The Future of Manufacturing is Local


From ALLISON ARIEFF
NYT

Think manufacturing, and most likely your brain defaults to abandoned factories, outsourcing and economically devastated regions like the Rust Belt. So strong is our tendency to focus on American manufacturing as something that’s been lost that a chorus has risen up to decry the prevalence of “ruin porn” — those aestheticized versions of the decidedly un-pretty, with a particular focus on the once-triumphant automotive center of the universe, Detroit.

But there are many parts of this country where manufacturing is very much alive, albeit in a different form. The monolithic industry model — steel, oil, lumber, cars — has evolved into something more nimble and diversified. As this country continues to figure out how to crawl out of its economic despair, we could benefit from focusing on the shift.

President Obama, looking for ideas for job creation, came to San Francisco last month to pick the brains of tech-industry giants like Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg. He would have done well to include Kate Sofis as well — and not only to right the gender imbalance at the dinner table. Sofis, executive director of SFMade, is helping breathe new life into a forgotten potential economic driver: manufacturing.

“Manufacturing isn’t dead and doesn’t need to be preserved,” she says. “Let’s stop fixating on what’s lost. Let’s see what we have here, what’s doing well, and let’s help those folks do better.”

Industries like the record business, publishing and technology are constantly evolving in order to survive. Both SFMade and its New York cousin, Made in N.Y.C., are increasingly able to share success stories of how manufacturing has developed new models for doing business in the 21st century. The monolithic single-industry model has evolved as manufacturers see the benefits of being smaller and paying attention to how patterns of consumption, ownership and use are shifting.

An example of this might be a company like Anchor Steam Brewery, which started as a saloon in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in 1896. The scent of hops tells you you’re in the Potrero neighborhood, where they’re still brewing beer and producing small-batch bourbon. Today’s consumer, says Anchor’s Keith Greggor, “is much more likely to back the local guy.” Or there’s recent arrival Jamieson Leadbetter, a fourth-generation baker whose grandfather gave him this advice when he decided to continue the Portland, Me.-based family business in San Francisco: “Pick your community well. You’re not there solely to make money; you’re there to play a larger role.”

Times have changed. So has business, and it’s time to rethink, and indeed rebrand, American manufacturing.

As Mark Dwight, who started SFMade in 2010, explains, “For decades we have developed a culture of disposability — from consumer goods to medical instruments and machine tools. To fuel economic growth, marketers replaced longevity with planned obsolescence — and our mastery of technology has given birth to ever-accelerating unplanned obsolescence. I think there is increasing awareness that this is no longer sustainable on the scale we have developed.”

Dwight, who walks the walk as someone who make stuff right here in San Francisco as CEO of Rickshaw Bagworks, had initially started SFMade with the intention of creating a brand identity for the products produced within San Francisco city limits, something he calls “geographic ingredient branding.”

More easily understood as something akin to terroir, geographic ingredient branding emphasizes “pride of place,” which runs deep in cities like San Francisco and New York. “I saw this as a way to ‘brand’ the history, culture, personality and natural beauty of our city as a means to uniquely differentiate our local manufacturers,” says Dwight. “I coined the term ‘geographic ingredient branding’ as an emulation of successful technology ingredient branding campaigns such as ‘Intel Inside.’”

Rickshaw does both manufacturing and retailing out of its factory. Factory and online stores like theirs engage the customer base and replace the old wholesale model with a direct-to-consumer version that’s critical in protecting narrow profit margins. These are “hybrid models not characteristic of traditional manufacturing,” Sofis says.

Things made in places like San Francisco or New York command a desire-by-association (though I’m also sure creative individuals in less name-brand locals could adopt many of the business synergies and sustainable efforts discussed here). To be sure, there may be a higher cost of doing business in major metropolitan centers like these, but at the same time what gets made is largely driven by design and by consumer demand. Six-year-old Ritual Coffee Roasters, owned by Eileen Hassi, is emblematic of the city’s obsession not just with caffeine connoisseurship but with the particulars of sourcing, roasting, technique and myriad subcultures. The story of Timbuk2 bags (co-founded by Dwight, who now runs Rickshaw) is one of bicycle culture, which has expanded into a broader narrative of sustainable culture and transportation. With a local apparel company like Betabrand, the essence of San Francisco is conveyed in the very apace-with-technology concept of creating a new limited-edition product every week.

