Powered by NEXTpittsburgh / Kathy Serenko

If flourishing local companies such as Aerotech, Inc., Interstacks and BOSS Controls are examples, the future of advanced manufacturing in Pittsburgh is bright indeed. Each of these companies is successfully integrating technologies and products in ways that sound less like manufacturing and more like the brilliant and improbable ideas of sci-fi visionaries like Isaac Asimov. We profile them here with a note on hiring opportunities at the end.

BOSS Controls

Commercial properties in the U.S. consume 36% of the nation’s total energy use, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And 30% of that energy is wasted due to phantom energy consumption—energy used when buildings are unoccupied. Phantom energy also includes power consumed by devices that are turned off. Case in point: when a DVR is turned off, it consumes only 10% less energy than it does when it is in use.

Four years ago, founder and CEO Greg Puschnigg led BOSS Controls (BOSS) into the energy space with the introduction of cloud-based smart plugs designed to reduce plug-load energy consumption. BOSS’s use of the term plug-load refers to the energy used by products that are plugged in and powered by an electrical outlet, as well as individual products that are hardwired and powered by an electrical junction box. Plug-load consumption can account for up to 25% of a building’s total energy use. The smart plugs allow property owners to schedule plug-load shutdowns to achieve energy and cost reductions. Because most commercial properties are unoccupied 70% of the time, the savings can be significant.

The smart plug from Boss Controls. Photo by Rob Larson.

BOSS’s smart plugs also allow property owners to track energy consumption patterns. The data provided by this IoT (Internet of Things) application can indicate a need for predictive maintenance and equipment repair, or provide insight into other energy-saving opportunities.

Energy reduction opportunities extend beyond air conditioners, copiers and other obvious energy consumers. Property owners can find value in controlling less visible power drains such as appliances, drinking fountains, vending machines, water coolers and other electrical devices. Plug-load shutdowns can be customized to control energy consumption in a manner that best suits the needs of each business.

“Energy savings is a win-win for the customer,” says Puschnigg. “Utility companies are required to generate and maintain 30% power capacity beyond consumption needs at all times. Instead of building a new billion dollar power plant to maintain this idle capacity, utility companies have begun to incentivize end-users who reduce their energy consumption even down to the device level.”

Schools and government entities represent a significant percentage of plug-load energy consumers. Puschnigg references one school district that achieved a two-year ROI (Return on investment) upon its initial deployment of plug-load devices, with a potential savings of four million dollars upon implementation of BOSS’s proposed energy-reduction strategy.

BOSS is a partner organization in the Pittsburgh 2030 District, a collaborative Green Building Alliance initiative to reduce energy consumption. To date, property owners representing nearly 70% of the total real estate square footage in downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland have committed to the initiative’s vision to achieve a 50% reduction in energy consumption by 2030. The City of Pittsburgh is leading by example; in 2015, they began to implement the use of BOSS’s cloud-based smart plugs to reduce energy use in City-occupied buildings.

Aerotech photo by Rob Larson.

Aerotech, Inc. 

Precision is a necessity in the manufacturing of complex structures, explains Steve Botos, vp of sales and marketing for Aerotech. The Pittsburgh-headquartered company has perfected the delivery of motion control so precise that it is measured in nanometers.

Aerotech’s technology controls motion in both linear and rotary fashions to deliver pinpoint accuracy. Sometimes the precision of motion relies on the movement of a printer head and other times on the movement of the substrate, or material upon which the printing occurs. Regardless, the requirement for motion control is the same: flawless.

Bioprinting is one of those print applications that requires unquestionable accuracy. “Imagine laying one cell,” says Botos, “moving the equipment away and then returning to that precise location to lay another cell on top of the first.” Aerotech delivers that precision of motion control, a critical factor in the 3D printing of tissue, organs, implants and other revolutionary medical advancements.

At Aerotech. Photo by Rob Larson.

The precision of motion can be equally critical for printed circuits and some parts fabrication. As one example, GE recently began testing its GE9X, a 3D printed jet engine that generates 100,000 pounds of thrust. Each engine has 19 3D-printed fuel nozzles that contribute to a 25% reduction in weight, and therefore increased fuel efficiency. “If the mechanics of motion are not sufficient to deliver extreme precision,” says Botos, “then the integrity of these fabricated parts would be compromised.”

In 2014, Aerotech expanded its global headquarters in Pittsburgh, where it now houses more than 300 employees. The company’s reach now extends across three continents, including a new facility in Germany to help address Europe’s growing need for high-precision, high-performance motion control.

Interstacks

Interstacks, a startup incubated inside of Pittsburgh-based MAYA Design, is aptly named. The company builds sensor-based modules that can be stacked one on top of another to create pathways of machine-to-machine and machine-to-cloud communications. “It’s the Lego concept for electronics,” says Gary Kiliany, CEO of Interstacks.

Customers can choose any number of Interstacks’ 12 sensor module options to customize the variables they want to track. Examples of sensor capabilities include vibration, temperature, energy consumption, light levels, GPS, humidity and CO2levels. As industrial and public services sectors move toward automation, their need to quantify, analyze and manage these variables becomes vital. It’s all part of the IoT phenomena, the premise that virtually everything will one day be connected to the Internet. By building machine-to-machine and machine-to-cloud communication pathways, Interstacks is creating a virtual IoT doorway for its customers.

The feature that differentiates Interstacks’ modules is their ability to circumvent the incompatibility of machine languages. Each module captures a specified type of data, translates it as needed, and then passes it along to the next module and the next, until the accumulation of data reaches the cloud where it is analyzed and sent back to a customer’s central dashboard. Customers can use the dashboard to determine what conditions should trigger notifications. “It works somewhat like a bank account,” says Kiliany, “where customers can receive a notification anytime their balance drops below a pre-determined threshold.”

In this case, Interstacks becomes that mobile notification system, sending alerts when factors critical to daily operations are outside normal allowances. For example, when temperatures are too high or vibrations are too strong, customers can receive alerts and intercept potential equipment failure or assess the need for operational adjustments. This continuous cycle of monitoring and analysis allows companies to respond rapidly so that they can increase efficiency, prevent downtime, and ultimately reduce costs.

An industry looking to hire

One final note to this story: Representatives from Aerotech, Interstacks and BOSS all agree that the manufacturing industry, poised for growth, is hiring as more companies align themselves with advances in 3D printing, smart devices, automation and other new technologies.

Aerotech’s Steve Botos sees the need to draw a new workforce into manufacturing. “It’s not a dirty industry,” he notes. “Aerotech and other manufacturers hire very skilled workers who have an opportunity to work in clean, modern and positive environments.” He believes that the manufacturing industry has plenty of opportunity for solid, family-sustaining wages and benefits. He offers this assessment: “If you have a thirst to work in a cutting-edge, forward-looking industry, then manufacturing is a great place to be.”

BOSS’s Greg Puschnigg echoes this thinking. “BOSS produces smart products that function based on the IoT, but that integration is not eliminating the need for other job sectors. Our business still relies on electrical contractors and installers, as well as traditional manufacturing trades that include precision CNC, machine tooling and assembly.”