Illustration by Alberto Antoniazzi
In a strip of industrial buildings on Mosteller Road in Sharonville, 93-year-old Erv Krieg steps up from his electric scooter and sets his drill to finishing the sunny yellow trim around one of the three-foot-by-six-foot windows that connect the wood shop to the metalworking room. His wife, Edith, 91, joins him with her own drill, screwing down another strip of trim. At the far corner of the room, their son, Lee, 53, has been spouting off about one of the shop’s new acquisitions—a precision CNC Router—while his son, 25-year-old Kyle, earnestly discusses entrepreneurship.
The three generations of Kriegs are putting the final touches on a massive project—overhauling the sprawling 35,000-square-foot facility that was occupied wall-to-wall by the family firm, Lee Corp Printers, until a failing economy and the rise of technology slowed their business. But what had become a dead zone of obsolete machines now has the sheen of freshly poured epoxy floors, the crisp glow of fluorescent lights, and a collection of spotless lathes, saws, and grinders just begging to be used.
The Kreigs are a DIY family—always have been. But their livelihood is in a shrinking industry, and it made sense to stake their claim in something new. So they’ve retooled their facility and transformed it into an operation they’re calling the Manufactory—a place for people to come and create. They’ve set a course for the future as part of the “maker movement”—a growing subculture that seems to embrace everyone from traditional arts-and-crafters to robotics geeks. For the Kriegs, launching something new in a place filled with so much family history has been a way of tapping into a sea change—providing a setting and resources for a new generation of people who want to build with their own two hands—while keeping the family legacy alive.
The Kriegs seem to have equal parts ink and sawdust in their blood. Erv entered the printing profession at 13, when his older brother moved away and left him in charge of the family’s basement hand press—the basis of a nice side job for pocket money while he was in school. But Erv was also adept with other tools. During World War II he worked on a portable shop truck, disassembling and rebuilding parts for Army vehicles, and as his Army records note, “improved spare parts out of scrap material.” After the war he worked in construction for Edith’s father, built a home for his growing family in Western Hills, and took a job as an “ad man” for Western Hills Press, composing advertisements using letterpress type. He worked his way up to general manager, then vice president.
In the 1960s he became a pressman once again, buying a printing company that eventually became what is now Lee Corp Printers. In the midst of raising four kids, Edith learned to run the linotype machine accompanied by then-toddler Lee in a playpen. “I never worked for 20 years, and when he bought this,” she motions around the front office of the printing firm, “I had to go to work.”
By the 1980s, the business had grown to fill the sprawling Sharonville location. When Erv handed the operation over to his sons Lee and Tom, it was a general commercial printer processing between 25 and 50 orders daily and shipping to customers as far away as Mexico and Europe. At its peak there were 40 employees producing everything from magazines and religious books to file folder boxes and wedding invitations. It was an inheritance with steady returns.
But that was before the Internet, e-mail marketing, and the digitization of nearly everything. And before the economic downturn. “When 9/11 hit, things got really bad,” says Lee. “Everybody stopped spending money, and printing was an easy thing for people to stop. We saw a drought that was very bad for probably a year, and it just never recovered.” The Kriegs weren’t the only ones affected; a number of the city’s commercial printers have gone out of business over the last decade. Lee Corp hung on but shrunk to fewer than a dozen employees. In their place was left a cavernous shop floor populated with increasingly outdated machinery, ghosts of a time when print was king.
“The printing business is not going away,” insists Lee. The challenge has been to figure out what will carry the Krieg family operation into the next generation. And that’s where the Manufactory comes in.
The asset Lee Corp Printers had in excess was real estate—a building half-filled with disused equipment. The Kriegs weren’t afraid of change, and they shared a healthy streak of entrepreneurial ingenuity. In fact, Kyle, Lee, and his wife Pam have a side venture called Save the Gonads—they make tiny lead shields that are used to protect reproductive organs when a baby needs an X-ray. Pam saw the need working as a NICU nurse and came up with the design—a heart shape that can be used for girls (wide end up) or boys (wide end down). “I figured out how to make it and built the machines that punched them out,” says Lee.
As the family began discussing the possibilities for their now-unused space, Lee got interested in the maker movement and the new thing in his old industry: 3-D printing. He reasoned that the process could be a natural dovetail to two-dimensional printing, and could supplement the conventional work.
It has quickly become clear that 3-D printing is more than just a novelty. One example: The technology, which can take digital information and “print” three-dimensional solid objects, was used in 2012 by a medical team at the University of Michigan to create a customized trachea implant for an infant with airway problems. Hobbyists have printed working clocks, jewelry, and prosthetic hands. At universities and workshops across the globe, 3-D printers such as the affordable desktop MakerBot have been a revolutionary tool for entrepreneurs and inventors.
Jason Langdon, organizer and founder of Cincinnati’s Mini Maker Faire, explains that technology has given tinkerers, crafters, and shade-tree inventors the ability to create prototypes of their ideas themselves—allowing them to test ideas without paying someone else or getting investors to buy in before they have a working model. The maker movement was originally sparked by the Internet and access to information, Langdon says. “But now I think it’s really being fueled a lot by the means of production, especially with 3-D printing.”
