New Jersey Makes, The World Takes

The actual slogan is “Trenton Makes, the World Takes”, and even in that form it is still a pretty weird slogan. The slogan originated very early in the 20th century when Trenton, NJ just about made anything, and it is supposed to mean: “Trenton makes the stuff that the rest of the world buys”. I suppose at the time there was no budget for that many letters and it didn’t rhyme and therefore the shorter slogan was fitted in neon on the Lower Delaware River Bridge.

Still it was true, not just Trenton, but all of New Jersey was an incredible manufacturing hot bed starting with the country’s first industrial park at Paterson Falls, NJ in 1791. Towns such as Perth Amboy and many others in New Jersey were just as capable, but is New Jersey’s manufacturing prowess gone forever?

As late as the eighties it was still easy to experience that vibe where in Perth Amboy a ship could drydock in the shipyard, undergo hull repairs, have steel plate rolled, have a crankshaft forged, an electric motor built, propellers cast, paint produced, glass pane cast, fuel refined, electronics built, safety gear built, galley ware built, rope made and winches built.

Truly, at Perth Amboy raw materials came in and anything you could think of was simply manufactured there.

Economies of scale (and hyper efficient maritime transportation) simply displace such arrangements, and larger factories generally look for inexpensive open space to lay down an optimized manufacturing arrangement, with big parking lots, easy transportation access, zero legacy problems and low wages.

Therefore this traditional small scale super high skill and ultra varied level of manufacturing appears to have left New Jersey, and New Jersey is actually turning greener (since we are cleaning up many of the inevitable industrial waste sites), reforesting, and becoming a giant bedroom and recreational community.

That is simply change and progress, but to walk into a place and to know that such a place has the combined skills to turn people’s random ideas into reality is magical and something I really miss. I miss it because it is fun to create like that, but I also miss it because this type of creativity is what keeps a country going. Fortunately, this type of creativity still exists in New Jersey; it just looks different than it used to.

Today I can get my “lets’ build (or take apart and analyze it) anything fix” at Sigma Design in Middlesex, New Jersey. Sigma Design is Jerry Lynch’s vision of a “we can do anything from rough concept to production” shop and it is always a thrill to work with Jerry and his staff on something for which the questions, answers and solutions still need to be found.

In many ways Sigma Design is a modern version of Trenton or Perth Amboy. In those places there used to be designers, draftsmen, engineers, pattern makers, machinists and factory workers in one town and Jerry’s 20,000 square feet shop simply is a modern (and cleaner) version of the same thing with CAD designers, FEA specialists, micro chip designers, engineers, production specialists, prototype builders and testers and, when the numbers work out right, even small batch manufacturing lines.

We have worked with Jerry on novel marine equipment, but it is even more fun to see the other projects which range from competitive swim trainers, to old fashioned, but optimized butter churns, to complex pharma production equipment to self aligning solar shelters. Some of these projects will be designed here but built in China or Mexico, but some of these projects will actually be built in the Sigma Design shop when the combination of design optimization, rapid assembly and return on investment makes it cost effective to build in New Jersey.

There is a saying that is a note of caution to designers and engineers: “If you are a hammer, soon the whole world will start to look like a bunch of nails.” In other words, a fixed starting point often also leads to fixed finishing points. This is why it is difficult for large and uniform manufacturers to innovate.

On the other hand, outfits like Sigma Design, from day to day, may be hammers, wrenches, carbon fiber, LED’s, welding machines, forges, screw drivers and things I have never even seen before.

That level of exposure and variety is what results in truly innovative products and it happens in New Jersey. I wonder what it will cost to change that Trenton neon sign to an LED solar powered version that says: “New Jersey Creates, the World Appreciates”.