Manufacturing is a beast of a subject, and we set out to cover it from the perspective of those who make things. The idea: tour factories with assembly lines and report on people who work on them, timed by bells.
We hit a ton of walls. Intel, the most famous manufacturer in the state for its massive microchip plant in Rio Rancho, flat-out denied our interview request. Philips and Caterpillar in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, respectively, had both shut their doors. Eclipse Aerospace wasn’t responding. Just as we were about to surrender to this economic, numbers-based, beautyless mess of paragraphs, the walls—and the statistics—hit us.
According to the state Economic Development Department, manufacturing employment is down 9 percent in New Mexico during the past five years, which means a loss of nearly 3,000 jobs. Computer and electronic products, furniture and textile mill manufacturing decreased by more than 20 percent during the same time period.
Intel is a stark example of the manufacturing downturn. In 2009, the Rio Rancho plant employed 3,300 New Mexicans. In 2014, that number had plummeted to 1,900. An annual report revealing that the company had quietly shed another 700 in jobs in 2016 came to light last week.
Matthew Geisel, state economic development secretary, tells SFR he blames the overall dip in large part on Intel. "We've seen a couple of thousand jobs erode there, unfortunately," he says.
In our interview, Geisel wanted to talk about the state's success in getting Facebook to open a new data center—where nothing is actually made. Then he pointed to Keter Plastics, which is promising to revamp the old Solo cup factory in Belen and employ about 175 New Mexicans.
Neither of those talking points changes a simple conclusion: There isn't nearly as much manufactured in this state as there used to be.
For comparison, New Mexico now employs half as many people by population in manufacturing as Arizona and Colorado. And manufacturing accounts for about half as much of our gross state product (GSP) as it does in those states.
Broadly defined, manufacturing is any venture in which raw material is converted into a product. It was once the bedrock of state and national economies. Political minds—from brilliant ones like former president Barack Obama and former British prime minister David Cameron, to present ones like President Donald Trump—have seen and spoken of the importance of a strong manufacturing sector and promised a revival.
But those political promises stand in opposition to the last 35 years of economic progress, which has trended so far away from manufacturing and industrial-scale production that some economists say the US is post-industrial. It's rare to meet someone who works on an assembly line these days, but not so rare to meet a lawyer. Betting on manufacturing now would mean going against the tide, away from service and back to commodities.
When faced with a growing trade deficit and the realization that our economy lacked domestic productivity as the world economy collapsed in 2008, America had an awakening. We realized we needed to make things instead of buy them from other countries. Sustainability is part of the force behind buying produce from a local farmer and shopping for American denim.
But these turns in thinking haven't dramatically staunched the outflow of manufacturing jobs.
Jennifer Sinsabaugh, director of the New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership, says the industry employs 27,000 people in New Mexico who make around $60,000 a year, compared to the statewide median income of about $40,000. The workers make up 3.4 percent of non-farm employment in the state. That's not such a hot figure next to Arizona and Colorado, where manufacturing accounts for 6 and 7 percent of employment, respectively.
Manufacturing is also only a small piece of the GSP. In 2014, according to the Center for Manufacturing Research, manufacturing in New Mexico accounted for $5.61 billion, which is about 6 percent of the state's $93 billion GSP.
Against the decline, there are still people, assembly teams and entire companies making products here like cheese, cosmetics and mattresses. SFR interviewed representatives and hands-on production employees for a peek into the life of a maker in a world of doers, as well as some insight about the future of the sector that used to be the pride of America.
Making things is a natural part of economic evolution. Consumer trends toward environmentally conscious products, organic materials and the search for what Geisel calls "an authentic New Mexican experience" appear in manufacturing as an increase in the production of those kinds of products: If people want it, manufacturers make it.
Beauty Without Water
Plenish Skin Care and Vapour Organic Beauty
- Est. 2000 and 2009
- 29 employees
- Plenish: 60,000 units (2016)
- Vapour: 90,000 units (2016)
The middle structure in a group of warehouses on the south side of Taos is home to Plenish Skin Care and Vapour Organic Beauty. Founded in the aughts by Kristine Keheley and Krysia Boinis, the companies use a green, hands-on method to produce cosmetics and skincare products.
Plenish Skin Care manufactures products for other brands. "They sell anywhere from boutique luxury retailers to Whole Foods to spas. That's how we started out," Keheley says.
With Vapour Organic Beauty, Keheley and Boinis focus on organic and natural products. "I would argue that we make the cleanest cosmetics there are. The ingredients I work with are really close to the plant source: sunflower oil, camellia oil, beeswax," says Keheley.
