Old factories give way to smaller, cleaner high-tech facilities.

Twenty-five years ago, manufacturing was Ohio's top industry, and it remained that way until 2008, despite a steady leak of manufacturing jobs locally and across the nation. In Columbus, manufacturers have come and gone—The Timken Co.'s roller-bearing plant, closed in 2001; Delphi automotive plant, closed in 2013; GE Lighting and steelmaker Columbus Castings, both closed in 2016—contributing to a 360,000-job drop in Ohio from 1990-2011.

The neighborhoods built around these plants felt the aftershock of their closings. For example, once Delphi closed its Hilltop plant, shops around it closed and Westland mall occupants began to move out, leaving the blue-collar community without its essential factory and shopping opportunities.

And the factories that remain are unlike their predecessors.

“Today's manufacturing is hardly recognizable from 25 years ago,” says Eric Burkland, president of the Ohio Manufacturers' Association. “We have today a number of very sophisticated technologies we didn't have, and they're really revolutionizing manufacturing and the kinds of products we can make.”

As manufacturing was leaving the nation for the price points of other countries, technological advances were materializing. Now, manufacturers are moving operations back to the US and employing the technology, resulting in a fresh kind of manufacturing, aptly called “new manufacturing” by economic driver Columbus 2020.

Perhaps surprisingly, manufacturing has grown so much in central Ohio that Burkland says it has recaptured a significant portion of the city's economy.

“It's not widely understood that Columbus has a manufacturing economy. A lot of people that drive by things, they don't know what's going on inside those buildings,” he says.

And Burkland says the type of manufacturing contributing to the economy is very different 25 years after Columbus CEO's first issue.

“A lot of these buildings are very sophisticated and (with) very expensive technologies they're operating. The old days of smokestacks are gone. These operations are technologically advanced; they're clean, they're highly skilled. From the outside looking in, you can't tell that.”

The innovations driving new manufacturing include everything from “3-D printing, sensing and measuring technologies, all kinds of new materials, digital and collaborative machines working together, robotics,” Burkland says, and even management style.

“They rethought what their management structures are,” Burkland says. “Their management is much more team-based and networked and less hierarchical and then they've incorporated all kinds of new technologies, both in how they manufacture, and in what their products are. The result is much higher quality products, more innovative products and lower cost.”

New plants busy around town include Rogue Fitness, which occupies the former Timken site; BrewDog, which toured the US to expand operations from the UK and chose Canal Winchester upon a first visit to Columbus; and Italy-based Sofidel, the 6th-largest tissue manufacturer in the world, which is building a 1.4 million-square-foot facility in Circleville.

These newbies join some giants who have weathered manufacturing's ups and downs—names like Abbott Nutrition, The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, Honda, Anheuser-Busch and Worthington Industries— whose operations look different than they did in 1992.

“Worthington Industries has totally transformed itself,” Burkland says.

Director of Corporate Communications Sonya Higginbotham agrees.

“The changes in manufacturing over the last 25 years are almost too numerous to describe,” she explains. “We entered the digital age, giving us access to technology and automation that helps us run our operations more efficiently, with more data, for better decision-making. The world has gotten smaller, making it easier to do business internationally. Twenty-five years ago, Worthington was solely based in the US. Today, we have 85 locations in 11 countries. As market demands have changed, Worthington has shifted to new industries acquiring several companies that have taken us into new, growing markets.”

Columbus' sharp increase in global exports and wealth of manufacturing talent are also responsible for manufacturing's transformation, Burklandsays.

“The manufacturing operations today are very sophisticated and the technology is complex,” he says. So, the kind of work that is available in manufacturing today is much more highly skilled.”

Ohio State University is on board with manufacturing innovation—made very clear by the fact that in 2014, it teamed up with none other than the University of Michigan to form the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute to strengthen the rust belt's economy. Its goal is to add 10,000 jobs by 2019 by teaching manufacturing workers to create and use newer, lightweight technologies. The institute is particularly focused on automotive manufacturing innovations.

Central Ohio is now home to about 1,800 manufacturing companies, employing about 80,000 people. Burkland thinks these numbers may still grow.

“I think there is the opportunity for a boom in central Ohio and Ohio itself. The reason for that is we have a legacy of knowing how to make things. When you tie that together with the education and training systems we have, as long as we have access to capital—which we do right now—the opportunity is phenomenal.”

Chloe Teasleyis the editorial assistant.