. “These jobs are higher paying, but more importantly, it’s a satisfying career. You get to see the final product, there’s nothing quite like it.”
Johnson said he will never forget the first time he watched the IntelliSense drill in action. As the surgeon worked, two beeps sounded in the room. It was the signal the drill had done its job, stopping at the precise moment necessary to pierce the bone.
“We built that from raw steel to a finished product right here in Glenrock,” Johnson said. “Our work protected a patient. It saved a patient.”