This cosmetics and skincare manufacturer is well-suited to the high desert for one specific reason. "We're what's called an anhydrous manufacturer, which means that we don't use any water. And what that means is we are not taxing the water table of Taos," Keheley tells SFR. "Product-wise, it means that we don't have to use any aggressive bactericides or antimicrobials or chemical preservatives, because water is the medium where all of the nasty kind of yeast and mold is exposed."
Their innovative, no-water techniques make them an attractive choice for cosmetics and skincare companies looking to outsource their production. It allows for the cleanest “ingredient deck,” a list which can include things like synthetic components and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives if you’re buying other brands.
The company hired all of its nearly 30 employees from Taos, and many of them have been with the company for years. Nick Medina, who laser-codes all of the products and creates displays, and Ganga Little, the production manager, have been with the company for 8 and 12 years, respectively, and both were born and raised in the state.
Between 2010 and 2014, Vapour picked up steam and recognition as it won several awards and editorial praise in women's fashion magazines like Allure and InStyle. In 2011, Vapour was a finalist for the ECO Beauty award from Cosmetic Executive Women. It brought Keheley and the company in front of a powerful panel of judges. "All of these things were signifiers to us that we really had something beautiful," she says. "We just kind of stuck with it."
Sticking the "organic" label on their products means a grueling, paperwork-laden inspection and certification process for the Taos pair. But there's a bonus: The New Mexico Department of Agriculture has a team that completes this process for the company, whereas other states require businesses to employ a third party to do these types of inspections. "To have that organization state-funded is helping not only us, but every other entrepreneur or farmer obtain that USDA seal," Keheley says, "which is valuable. It translates into revenue." That revenue comes from an increase in sales driven by the organic market.
The agriculture department took control of organic certification after the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission's budget was reduced to a shadow, from $280,000 in annual state funding to $25,000, in 2010. And the program faces more current threats from a state budget deficit. They could cause the cost of certification to increase for Keheley's companies and others.
Companies with international followings, like Free People, have grown wise to the demand for organic skin care products, and that awakening has translated to more employees at Vapour. The company, which started with just 35 items, now makes more than 150 products like highlighters, lipsticks, blushes and foundations. "We are in an incredibly steep and significant growth curve," Keheley says. "We've really just been growing and growing and growing."
Making Tiny Luxury
- Est. 2016
- 2 employees
- 5 structures
Efficiency and sustainability are climbing the list of qualities people seek in a home. Most think that to have these attributes, one has to give up luxury or craftsmanship. But Zane Fischer, founder of designing and building company Extraordinary Structures, knows otherwise.
"There's not a particular size limitation around the manufacturing or the technology, but the smaller sizes are a passion of mine," Fischer says. "It sort of bleeds into working on ideas around community and sustainability."
Fischer opened the doors of his growing company in June 2016, and he's made five structures since. Some are mobile—think extremely luxurious recreational vehicles—others are backyard studios or small homes, all using a unique system of wood construction panels he designed. "So far the bulk of our business has been people who have wanted us to do the assembly as well," Fischer says.
Each panel is fabricated off Siler Road in Santa Fe. An intelligent machine that isn't far from a 3D printer does most of the work. A computer numerical control (CNC) router cuts material away from giant planks of wood, leaving panels behind. It can be programmed to cut any design. "There are usually a few different types of panels that go into a house," Fischer tells SFR. "For most structures, we can pick out of a component library we've created and put together a house."
Fischer gives a tour of his manufacturing facility, which is remarkably efficient at 4,500 square feet, producing everything the company needs to create a custom structure.
But who wants to live in a tiny Lincoln Log house? That’s not what Fischer makes, he says, showing us around his “prototype.” It sits on wheels waiting to be taken to its permanent home in the mountains near Mora. The wood-paneled beauty is anything but lacking, featuring a deep Japanese-style soaking tub, a loft reading nook, a modern minimal wood-burning stove and a queen-size Murphy bed, all 200 square feet bathed in clear light that pours through the oversized windows.
It's stunning—but Fischer is modest about it. He says the future of construction is incorporating modular components. "I've learned of other people doing things in a similar vein, which is good," he says.
Fischer's structures are future-thinking in terms of efficiency as well. "We've created a lightweight steel exoskeleton that goes around the wood paneling and holds an additional thermal envelope around the whole house that makes it significantly more efficient," Fischer says.
The exoskeleton also allows owners to anchor future additions, vertical gardens, solar structures, sheds, new bedrooms or whatever else they may want or need in the future. "You end up attaching the siding to that structure, as opposed to the wall of the house, so you don't penetrate the wall ... with lots of little fasteners," Fisher says. "It's a means of customization and expansion that's built into the house."
