Inside BriteLab, San Jose manufacturer of high-tech skateboards and 3D printers

Type A machines

Type A machines

A one-wheeled electric skateboard that zooms along at 14 mph. A mobile telepresence robot with a friendly “face.” A high-end 3D printer that can link up to up to dozens of its siblings, creating a massive, automated production line.

Very different products, to be sure. But they’re all made inside BriteLab, a 55,000-square-foot facility in South San Jose that’s part factory, part design and engineering studio, part startup incubator.

The company, formerly known as E Sytems Technology, threw open its doors on Nov. 4 after a major remodel and rebranding that followed its merger this year with Advanced Components Specialty.

“We’re thrilled that BriteLab is here in San Jose,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told attendees at the event. “We know we have a particular advantage with proximity to design and production and other functions that exist in San Jose.”

The company’s growth tracks a resurgent manufacturing sector in Silicon Valley, as companies look to take greater control of their product development cycle and closely guard invaluable intellectual property. At the same time, hardware itself is seeing its moment in the sun as the Internet of Things drives a boom in gadgets.

“Ninety-eight percent of all hardware and products in the world are not hooked up to the Internet,” said BriteLab President and CEO Robert de Neve, who has spent nearly 40 years in the industry. “That’s the new revolution.”

But calling BriteLab a “contract manufacturer” leaves out a lot. It offers a full complement of product-development services, integrating design, engineering, rapid prototyping, manufacturing and support services.

In that way, BriteLab is part of a strong ecosystem of service providers in San Jose that enable innovators large and small to take their ideas from CAD drawings to physical production right here in the Bay Area. It’s a critical role, said Kate Sofis, CEO of SFMade, a trade association, at a Nov. 17 event kicking off a regional initiative to boost the manufacturing sector. She called the city a “regional foundry.” San Jose boasts about 65,000 manufacturing jobs, according to SFMade; overall, about 300,000 Bay Area workers draw a paycheck from the sector.

“San Jose … is a regional asset that makes it possible for a small invention in San Francisco to still be made in the Bay Area,” she said.

Take OneWheel, whose futuristic skateboard was called “fun as hell” by The Verge. The startup is based in Santa Cruz, but the $1,499 product is assembled at BriteLab, which also designed OneWheel’s supply chain strategy, new product introduction, ramp-up, and service and product support.

Also being built at BriteLab is the Anybots “Qb,” a “telepresence avatar” that lets users wander around the office even if they’re at home in their pajamas. BriteLab provided design, prototyping, supply chain, new-product introduction and service/support.

Type A Machines also makes its Series 1 Pro 3-D printer inside BriteLab. The San Leandro-based company has gained a following for its professional-grade machine that can be scaled up into massive networked “print pods,” which Type A says can deliver a lower cost-per-part than injection molding. BriteLab provided supply-chain design, advised on new-product introduction, manufacturing, order fulfillment and support.


BriteLab’s CEO Robert DeNeve giving tour

Startups – especially early-stage startups – benefit in several ways from being located close to production, de Neve said. “The bottom line is, there are these concepts called IP diffusion and quality drift,” he said. “That’s the core problem for all the OEMs and the product people that left this valley to go overseas. They’ve seen their IP diffuse – a nice way of saying it’s been stolen – and quality drifts as the suppliers try to make profit.”

Another thing working in BriteLab’s favor: location. A growing cluster of hardware-oriented companies are locating in South San Jose, which offers the large-floorplate, heavy-duty R&D buildings that are increasingly hard to find in Silicon Valley. The San Jose submarket offered more than 1.7 million square feet of R&D space in the third quarter, according to Cushman & Wakefield, at an overall asking rate of $1.40 per square foot per month. That’s a 45-percent discount compared to Sunnyvale or 61 percent less than asking rents in Mountain View.

For BriteLab, the location also offered operational benefits. “We’re a hardware company, and 80 percent of the (hardware) workers live in the South Bay, so I knew I could probably better recruit workers,” de Neve said. “We kind of thought about it and, after a couple missed attempts, said let’s do it. Sure enough, the reverse commute is wonderful.”

About 75 people work in the facility today, and de Neve expects it to reach 150. In time, expect to see more BriteLabs popping up. “We don’t want to make it much bigger; we want to clone it. We’d then take one of these facilities and put one in LA, or Oregon or Portland.”