Much of the current talk about American manufacturing centers on how it needs to be “saved.” It presumes all of manufacturing is inevitably heading—or has already headed—overseas, and U.S. factories are largely a relic of the past.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a myth that production can be separated from technology, design or modern culture in America; it’s an integral part of innovation and our future. And a new generation of founders have realized there are clear advantages to keeping the factories that build their products close to the creators and inventors who design them. Manufacturing locally is their competitive edge.
Despite reports of its demise, manufacturing is still the largest industry in the U.S. (excluding real estate), and my home city of Los Angeles remains the largest manufacturing center in the country with nearly a half-million jobs in the sector. You might be surprised to hear that manufacturing employment in L.A. outnumbers film and television, four-to-one.
So what does manufacturing in L.A. look like? There are transportation companies, aerospace companies, food and beverage makers and a thriving fashion industry, just to name a few. A study by the organization I lead, MAKE IT IN LA (a spinoff of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Entrepreneur-In-Residence program), found that the sector comprises nearly 30,000 manufacturing business that on average employ 20 or fewer employees. This makes the industry diverse and vibrant—and sometimes hard to navigate.
The concept of modern manufacturing can be hard for average Americans to get their heads around. Many imagine greasy wrenches, billowing smokestacks, lunchbox-toting men in dirty overalls. It’s true that somefactories haven’t changed much in decades, but they need to step it up to stay relevant. Because technology has changed modern manufacturing just as much as nearly every other aspect of our lives. New production techniques make it possible for companies to produce what they want when they want it, and stay increasingly agile similar to how software companies can.
While a decade ago the entrepreneurial trendsetters were software designers and app developers, the new trend has circled back to physical objects—especially those incorporating a technology and a high-design aesthetic that modern consumers have come to expect. And those design iterations can happen faster when a designer doesn’t need to fly across an ocean or surmount cultural barriers, but can just drive across town to see how their product is coming off the production line.
Today, we have a chance to see what that looks like at MakerWalk LA, an annual event organized by MAKE IT IN LA. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at factories and studios in the tres chic Arts District of Downtown L.A. Many of the business owners who open their doors for this self-guided walking tour are tapping into L.A.’s existing production infrastructure. Others are building new production infrastructure of their own.
These entrepreneurs include COMUNITYmade, a new shoe brand founded by former industry executives from ASICS, TOMS, Vans and Nike. The founders gave up their careers at big brands after deciding to build a company that reflects their values and gives back to the community they’re part of. They use local contract manufacturer Lalaland Production and Design to produce their shoes, and they donate a portion of each sale to local charitable organizations.
“Of course, it makes sense for us to invest in local manufacturing and to support fair wages; it’s core to our values and our brand,” explains Shannon Scott, one of COMUNITYmade’s founders. “But people are surprised to hear it’s just good for business. We can be quicker to market and have less inventory risk when we know the people making our shoes.”
At Lalaland’s headquarters, you can see luxury shoes and bags being made using a combination of artisanal hand-crafting and advanced digital fabrication equipment, right along to the banks of the LA River.
A few blocks away, the world’s largest organic distillery, Greenbar Distillery, taps into locally-grown organic produce and diverse tastes from ethnic cuisines that are plentiful in L.A.’s backyard. They use high tech equipment such as a continuous infinitely fractionating column still to capture and highlight the subtle flavors in their spirits.
Lumber mills aren’t the first thing you might imagine when you think about downtown L.A., but Angel City Lumber takes trees cut down across the city and rescues them from the waste stream.
“Los Angeles has a huge community of artists using hardwoods from overseas that cost top dollar,” explains co-founder Jeff Perry, “while equally good trees here in L.A. are buried as garbage.” So instead of letting the wood be chipped and thrown in the landfill, they upcycle these “waste trees” into one-of-a-kind design items. Their urban lumber is sought after by architects and designers, for both its beauty and its backstory.
And a short distance from Angel City is Scale 1:1, who combines modern design with technology to create stylish business furniture made for collaboration and creativity. They have two factories in South Los Angeles. Clients can order pieces rapidly customized to any color and size, and have them delivered in a fraction of the time it would take if they produced them in an overseas factory.
Some assume it’s too expensive to manufacture anything in America, but as I recently discussed with four entrepreneurs on my podcast (“Should I Make it in the U.S.A.?” on The Art of Manufacturing), there are often many reasons to make locally. And when you consider the total costs, it can actually be less expensive to do so.
But it isn’t always easy. Surprisingly, one of the challenges is connecting with local suppliers. That is why MAKE IT IN LA just unveiled a revamped website with new resources. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as building or pointing to one definitive database, so we created checklists and guidelines that can help a founder get ready for production and select the right manufacturing partner.
Scaling a business with physical products has other unique challenges as well, like production planning, inventory management and logistics. Connecting with one’s peers is critical for success. But unlike tech, Hollywood, or other professions, manufacturers aren’t in the habit of organizing industry mixers and tend to be fairly disconnected. That’s the goal of MakerWalk LA—not just to shine a light on what’s going on, but to bring the community together.
As these examples demonstrate, Los Angeles manufacturing isn’t just a soulless attempt at mass producing gadgets, nor is it a quaint throwback to artisanal crafts. It represents the future of innovation at the intersection of digital and physical. There is a new generation of entrepreneurs eager to make the future by embracing technology, mashing-up new ideas across industries, and tapping into a diverse pool of talent and resources that are just a car ride away.
And while many of these entrepreneurs are purpose-driven, they aren’t keeping their production local simply to be charitable. They’re doing it because it’s good for business.