Brooklyn and the Future of Manufacturing

Once a scattering of neighborhoods and industrial parks, Brooklyn is emerging as a new kind of makers' hub. From Industry City, the Tech Triangle, Liberty View Industrial Plaza, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard significant investments are being made in mixed manufacturing and technology infrastructure. The "Brooklyn brand," synonymous with artisanal goods, handicrafts, and design boutiques is entering a new phase. Brooklyn is scaling up.

This transformation reflects a recent policy aim of protecting industry begun under the Bloomberg administration and stepped up by Mayor DeBlasio. The hope is to enable local businesses to stay in the borough as they grow. This change in direction has been criticized by some real estate developers as it reigns in the conversion of old warehouses and factories into condos. Meanwhile, Brooklyn's uniquely creative culture and industrial heritage is starting to innovate.

Lexy Funk, CEO of Brooklyn Industries, and former resident of the Whitney Studio Program, started her business as an art project. Living illegally in an unheated commercial space, she began by manufacturing bags out of recycled billboards. An accidental business woman, she now oversees 16 retail locations in three cities.

"It's a miracle we stayed in business," said Funk reflecting on the learning curve. "I struggled with whether I was an artist or business woman for a long time."

Her struggle, however, is a case study in how many Brooklyn businesses have shaped their models. Funk began as an artisan grappling with the trade offs of growth. While small runs allow for manageable, responsible supply chains supporting greater artistic freedom, they depend on elite patronage. Not only is this a contradiction for the progressively-minded bag designer, it's a small market with limited room for growth. Figuring out how to balance community, creativity, and growth is something that the Brooklyn creative class has experimented with for years... and they are starting to get good at it.

"If I had to choose one thing about the brand which is the most valuable, hardest to for a prospective competitor to steal, it is the supply chain," explained Funk. As her business grew, she stopped sewing bags herself and outsourced work to places like China. As the workflow matured, however, she began bringing manufacturing back to Brooklyn. Now, about a quarter of her inventory is made domestically; but Funk sees this as just the beginning.

The idea that design, creative, technology and business talent work in close collaboration (and proximity) with a flexible manufacturing center is a big idea developers are betting on. The recent investments in new collaborative working and manufacturing spaces easily tops a billion dollars in Brooklyn. It is an indication that greater creative control and the shorter, more sustainable supply chains they require, are the future. It is also an indication of how much needs to be reinvented for Brooklyn Industries to manufacture locally.

Bob Bland, CEO of Manufacture New York, a fashion manufacturing laboratory explains, "there is equipment I would need to buy back because we (the United States) off shored so much and no capacity to do certain kinds of work even exists anymore."

Deficiencies, however, have also created openings for innovation. Much celebrated breakthroughs in technology, like Brooklyn's 3D printing pioneer MakerBot are leading to a new paradigm in manufacturing and prototyping. Bland's insight is to bring new technologies, like 3D printing, into fashion research and development. Yet the suggestion that the new Brooklyn model for manufacturing is a mere technical fix causes Bland to bristle. Creativity, design, and technology are profoundly integral in her vision.

"We want the best of the best ideas and the way we do that is co-locate designers, creative-types, technologists, and manufacturing," Bland explains. The rise of the creative role reflects a transformation in manufacturing capacity, scope, and scale. From the Apple watch to the Nike swoosh, our minimalist sensibilities reflect the limitations of earlier modes of manufacturing; ones which could not support ornamentation, customization, and localization. Digital technologies are changing this and, as they do, designers and artisans have more to do. They are reasserting their importance in the process.

While this vision of small scale manufacturing in Brooklyn pales in comparison to Foxconn, it is also true that these entrepreneurs are not interested in rebooting old models. The industrial ruins of the borough also evoke a history of alienation, pollution, and a division of labor. The idea is to invent something better.

For Funk, this goal rings true, but it won't be achieved overnight.

"Our thought process is that it is about incremental change. It takes time to invent high quality, sustainable solutions, but it is essential that we do."