Small Factories Emerge as a Weapon in the Fight Against Poverty

For the first three decades of Marlin’s existence, the company almost exclusively made simple, sturdy, welded-wire bagel baskets. As the Jewish breakfast staple exploded in popularity outside the Northeast, Marlin prospered along with it.

But by the early 2000s, the bagel craze was fading, and the popularity of the Atkins diet and carb-phobia started hurting bagel sales. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 presented traditional manufacturers — and what is more old-school than bagel baskets? — with an existential threat.

Chinese versions of Marlin’s products were selling for $6 each, or less than what the steel alone cost in Marlin’s baskets. The other $5 that Marlin charged, to cover salaries, taxes, equipment and a sliver of profit, was now just red ink.

Mr. Greenblatt did what organisms threatened with extinction have always done to survive: He evolved.

He moved the factory to Baltimore in 1999, with eight of his Brooklyn employees following him, including one who is still working on the floor. Then he began going after what economists call value-added goods, products that were more specialized and sophisticated what than the Chinese were making, and therefore able to command higher prices.

But producing baskets with very specific requirements, or tolerances, as they are known, for automakers or aerospace giants could not be achieved by hand. “If a bagel falls out the bottom, that’s 10 cents,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “A single airplane part can cost thousands of dollars, so there’s no room for error.”

Over the course of a decade, he invested in robots that churned out baskets almost a hundred times as fast as human beings. He trained his workers to operate the robots, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, and hired engineers to help design ever-more-sophisticated products to win customers and stay ahead of overseas rivals.

“In Brooklyn, eight fellows could do 300 bends an hour,” Mr. Greenblatt recalled. “Now two guys running robots can do 25,000 bends per hour.”

Today, in fact, many of Marlin’s robot-made baskets are designed specifically to be handled by other robots.

Automation did not mean the elimination of jobs — in fact, it saved the company. But it does mean producing many more baskets with only a few more workers. So, while Marlin’s revenue has grown to over $5 million today, from $800,000 when Mr. Greenblatt arrived, the company’s work force has increased by just a third, to 24 people from 18 people.

Marlin’s comeback isn’t exactly a secret. In 2012, the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, visited the plant. Mr. Greenblatt is a well-known booster in industry circles.

Less publicized is how the…

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