On the line

Houston electronics manufacturing company gears up for growth

Houston-based MacroFab has created the Uber or Airbnb of electronics manufacturing. Getty Images

It takes an unnecessarily long time for electronic devices to get from idea to reality — and much of that is due to inefficiency in manufacturing. Just getting a prototype together takes weeks of back and forth between the engineer and the manufacturer.

"The business model for contract manufacturing hadn't changed in 30 years," Chris Church says. "It was phone calls, emails, going out and playing golf, going to lunch, and negotiating everything endlessly."

Houston-based MacroFab is addressing these antiquated and outdated ways of manufacturing and changing the way electronics manufacturing is done. For its revolutionary work, the company has consistently seen its revenue at least double — sometimes tripling or quadrupling — every year, and projects to at least triple in 2019.

Addressing an underserved market
Church — who has a background in hardware development, specifically within robotics — created MacroFab in 2013 and launched the platform in 2015. Misha Govshteyn joined the board in 2014 and became CEO last summer. The duo co-founded cloud-based security-as-a-service company, Alert Logic, in Houston in 2002.

Using its custom software, MacroFab enables customers to upload their designs through the website, where they can then receive projected timeline and pricing information from the get go. The company has its own manufacturing area in its office for prototypes and small orders, but its network of large manufacturers is a key part of the MacroFab's growth equation.

The company has about 20 manufacturing plants as partners that can pick up manufacturing jobs from MacroFab customers when the plant has space on its lines up for grabs. Rather than let available capacity go to waste, these plants can easily pick up the design and materials to start production.

"It's not dissimilar to what Uber is doing with cars — there's a lot of people with cars that could give you a ride if they knew you were out there," Govshteyn says. "It's that matchmaking function is essentially what we're doing with our customers."

The manufacturing partners benefit from jobs they otherwise wouldn't have, and the MacroFab customers get access to a plant that they didn't have to do the legwork to find. Govshteyn says a he's heard horror stories from people who had orders that were unceremoniously dropped by a manufacturer because another one of its clients just placed a large order.

"That shouldn't happen. If a factory gets too busy, it should be easy enough to take that job and move it somewhere else," Govshteyn says. "But, right now, there's not a way to do that."

Using cloud technology, the MacroFab platform can easily share the design and translate it to any given factory, Church says. They also have a technology that combine smaller orders together so there's no wasted resources, which brings down the cost for the customer.

While usually a company might have to find a new manufacturer as they scale up and start making larger orders, MacroFab customers don't have to start from scratch to find a new plant that can take their order — MacroFab will do the matchmaking for them.

"We've created and are continuing to build a marketplace for excess manufacturing capacity," Church says.

MacroFab owns the customer experience and the sales aspect — ensuring a more positive and consistent experience — while the manufacturers can just take the jobs and go.

Scaling up
The manufacturing marketplace is a newer focus for MacroFab — the company just launched it in beta this year — and is a big proponent of the company's growth. Before, the company was limited to what it could produce in its own factory taking on prototype and small orders. Now, with access to the manufacturers, the company has served 1,700 customers, building 500,000 units for about 4,000 different products. Those figures, Church says, are scaling up so rapidly as they expand to new partners.

"This is the first quarter where more gets produced outside of our factory than inside of it," Govshteyn says. "By this time in Q1, 75 percent of our revenue will [come from outside manufacturing plants.]"

Since manufacturing plants haven't historically collaborated, Govshteyn says the reception from manufacturers has been "cautiously optimistic." But then they realize they are getting customers for free — all they have to do is meet the requirements and deliver on time, he says.

"It's great for them to see that their factory is only half used, but then they can fill it up with jobs from MacroFab," Govshteyn says.

Houston has been a great city for MacroFab with its port manufacturing and logistics, two things Govshteyn says MacroFab is focusing on.

"At the end of the day, we're a manufacturing company, and I think we'll dabble in logistics," he says. "There's a lot worse places to start a logistics-heavy company."

Three young professionals took the stage to discuss the future tech of offshore operations in oil and gas. Courtesy photos

The oil and gas industry has a reputation for being a slow adapter when it comes to technology advances, but that's changing — as is the workforce. In the next few years, half of the United States workforce will be millennials, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A panel at the 2019 Offshore Technology Conference discussed the future of oil and gas technology — and the young professionals who are taking over the industry.

"It is just exhausting to be continuously interrupted in meetings — day in and day out — for your full career. What makes it worse, is no one seems to notice but you, unless you're lucky and have another woman in the year." 

— Allison Lami Sawyer, partner at the League of Worthwhile Ventures, when asked about being a young, female leader in industry. She adds that what's even worse is when you internalize it yourself and stop noticing.

“There’s a whole population of frustrated visionaries in oil and gas who are really excited to work with new tech.”

— Sawyer says the challenge is less getting a foot in the door at large companies and more going from pilot to mid- to widespread use.

“Oil and gas is essentially banking. Did you know you’re all bankers?”

— There's more labor to it, Sawyer says, but the C-suite at oil and gas companies are approaching it like banking. And in banking, there's a lot of AI-based fintech that goes into that decision making process and that might, down the road, come to oil and gas when the data is there.

“It’s happening. New technologies are being added, but it’s about finding the right value proposition for the company. That needs to resonate.”

— Sidd Gupta, founder and CEO of Nesh, says, adding that maybe it's not happening at as fast a rate as people wished.

“There’s been an increased demand for people internally who can take 3D models and put them into an AR environment. … Maybe four years ago, I would never have said that oil and gas companies would have internal AR/VR experts.”

— Lori-Lee Emshey, co-founder of Future Sight AR, on the rising need for professionals with augmented and virtual reality skills.

“Anything that can positively impact safety has been a big winner — especially on the contractor side.”

— Emshey, when asked about what sort of technology is attractive to big oil and gas companies.