Four years ago, Aaron Slodov decided to pursue a passion project. He was fresh off a career in technology that had included stints at Google and Meetup, and more recently, co-founding and growing a technology business of his own.
His next challenge, he decided, would be producing a physical product.
A self-proclaimed nerd, Slodov, 35, wanted to make plastic figurines for tabletop games. He planned to iterate quickly, starting with a small line to bankroll monthly or even bi-monthly releases. But he hit a snag when it came to the speed at which tool and die makers could produce the injection molds needed to turn his designs into manufacturing plans.
So Slodov pivoted away from his figurine company and created a new mission: to make real-world product innovation as quick and seamless as virtual development. He’s now part of a next generation of manufacturing leadership bringing new technology and a new approach—often with an eye on the greater good—that could help rewire the future of the industry. Unbound from the constraints of status-quo thinking, these new leaders are essential in ushering in a lucrative, efficient and tech-enabled next phase.
I talked to several young leaders who are bringing a new perspective to the industry.
Tech Background, Manufacturing Focus
Slodov’s startup, Atomic Industries, aims to bring advanced automation to the realm of tool and die. When products are designed by humans, iteration takes time—even where computer simulation is involved. But Atomic Industries wants to create a closed optimization loop by automating not only the simulation, but also the design.
“If I have a tool and die maker that I can make eight times more productive—or if I can reduce the time it takes to become a really good tool and die maker from 20 years down to one—that’s pretty compelling,” he says. “Especially with the diminishing industrial base that we have in this country, because we’ve chosen to outsource so much of that work.”
Whether Slodov is ultimately able to prove out his ambitious mission, he’s already serving as an example of the kind of innovation manufacturing can and should be pursuing. And if you ask Slodov, there are more young tech entrepreneurs coming behind him.
“Tech and tech jobs were kind of the holy land over the last 10, 15 years,” he says. “ …But I think you’re going to see more companies—whether startup or incumbents—turning their attention to real-world value, and that naturally feeds into industries like manufacturing.”
Stepping Up in a Time of Need
COVID-19 laid bare the need for a local supply chain that can quickly get critical medical equipment in the hands of healthcare organizations. Zcath is answering the call, creating one of the only catheter manufacturers in the U.S., with a new design based on years of research by founder Philip Dye.
But beyond Dye’s vision, Zcath can attribute at least part of its success to Shelly Ossa—and the way she stepped up during difficult circumstances.
As he worked toward FDA clearance, Dye had brought on Ossa’s father, who had an engineering background, as chief operations officer. Ossa soon joined the company as chief administrative assistant, a position that lined up with her broad marketing and management background.
But her father died of COVID in 2021. Eight months later, while still handling the emotional fallout from his death, she was thrust into the chief operations officer role. “I had to swim quick and figure things out,” she recalls. She leveraged resources and organizations outside the company to build a support system.
Eventually, Ossa got her feet under her and began to step into the task at hand. “What’s great for us, as a young company, is that we don’t have to transition from the old to the new,” she says. “We’re able to come in and institute forward-thinking and planning and strategic ideas from the beginning. With technology, you have to get on board or you’ll be left behind. We have automation and other tech in place to set us apart early on.”
But it’s not all about technology taking the wheel. Ossa has called on her experience to begin instituting the culture she envisions for Zcath. That starts with serving her team—crafting upskilling tracks and creating a culture that encourages employees to own their roles. “Leadership should engage employees for their perspective,” she says. “They’re on the floor, they see the problems, and they know what’s happening.”
Born and Bred for Leadership
Eric Kahle has been around manufacturing his entire life.
In high school, he was already scrubbing floors at Visual Marking Systems, a fleet graphics and signage maker in Twinsburg, Ohio. Kahle’s dad, Dolf, owns the place, having taken the reins from his father.
At 31 years old, Eric Kahle serves as chief revenue officer of the 140-employee shop, but he regularly finds himself working outside the bounds of his job heading sales. And just because he shares a last name with the CEO doesn’t mean his perspectives always line up. The youngest on the executive team by 13 years, Kahle has pushed his peers to institute new technology.
“I try to drive automation in a way that helps us do our jobs—same amount of people, but we make more money,” he says. “When you look at our strategy, there’s been a big shift toward automation and other technology that, before three years ago, we viewed as a pie in the sky.”
The 60-year-old business has been in the family for four decades. And if things go as planned, it will be in the family for many more. Kahle is six years into a 10-year management trainee program. When the training concludes, he’ll take over the role of president.
With any luck, there will be many more like him to follow.
As many of us know, manufacturing plays a vital role not only in the economy, but in our day-to-day lives. It’s encouraging to see a group of young leaders not only focused on business growth, but on leaving the industry better than they found it by producing essential medical supplies locally, enabling more efficient innovation, or by building people-first workplace cultures.
The industry is coming off an incredibly productive run over the last decade. But faced with supply chain disruption and staring down a recession, we’ll need new perspectives and innovation like this to continue our pace of growth, create resilience and build a better world.
Ethan Karp is president & CEO, MAGNET (the Manufacturing and Growth Network), an Ohio Manufacturing Extension Partnership.