From left: Matthew Burnett, CEO, Maker's Row; Kate Sofis, executive director, SFMade/Urban Manufacturing Alliance; Dayne Walling, mayor, Flint, Michigan. Melanie Leigh Wilbur

The future of urban manufacturing lies less in localism than in making factories more personal.

Despite the rise of artisanal everything, not everyone who produces food is afraid to embrace manufacturing as a metaphor for what they do. Taco Bell actively encourages it, for starters, per a Bloomberg Businessweek profile on the company. The Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies a huge sector of the economy as "food manufacturing." Even local farm-to-table chefs and restaurants may be doing things more like factories than they'd like to admit.

"Eat Local" nevertheless remains a powerful imperative, with all the reaffirming (if sometimes inefficient) imagery it summons to mind. So much so that the burgeoning "Make Local" movement has adopted some of that aesthetic, including an emphasis on reclaiming skills and craft lost to us for generations.

"I grew up in the ‘70s in Buffalo and saw the mass exodus," Kate Sofis, the director of SFMade, told The New York Times in 2011. “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."

The future of manufacturing may well be local, as The Times proclaimed. But it's unlikely to look or feel like the locavore movement—or much like the manufacturing of the past. "I don't think we’re ever going to see the scale of manufacturing that we used to see in this country," said Sofis, in a panel today at The Atlantic's CityLab 2014 summit, "and I’m okay with that fact."

In fact, one model for renewed urban manufacturing may be the part of the food industry that embraces food-as-product. That's because—Inception warning—giant food manufacturers are remaking themselves to look more like small-scale locally made urban manufacturers. What-in-the-what?

(Domino's)

Matthew Burnett, chief executive at Maker's Row, points to Domino's Pizza as a model worth emulating in at least one specific way. The company has been playing around with "pizza builder" technology since 2008. More recently, Domino's introduced the Domino's Pizza Tracker, which allows you to follow along in real time as your food is prepared and delivered.

"Mike is putting the toppings on your pizza. Jeff is taking your pizza out of the oven," Burnett mock-observed. "Why can’t we have that for local manufacturing?"

Sofis said that urban manufacturing is never going to mean that your scooter is made fender-to-fender in Oakland, the way that chefs and restaurants brag on snout-to-tail cooking and farm-to-table menus (approaches that have their own drawbacks).

"It’s hubris to think we would bring it all back and do all the production here," she said. "It's not just not realistic. It makes no sense." There would be environmental ramifications for cities producing rubber, locally, everywhere, for one thing. "Guess what?" she adds. "Taiwan does really great bike parts. Some of the best parts in the world. Combine it with Public Bikes, which does the design work here and the assembly work here," and you get a great, mostly-urban-manufactured bike.

There are plenty of lessons for urban factories to learn from the local food movement, of course. At the "CityLab: Making L.A." event at the Theater at the Ace Hotel on Monday night, Meg Gill, the cofounder of Golden Road Brewing, noted that three and a half years ago, not a single beer by a local brewery was available on Los Angeles grocery shelves. Gill described the problem as a "distribution void." In most cities, Sofis observed today, factory capacity goes untapped in most cities even when there's demand. The locavore movement isn't possible without an efficient distribution network—and neither is urban manufacturing.

"For us, the job generators are breweries, garment workers," Sofis said. Workers who manufacture granola and cappuccinos will outnumber the people employed in the advanced-manufacturing spheres of printable or biomedical tech for a while to come. But as technology advances and distribution improves, urban manufacturing may provide reliable jobs for low-wage, low-skilled workers.

Think of urban manufacturing as the new fast food. Noted Sofis: "What skill does it take to operate a 3D printer?"

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    Bike Advocacy’s Blind Spot

    The biking community is overwhelmingly concerned with infrastructure. For urban anthropologist Adonia Lugo, that’s an equity problem.

  2. A view of traffic near Los Angeles.
    Transportation

    How Cars Divide America

    Car dependence not only reduces our quality of life, it’s a crucial factor in America’s economic and political divisions.

  3. Transportation

    Hartford Trains Its Hopes for Renewal on Commuter Rail

    Connecticut’s new Hartford Line isn’t just a train: It’s supposed to be an engine for the capital city’s post-industrial transformation.

  4. An illustration shows two alleys in Detroit.
    Design

    Finding the Untapped Potential of Alleys

    “We’re starting to realize they’re just as powerful as a park or plaza.”

  5. Equity

    CityLab University: Inclusionary Zoning

    You’ve seen the term. But do you really know what it means? Here’s your essential primer.