Fischer believes New Mexico is poised to make certain additions to its manufacturing sector, including investments in distributed manufacturing. Factories and makers that can use intelligent machines like his CNC router to manufacture items for other companies are the kind we should be courting.
This is what Plenish Skin Care already does in Taos for other cosmetics companies. A robot used to be able to accomplish just one task. With innovative programing and advances, old robots can learn new tricks.
Intelligent robots come hand-in-hand with a need for higher-paid robot mechanics and programmers. That translates to more jobs and income for the state. "Just because things will be more automated doesn't mean that there's not a human skill set involved," Fischer says. "Just like everyone's grandfather taught them, the most important tool is in your head, so it still comes down to who the operator is."
Making investments in cutting-edge technology that allows our manufacturers to make things for more than just New Mexicans is certainly another way to increase state income in this sector; it's exportation, in a sense. Fischer plans to stay busy with his own venture for right now, though. "It looks like it's shaping up to be a really busy year for us," he says.
That Smell, Though
Los Roast and A La Maquina! Manufacturing
- 4 full-time employees
- Los Roast: 100 tons of fresh chile in 2016
- A La Maquina!: 4 roasters in 2016, currently making about 30
Exports have to be part of the manufacturing economy in a state with immense land and a small population, and nothing is more exportable than things other states don't have. Here, that means chile.
If you're a New Mexican and you find yourself in the Pacific Northwest during the waning weeks of summer, you may smell something familiar: roasting green chile. Thanks to Marshall Berg and his partner Jesse Sandoval, folks as far north as Seattle are smothering their burritos in the green gold we've always loved.
Berg founded Los Roast in 2012, a company that brings fresh green chile from farms in New Mexico to Portland, Seattle, Eugene and other cities in the region. They roast it on the spot or jar it. The pair also prepares a few other recipes, like red chile and adobo chipotle made from Deming and Hatch pods.
In 2016, the company roasted and sold seven truckloads (that's 100 tons) of chile, and sold more than 20,000 jars of green chile. Berg says he missed "that roasting smell. It's why I started this whole thing. No matter what you export, you can't export that smell."
Berg was born and raised in Santa Fe and moved to Portland in 2008 to attend college at Pacific Northwest College of Art. He got a job at a food cart, Nuevo México, run by fellow New Mexico expat Sandoval.
The cart had issues keeping a steady supply of its main ingredient. Berg says he and Sandoval were losing cash overnighting chile. "If we missed a shipment, or he didn't order or anything like that, we didn't have chile and there was no source up there, so we couldn't open our cart."
Meanwhile, Berg's love of chile and design skills combined and became the beginnings of the roaster he would revamp later. "I built a traditional-style chile roaster at school for the cart to try to roast enough chile to last us through the winter," Berg says. "It didn't really work out." But it did put the pair in the perfect position to roast chile for all the New Mexicans they had served over the years at the cart, and Los Roast started as a seasonal roasting operation in 2012.
Three years later, after Berg graduated, the two ramped up their green chile efforts and went year-round. As demand increased, the traditional roaster proved incapable of keeping up—and painful. Berg had to reach into the hot cage wearing heavy gloves, a process that "burnt the crap out of me and my one employee."
So he made a second, better roaster, which they now sell and distribute to independent and chain grocery stores around the Northwest. Berg and his engineer Nathaniel Gallagher essentially reinvented the chile roaster, which was first created in the late 1890s, and hadn't really been reworked since. The traditional kind—you can picture it in your head, the giant black metal cage drum—was reborn in Berg's imagination and now exists in a few lightweight, safer, and mobile versions.
The reinventions birthed A La Maquina! Manufacturing in 2016, and it's in the process of producing 30 new-age roasters and has another batch planned for roasting season.
The roasters have turned Los Roast into a seasonal treat in Portland. "They're built into the backs of truck-bed trailers and on little three-wheel vehicles, so they're really unique. The roaster and the smell draw a crowd," Berg says. "We've got our own roasting thing going on where people are looking for us."
Aside from their roasting habit, jarring venture and roaster manufacturing, Los Roast sells 25-pound boxes of fresh chile to grocery stores in the region, too. “We’ve been on the fresh market for two seasons,” Berg says, “and that has allowed us to get fresh chile to the stores. It’s really snowballed.”
Berg sees himself and his work one day coming back home, at least partially. Having direct access to his product in Portland is something Berg sees as an asset. But when it comes to his redesigned chile roasters, he is currently planning with the New Mexico Tourism Department, New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture for a manufacturing plant in New Mexico.
"I really think the market for them is here," he says, "and I think they should be made by New Mexicans and for New Mexicans."