Back in 2015, Ed Larkin could drive the Batmobile, but not well.

The 62-year-old crashed into walls and lost control — a lot. Frustrated after playing “Batman: Arkham Knight,” the successful, longtime inventor was inspired to create a new way to play computer video games that didn’t rely on hitting keys on a keyboard to make characters jump, crouch and drive.

He believes he’s done it with the FPS Hyper-Drive, a domed, glowing, one-handed joystick-meets-steering-wheel-meets-keypad device.

For a host of reasons, Larkin was determined not to produce it overseas.

It took a year, but the Hallowell man has lined up seven Maine companies to make it from start to finish.

“I just wanted to do it in the United States, not China,” Larkin said. “It was much to my thrill — not only am I making it in the United States, I’m making it in my backyard, which is freakin’ awesome. That’s including plastics injection molding companies, electronics manufacturers, also circuit boards and software. Every possible piece of the pie.”

From truck plows to tongue depressors to better ways to drive the Batmobile, Maine companies are making it here.

Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine, said “creative” comes to mind when she looks at the breadth of businesses in her industry.

“They’re filling a niche,” she said.

On Thursday, Bates Mill in Lewiston will host the association’s annual Maine Manufacturing Summit highlighting work and innovation at companies such as Lewiston’s aizoOn and Auburn’s Globe Footwear.

After years of gloom, manufacturing has stabilized in Maine, said Glenn Mills, chief economist at the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

Some sectors — transportation equipment, wood products, leather, textiles, chemical manufacturing — are even growing.

Scot Story at Alternative Manufacturing Inc. in Winthrop, a high-tech contract manufacturer housed in a former condensed-milk mill, said its sales are up 25 percent year-to-date over 2015.

Larkin, raising capital to launch production of the FPS Hyper-Drive, has lined up AMI to assemble, test, warehouse and ship his latest invention.

Story said his company makes weather stations for a Bar Harbor company, alternative energy inverters for a Westbrook firm and it recently contracted to produce high-end espresso machines. A U.S. company ran into too many issues outsourcing those machines to Korea — so Winthrop, here they come.

“In some ways, honestly, we’re catching up ground in some ways from the 2008, 2009 period where things sagged,” said Story, vice president for sales and marketing. “It’s a phenomenal growth season that we’re in now. Almost too fast, if anything. We’re hiring like crazy, or trying to, anyway. That has been one unfortunate trend that we’ve seen: It’s a little bit tighter now to get employees.”

‘Going for it’

Maine’s Center for Workforce Research and Information counts about 1,800 manufacturers doing business in the state. 

Despite paper manufacturing losing almost 2,000 jobs between 2010 and 2015, manufacturing as a whole held steady at about 55,000 jobs, Mills said. Between 2014 and 2015, it picked up 800 jobs, reaching its highest point since 2009.

Martin said when she’s asked about the state of the industry, which happens a lot, she’ll couch the answer.

“It depends on what week it is,” she said. “(For example), we just had a board meeting. Half of the people at the table were crazy busy and the other were indicating that it was a real soft time. It’s seasonal. It’s what market they’re in. The thing of it is, people are fairly optimistic. There’s pockets of things that are happening that will hit the news, (and) everyone’s like, ‘Oh, no!’ And at the same time, there’s some pretty amazing things going on in companies all over the place.”

Transportation equipment manufacturing added almost 1,400 jobs in the past five years and wood product manufacturing added 559.

“Bioscience is really taking off, aerospace has steadily increased over the past four to five years,” Martin said. “We know gas and oil have declined, which is going to impact companies that are working and making parts and components for that sector. We’re working on a diversification plan, looking at what’s coming down the pike and helping those companies diversify.”

She expects more than 200 attendees Thursday: businesspeople, legislators and students. Workforce development and energy, two hot topics the past few years, are on the agenda.

Martin has organized a benefit auction highlighting Maine-made products — a Jotul wood stove, Cuddledown comforter, Fisher plow accessories — and has put together manufacturing trivia.

One of the questions: How many ice cream sticks does Hardwood Products Co. in Guilford turn out every day of production?

(It’s north of 10 million. A day.)

Hardwood has the right idea, she said. It didn’t stop at sticks. The company makes tongue depressors for doctors’ offices, swabs for DNA testing, wooden skewers and wooden spoons.

