How Imagination and Networks are Driving the Rise of New York City Manufacturing

August 4, 2016
futureworks-nyc-situ-studio

Google Headquarters in New York. SITU Fabrication’s CNC-milled aluminum panels run down the length of the Google lobby. Brand offices are using architecture to tell their stories, and that means custom concepts not just unique materials. Credit: SITU Fabrication

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, New York City is enjoying a manufacturing renaissance. Jobs are up 1,100 over the past year, the longest sustained growth in decades. Charlie Euchner’s report for the Center for an Urban Future shed light on job growth and a trio of manufacturing sectors: 3D printing, metal and wood fabrication and food manufacturing. We explored the first two and chatted with Euchner, ITAC Executive Director Kinda Younes and Voodoo Manufacturing Director of Manufacturing Jim Allen. The goal? To better define how we’re thinking about New York City manufacturing today.

What we found is that defining manufacturing is less about volume and materials than it is about market-based needs. New York City’s fabrication and printing sectors are services and agencies rather than assembling product. The signature of New York City manufacturing seems to be translating client visions into the physical world – whether it’s one-off fabrication for a museum or a series of trophies for VH1’s Hip Hop Honors. It’s a zero-inventory approach that’s markedly different from 19th and 20th century assembly lines and leading to a surge of growth across the city.

New York City is the World’s 3D Printing HQ
After half a decade of incredible buzz and conversation, consumer 3D printing retrenched. Printers are small enough to fit in your living room, but they require experienced operators and a constant feed of plastic. Instead of a personal factory in every home, we’re seeing the rise of 3D printing as a service. Need to print in New York? The Big Apple (524) outpaces Los Angeles (420), Paris (363) and Milan (309) as the city with the most 3D printers. Shapeways in Long Island City, Voodoo Manufacturing in East Williamsburg and 3D Hubs in Midtown East are three companies leading the charge. Voodoo and Shapeways are more than just services and communities, they’re factories. Not the old smoke-belching, waterfront squatters, but creative hubs and neighborhood anchors for the 21st century. 3D Hubs is a peer-reviewed network of local printers for you to send and print files.

3dhubs-futureworks
Dun dun dun, dun da dun, dun da dun. 3DHubs just raised $7 million in Series B funding for its peer-reviewed network of 3D printers for hire. Now, instead of tooling around on your own personal printer, you can turn to professionals. Credit: @3DHubs instagram

3D printing’s re-centralization is a win for New York manufacturing. Expertise breeds value, jobs, investment and expansion, and we’re seeing it firsthand. This week, 3D Hubs closed a $7 million Series B round. Voodoo recently doubled its Stagg St. factory footprint and increased the printer lineup to 155. They plan to triple their eight-person team over the next year, according to Euchner. Shapeways has more than 150 employees, 3D Hubs more than 35, and all three manufacturers are hiring.

Imagination Fabrication
Like 3D printing, wood and metal fabrication is on the rise; it’s the third largest manufacturing sector behind food and fashion. Euchner points to New York’s appetite for custom-built cultural centers, bars, restaurants, hotels, luxury apartments and second homes as main drivers. As we learned from a visit to SITU Fabrication in Brooklyn Navy Yard, custom means more than, say, bevelled marble or copper inlay. Functional materials are par for the course – clients want architecture that invites social engagement. The Brooklyn Museum’s phone-charging furniture, for instance. Or the musical festival circuit’s new sweetheart: selfie sculptures. New York City’s imagination is in high demand now that digital platforms can translate new concepts through old materials.

sonos-store
The Sonos flagship on Greene St. New York City’s rise in fabrication is powered in part by a creative retail revolution in which brands offer unique experiences alongside their products. Credit: PC Mag

Experiential retail landscapes are becoming standard as companies figure out that visitors are attracted to the scene as much as the product. International brands (Cadillac, adidas, Anheuser-Busch this past year) are moving senior divisions and headquarters to NYC. Retailers (Kellogg’s, UnderArmour, Sonos in the past six months) are recognizing they need a flagship in America’s media capital. And, as Younes points out, original content – from Broadway to Broad City – requires original sets. More than 50 new woodworking-as-a-service companies launched between 2010 and 2015 according to Euchner. Another 150 metal fabricators opened their doors over the same period, and legacy manufacturer, Queens’ Koenig Iron Works, jumped from 50 to 90 employees.

New York City Manufacturing
In talking with Euchner, Younes and Allen, a few themes came up. First, let’s not define manufacturing by quantity. Boeing only produces seven, eight hundred planes per year: Does that mean they’re a maker rather than a manufacturer? Second, don’t let labels like “maker,” “designer” or “manufacturer” stand in the way of helping define, track and develop the manufacturing ecosystem. Makers can manufacture, manufactures can be artisanal, designers can design decentralized networks rather than industrial products. Third is that traditional manufacturers and new manufacturers are separated mostly by the tools they use. Just as The New York Times (founded 1851) is digital, mobile and app-based and Monocle (founded 2007) prints magazines, manufacturers have the flexibility to constantly change.