Part of expanding on Dwight’s original mission, says SFMade’s Sofis, is helping the public understand what they have. “It’s not some cute cottage industry,” she says, referring to the prevailing tendency to view “local” as something generally limited to cupcakes, jam or “My Mom Went to _____ And All I Got Was This T-Shirt.” The “number one thing we do,” Sofis continues, “is facilitate new connections.”

Anyone who creates a product in San Francisco, whether it’s a jam-maker putting out small batches from her tiny kitchen or an 108-year-old mattress manufacturer like McRoskey, is eligible to join, and at no cost, as SFMade is a 501c3. The decision to be a non-profit was borne out of the belief that trade organizations (like the Chamber of Commerce) often serve more of a business development function rather than address the needs of the local manufacturing community. In contrast to government-initiated programs, SFMade emerged from the community, the culmination of a grassroots movement. The group allows that community to reconnect, share resources, receive education and assistance on everything from zoning to sourcing to taxes. In the last year, 128 companies have joined in the belief that they’re better together.

SFMade helps companies assess a product’s “manufacturability,” which sometimes results in an adjustment of (for instance) the design, to make it easier and less costly to manufacture. SFMade will then help companies either connect to existing contract manufacturing resources in the city or establish their own production capacity. Instead of assuming that things like sewing, printing and assembly need to happen overseas, SFMade is working to reconnect local production capacity to big companies (i.e., San Francisco-based Levi’s, exploring the possibility of local sample production). Other large San Francisco-based corporations have initiated relationships with SFMade, like Bank of America (which felt it had lost its footing as a “local” business) and Virgin America (which features local products for sale onboard its aircraft and in their San Francisco terminal).

There are even tech-meets-manufacturing success stories like DODOcase, a company that set the surprising goal of keeping the art of bookbinding alive by adapting it to a world of e-readers and iPads. The enterprise was started, says Sofis, “by a group of guys with Stanford and M.I.T. pedigrees who are now making as much money as they would have in high tech or banking but instead are driving business to a bookbinder that had been reduced to a staff of one but now employs 10 full-time.”

In keeping with the San Francisco Bay area’s commitment to sustainability, green manufacturing becomes more the rule than the exception. Says Sofis, “While we do not select (or not select) companies to participate in the SFMade community based on sustainability or ‘greenness,’ we find that the ethos of San Francisco manufacturers — the vast majority of whom make consumer products — has a strong bent toward naturally wanting to incorporate sustainable elements into both their product and process.” SFMade also has an educational track designed to help our companies develop more sustainable production processes as well as work with a more sustainable supply chain.

Similar efforts are happening in New York (and indeed, The Times’ City Blog spotlighted the things still made in the city, from lightbulbs to envelopes, in the Made in N.Y.C. series two years ago). Though it launched post-9/11 as a strategy to lift the city back up, Made in N.Y.C. has evolved over time. Sustainability has become a large part of its mission: member companies can post the environmental impacts of their manufacturing processes on the Made in N.Y.C. Web site, with those excelling in greener process and product able to earn a “green apple.” Tying economic growth inextricably to environmental stewardship has so far been a strong strategy.

“That really took off,” says Made in N.Y.C.’s director, Adam Friedman. As the city went through this building boom, part of it was influenced by LEED, which has a preference for local procurement. That preference, Friedman explains, really opened the door and transformed the initiative. Made in N.Y.C. then launched the successful Spec it Green, a trade show and other events that brought architects, contractors and builders together with local manufacturers.

“Now we’re trying to expand on that concept, as there is growing demand for local product,” says Friedman. “People want to buy stuff that’s made locally. It started with food but it’s permeating fashion, woodwork and the like.” Echoing Dwight, Friedman says that “it has to do with local pride, with wanting to be an ethical consumer.”

Less grassroots than SFMade (Made in N.Y.C. came out of the more traditional New York Industrial Retention Network, NYIRN), the New York version is similarly devoted to new ways of thinking about old practices and processes. Growing consumer demand for greener, more ethically produced products, along with skyrocketing unemployment and nervousness about globalization all work in the groups’ favor. (U.S. trade policy, not so much — but that’s for another column.)

SFMade and Made in N.Y.C. remain cautiously optimistic about their ability to strengthen something so many have given up on or forgotten. “I grew up in the ‘70s in Buffalo and saw the mass exodus,” says Sofis. “I saw people lose the ability to support themselves. I saw my peers run far from manufacturing. Now I see people coming out of elite schools who want to go into manufacturing.

“Let’s help the public understand what we have,” she continues. “The job potential is huge.”
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