Trevor Graf

At Danko Arlington Inc., a 92-year-old foundry in Baltimore, Trevor Graf, chief quality inspector, uses a robotic measuring device to compare a manufactured part to a CAD model drawing. Danko says its new technology has greatly decreased its production time. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / May 8, 2012)

The molten metal pouring from the foundry at Danko Arlington Inc. in Baltimore harks back to the early industrial era. But across the street in one of the company's other buildings, workers operate an X-ray machine, a laser probe and a 3D printer that seems plucked straight from science fiction.

"We're trying to do pioneering things here," said John D. Danko, whose grandfather started the company 92 years ago.

He's not alone. A new study suggests that manufacturers in the Baltimore region are disproportionately high-tech — and calls on leaders to build on local strengths, rather than writing the long-shrinking sector off as a dying field.

The Brookings Institution report, which is being released today, classifies 27 percent of the region's manufacturing jobs as "very high-tech," compared with 16 percent nationwide. A fifth of the area's manufacturing jobs are in computers and electronics, the Washington think tank said.

That's partly driven by the region's reliance on defense contracting. Northrop Grumman Corp.'s electronic systems sector — which makes radar, navigation systems and other cutting-edge equipment — is based in Anne Arundel County. Lots of smaller companies, including Danko Arlington, make parts for the military as well.

But local manufacturers think they're all pretty high-tech these days. If they didn't innovate, they say, they couldn't survive.

The Domino Sugar refinery in Baltimore, for instance, has saved money using computers running "process control" programs that improve efficiency in such areas as energy use.

"Since we're spending $1.8 million a month on fuel, it's really important," said Stu FitzGibbon, the refinery manager.

The Brookings study, which looks at manufacturing in metro areas across the country, concludes that what is made in America varies widely by region. The report suggests that state and local leaders must take the lead to help manufacturing thrive because it's not monolithic nationwide.

What would work for Detroit, in other words, wouldn't necessarily do much in Baltimore.

"If you're really going to promote manufacturing in an effective way, you need to understand what assets a community starts with," said Susan R. Helper, a co-author of the report and an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Brookings has been advocating for more efforts to expand domestic manufacturing because the sector pays well, and still offers career opportunities for skilled and unskilled workers without college degrees. In an April report focusing solely on Baltimore's economy, Brookings argued that manufacturing was among the industries the region should help grow.

The average manufacturing wage in the Baltimore area is nearly $72,000 a year — and more than $110,000 a year in very high-tech manufacturing industries.

"If the goal is to have shared prosperity, it's not enough merely to provide good opportunities for college-educated, white-collar professionals," said Anirban Basu, a Baltimore economist who agrees with Brookings' expand-manufacturing sentiment.

But for many, many years, the sector has shed jobs. To the cheaper South. To foreign countries. To automation.

Statewide, there are 68,000 fewer jobs in manufacturing today than there were two decades ago, a drop of almost 40 percent.

It's to the point that local manufacturers feel forgotten by government officials, as if the sector had actually disappeared. What have local leaders done about manufacturing "given the awful decline that's occurred?" asked Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland. "The answer is 'not enough.'

"There's some common-sense things that we ought to agree on doing to secure manufacturing, to stop it from eroding," Galiazzo said.

He suggested economic development officials call manufacturers just to ask: What could we do to help you add jobs? It's a particularly important question now, as defense contractors gird for cutbacks.