“They’re obviously very, very successful because they’re figuring out where the needs are and going for it,” Martin said.

Keeping it here

For his new gaming project, Larkin found companies such as Maine Mold & Machine in Hartford for plastic injection molds and plastic parts, Eagle Industries in Hollis for custom metal stamping and J.S. McCarthy Printers in Augusta for packaging.

MODA Electronics in Gorham, another of the seven, helped with the prototype.

Larkin said he has spent 40 years as a “designer-slash-inventor-slash-dreamer.”

His first effort, inspired by a leaky apartment complex: Flood Guard, a smoke detector retrofitted with an Alka-Seltzer tablet. If the device got wet from a ceiling leak, the tablet would disintegrate and trigger the alarm.

“It was a simple, stupid thing — but it worked every time,” Larkin said.

His most popular invention debuted 22 years ago. The Mouse Bungee, a tiny kickstand to keep computer mouse wires from tangling, appeared on the QVC shopping channel 27 times. 

Hundreds of thousands were sold before Larkin sold the invention to PC gaming company Razer in 2010.

An avid computer video gamer, his FPS Hyper-Drive was born when he got tired of having to hit “W” to go up, “S” to go down, “A” to turn left and “D” to turn right. (FPS stands for first-person shooter.)

“The thing is, you’re twisting your fingers all over the keyboard,” Larkin said. “You’re jumping, you’re crouching, you’re running, you’re backing up, you’re strafing left, you’re strafing right. All this time, your fingers are all over the keyboard and you constantly have to look back down at the keyboard to re-position your fingers. That takes time, and while you’re doing that you can get killed.”

Or, with only 90-degree right- and left-hand turns, you’re crashing Bruce Wayne’s ride into a wall.

“Pressing two keys to go left and right is not what I call driving a car,” Larkin said. “I don’t feel like I’m driving the Batmobile; I feel like I’m typing on a keyboard. I am typing on a keyboard.”

Under his company Xavier Technologies (Xavier is his middle name), Larkin is trying to raise $750,000 on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to produce the first 5,000 hyper-drives. He anticipates it eventually retailing for $150.

“It’s so expensive to do molds in the United States,” Larkin said. “I could do this for one-third the price if I was doing this in China, but I’m not going to China. I’ve been there, done that.”

Mouse Bungee convinced him to keep this idea in the U.S.

He and former business partner Jim Packard ran into numerous issues with shipping time and quality control.

“The longshoremen in California go on strike — my stuff’s on the boat. It’s staying on the boat ’til the strike’s over,” Larkin said.

During one live QVC appearance, Packard pulled a Mouse Bungee with a tempered glass mouse pad from its shipping box intending to do an on-air demo, but quickly discovered the glass didn’t fit in the mouse pad frame. 

“Ten-thousand were cut wrong,” Larkin said. “So close, but that’s all that matters, it didn’t fit. It was just maybe a 20th of an inch too wide.”

Back in the USA

Story at AMI said that’s been the case with several customers, a trend known as “re-shoring.”

Last year, AMI signed with an Icelandic company to make its internet-enabled pharmaceutical device.

“They had been going to China and they, I guess, are licking their wounds from some of the problems they’ve had and have come to us,” Story said.

Larkin said he’s optimistic about funding for his gaming unit. He has another project launching before it — The Outlet Buddy, an outlet space saver — working with five of the seven companies behind his hyper-drive.

That start-up cost was $100,000. Production starts this summer. He said Home Depot has already requested it.

“I’m totally psyched,” Larkin said. “This is going to be my year. I’m launching four products this year. That’s the most products I’ve ever launched in my entire life, and I feel as if every one of them is going to be a home run, if not even better.”

All four are entirely Maine-made.

“Now that I have all these great partners, I can do anything,” he said. “They’re absolutely a pleasure to work with. They have enthusiasm about my products even though some of them don’t even know what they hell I’m talking about. ‘A hyper drive? What?’ That doesn’t matter. They’re excited about making it. That’s what I love about working with all these Maine companies. They want to see me succeed. I love it.”

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Maine makes it

From awnings to espresso machines, to what one inventor hopes is the next great idea in gaming, manufacturing is slowly rebounding in Maine. Here are some examples:

Maine makes it

From awnings to espresso machines, to what one inventor hopes is the next great idea in gaming, manufacturing is slowly rebounding in Maine. Here are some examples:


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