In the search for ideas that would make use of the extra space, Lee also stumbled upon TechShop—a small California-based chain of workshops that gives its members access to industrial tools and equipment to build their own projects. If there were makers around Cincinnati who needed the right tools, perhaps the Kriegs could provide them, he reasoned.
The idea was just a kernel when, on a boating trip, Lee was bitten by a fly and had a severe allergic reaction. He stopped breathing. Pam saved him with Benadryl and CPR. “It wasn’t too terribly long after that that this concept started to gel in my mind. I saw life could end for me just like that.” Lee snaps his fingers. “I can build something…that’s meaningful for our family.”
Within months of what the family now calls “the fly incident,” the Kriegs began tearing down the glut of old machinery that cluttered the shop floor. The Manufactory, which has come together over a year, has been a low- to mid-six-figure investment financed by family members, a bank loan, and assets from the printing company. Lee estimates that they’ve hauled away between 300 and 500 tons of material—including the 50-ton web offset press, scrapping it for about $10,000. Now, the space once crammed with antiquated equipment is occupied by a wide-format printer, new vinyl cutter, and laser engraver/cutter. The spot where an old addressing machine stood now holds a 3-D printer no bigger than a microwave.
Building a venture to sustain the family business carries a particular burden: the Manufactory needs to be a success. Elsewhere there are similar ventures that have failed due to high overhead costs, bad luck, and poor site planning. Fortunately, the Kriegs control their own land and facility, and since they still work there they have a vested interest in keeping the place up to snuff. The wide windows with bright trim that Erv and Edith were busy touching up are strategic. They make the Manufactory a polished space, a mad laboratory for invention with nice lighting and climate control.
Makers can join the Manufactory with memberships starting at $140 per month, with discounts for automatic payments, family members, students, senior citizens, and active members of the military. Members get time on the equipment and are required to take a basic safety course and safe-use classes for advanced machinery. Lee figures that to break even, they’ll need somewhere between 100 and 250 members, and will max out at between 400 and 500 members.
At a sneak peek in November, about half the crowd were engineers, with the balance made up of teachers, artisans, crafters, tinkerers, and entrepreneurs. There’s a woman who wants to teach Computer Aided Design at The Manufactory who also is interested in glass blowing; someone from a local nonprofit aims to use the space to build parts for an off-road mobility chair for the handicapped. When I visited in the fall, 150 people had already expressed interested in a membership for the project’s soft launch this winter, but there will be a formal ribbon cutting in the spring.
All along, the project has been a family affair. Kyle has shouldered a great deal of labor, but he’s also working to market it to his contemporaries, drumming up interest through social media. In part, according to Jason Langdon, young adults see being a maker as “a backlash to everything being digital—people wanting to work with their hands and learn to do things for themselves, or things that their grandparents had done.”
It’s an instinct that crosses generational lines. Erv’s sons feel a kinship to the people in the maker movement: they grew up working with their dad, wanting to make things, too. And Kyle will be tapping into the next generation of DIYers: The Manufactory is a natural place to host Boy and Girl Scout projects—experiences that could inspire a lifetime of “making.”
There have been bumps along the way. In May, Erv tipped a large lawn tractor on a steep hill at the front of the property, and was pinned underneath. This time it was Lee’s turn to save a life with CPR. “He wasn’t breathing. I was sure he was gone,” Lee’s voice grows quiet.
“He broke six of my ribs,” Erv adds with a glimmer of pride.
Erv survived, and the Kriegs continued working on the Manufactory. Lee recognized a return to what made his childhood special—time with his parents. “The best part of this experience for me is them being here,” he says. “I spent my childhood with them at work. We ate lunch together every day. That’s the thing that’s back.”
Lee predicts their clientele will be a mix of entrepreneurs, Over-the-Rhine artists, and guys like Tom and himself—men who thought they were “too old to start something new,” as Tom considered himself before he and his family built the Manufactory. Lee envisions a hipster with tattoos up and down his arms talking to a polo-shirt-wearing middle-ager with his cell phone in a waistband holster—“like me”—hashing something out at a work table. “They’ll understand each other,” he says, “because they have this common thing: They like to make stuff.”
And they’ll make that stuff together in what has become a state-of-the-art facility with a computer work station, a lounge, sewing machines, and separate space for metalworking, woodworking, fabrication, electronics, finishing, plastics, grinding, and welding. There’s a store filled with blades, bits, bolts, screws, plastic for the 3-D printer, and used motors and pumps. Toward the back, a massive “boneyard” is full of aging steel oddities and obsolete machinery for those in need of spare parts.
Erv and Edith taught their children to put their hands to good use, build their own homes, and support their families. The Manufactory isn’t about undoing any of that. It’s an evolution.
“I think it’s great,” Erv says. “I was for it in the beginning when they talked about going into it.”
And Kyle, who is helping to establish his inheritance, feels a responsibility—not a duty to go into the family business, exactly, but “to family and to legacy.” He feels fortunate not to have jobs like many of his friends, meaningless work you ditch at the end of the day.
“When I leave here, I kind of take work with me, just like everyone else in our family,” he says. “Work doesn’t just stop when you exit the doors. You just kind of keep building on it.”
A family of builders, looking to create a community of makers. It could work.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue.