A Smarter Factory

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. This new paradigm, known simply as Industry 4.0, reimagines how we make things by changing our relationship to production through digital and advanced fabrication technologies, artificial intelligence, and smart and green machines. But it is also marked by a hybrid approach to space-making. Yesterday’s factory architecture is being […]

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. This new paradigm, known simply as Industry 4.0, reimagines how we make things by changing our relationship to production through digital and advanced fabrication technologies, artificial intelligence, and smart and green machines. But it is also marked by a hybrid approach to space-making. Yesterday’s factory architecture is being transformed away from the one-factory-per-company model toward neo–cottage industries set within a new industrial commons.

In my think tank and book Vertical Urban Factory, I identified not only the typology and its history but also ways that manufacturing is beginning to repopulate multistory spaces, in both new and renovated multitenanted industrial loft–type buildings. These manufacturing hubs are being realized through a mix of financial, real estate, technological, and managerial strategies never before practiced. Common among them are the creative adaptation of former urban factories and a focus on small-batch over mass production, in addition to their being cleaner, quieter, and highly networked.

Many of these spaces are membership-driven (like health clubs) and others are leased, as an office building would be, but they all share goals of job creation and innovative product development, especially in advanced manufacturing. Four approaches—private with public support (New Lab), not-for-profit (Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center), for-profit (NextFab), and public with nonprofit management and private support (UI Labs)—provide instrumental case studies.


New Lab

In the bustling Brooklyn Navy Yard, more than 7,000 people work in a variety of industrial buildings.
But Building 128, an 84,000-square-foot machine shop newly renovated by Marvel Architects and known as New Lab, might be the most ambitious. Since September, 400 people from 70 companies have moved in. They rent studios and workshops, host web conferences in vitreous rooms, and mingle in the colorful lounges and café.

The idea for a hive of hybrid advanced manu- facturing came to cofounder and CEO David Belt in 2011, when he first began working through concepts with artist and entrepreneur Scott Cohen. The owner of development company Macro Sea and its sister company, DBI, Belt researched new manufacturing models and conceived architectural spaces that would help companies prototype, iterate, and make their products. He was also acquainted with the Brooklyn collective Dark Matter Manufacturing, which included the nonprofit Terraform ONE, that designer of a polemical “unfeasibility study” envi- sioning the Navy Yard as a massive retrofitted maker village. Belt took them on as a beta group while he and Cohen raised $30 million from the city, the state, and nonprofit urban investment groups, among others, to fund the building that they lease from the Navy Yard.

With the beta group in place as attractors, Belt and Cohen vetted and reviewed applications to form a tenant base of “optimistic” tech entrepreneurs using hardware robotics, AI, 3D printing, and nano-technologies all toward socially driven ends, such as clean energy and medical advancement. Honeybee, a 33-year-old robotics company and NASA contractor exploring new robotics systems for use in surgery, is spitting distance away from StrongArm Technologies, which makes ErgoSkeleton braces to improve body mechanics for safer work. Nearby is Unreasonable Women, a new company that designs and produces bathing suits for all body types. This level of proximity and creative exchange forms an ecosystem between people, products, and companies.

Members have access to shared tools and hardware. In exchange for user feedback, New Lab gains $3 million in advanced prototyping tools and software from corporate collaborators, including Southwestern Industries and Haas Automation, a CNC machinery company. Moreover, New Lab tenants can avail themselves of the Navy Yard’s extensive employment services, completing a cycle Belt dubs “hyperlocalized manufacturing.”

While there are kinks to be worked out—on the agenda is a more committed attempt at job creation— and seemingly too much luxurious shared open space, few places like this exist anywhere. There is great potential for deep experimentation in such a supportive and networked setting.


The model nonprofit Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC) in Brooklyn continues to expand from its original base of woodworkers. In 1993, it was launched from an 1868 former marine rope factory, a property it still maintains. Here, a maze of hallways leads to individual company doors, while tall ceilings and ample loading docks make the mix of industrial tenants all the more vibrant. This mini–industrial district is occupied by furniture manufacturers, a mattress company, stage-set fabricators, traditional metal spinners, and jewelry designers and producers—but also accommodates more digital companies. In each of the organization’s five buildings in Brooklyn, totaling over 700,000 square feet, an organic synergy has grown between tenant companies, which can leverage each other’s expertise.

As a not-for-profit, GMDC offers spaces at below- market rents and for rare long-term leases, as com- pared with industrial landlords, who often lease year to year. Needless to say, this is a significant advantage to small manufacturers. But as real estate prices escalate in all the boroughs, the biggest challenges facing GMDC are rising acquisition prices and construction costs. To fund its current building renovation project for a 90,000-square-foot factory in Ozone Park, Queens, the group has had to adopt a creative attitude toward financing, pulling resources from a network of local and state capital funds, as well as new-markets and historical preservation tax credits. (As to the latter, the factory, which was designed by Snook Sons in 1906 and is being renovated according to plans by architects Beyer Blinder Belle, was one of the earliest poured-concrete buildings in the region.) Recently, GMDC has also ventured into consultancy, advising other industrial groups with an eye toward real estate, including SFMade in San Francisco, which is constructing a new manufacturing center this year.

With more than 100 businesses employing over 600 people, GMDC maintains an overall mission of job creation. CEO Brian T. Coleman says, “Manufacturing is still an entry into the middle class; the jobs pay $50,000 a year—a far cry from the $20,000 in service jobs in a fast-food chain.” Adding jobs, however, will require new workforce training and a greater emphasis on digital literacy.


In this new moment, one proven way to foster entrepreneurship and digital literacy is the laboratory model. Dr. Evan Malone started Philadelphia’s NextFab in 2009 as a for-profit maker space that educates designers, entrepreneurs, and other creative types about digital fabrication while also giving them the space and tools to make things. The premise is modeled after the Fab Lab movement, which sprang from MIT’s first fabrication labs, founded circa 2001 to assist technically underserved communities. The movement has grown in the intervening time, Malone notes, with the “disruption in employment and the lack of job stability [serving] as a catalyst for the maker movement.” Because long-term employment is becoming increasingly rare, those “who always had an idea that they had wanted to pursue” are in need of the support that NextFab enables.

NextFab outpaced Malone’s expectations, and in 2013 it moved from its first facility into a much larger space on Washington Street in South Philadelphia designed by architect Jackie Gusic of inHabit. The modest entrance leads to a lobby and a glass- enclosed vestibule where the milling machines, 3D printers, and metalworking spaces, along with an electronics studio, are open to NextFab’s nearly 700 members to use from morning to night. One membership tier grants holders access to the RAPID Hardware Accelerator program, a business incubator that provides venture services to help start-ups scale their companies. Inventors such as Jessie Garcia, an alum of the program who is launching a concussion detector for football helmets, can prototype an idea, gain acumen in product development, and bring it to market.

Riding on its continued success, NextFab added 10,000 square feet to its main location for individual workspaces, while also setting up a satellite spacein North Philadelphia, where there is a textile room for digital embroidery, a wood shop, and a jewelry studio. The company is working on opening a new outpost in Wilmington, Delaware, and is even engaged in joint ventures in Australia and Jordan. In growing the network of incubators, Malone says, he is pursuing “ideas to adjust attitudes about manufacturing, since the U.S., with its immigrants and diversity of perspectives, is still a ‘wild frontier.’ We have a lot of opportunity now to compete in advanced manufacturing for customized high-value products rather than commodities.”

UI Labs and DMDII

On the northern end of the former industrial district of Goose Island in Chicago, a steel bridge leads
to a glowing warehouse. Passing markers for a digital water-infrastructure monitoring project, one pro- ceeds through 25-foot-high industrial shed doors into an expansive lobby featuring exhibitions and a donor wall. Ahead, a glass enclosure offers glimpses of the latest industrial machinery.

Designed by SOM, the 94,000-square-foot former window and door factory now houses the umbrella UI Labs, with its Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) and the City Lab. As a public-private partnership, UI Labs is part of a network of 14 institutes around the country under the aegis of Manufacturing USA, cosponsored by three federal agencies—the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and Energy—to “secure America’s future through manufacturing innovation, edu- cation, and collaboration.” Launched under the Obama administration with bipartisan support, the network is set up to increase knowledge, advanced manufacturing expertise, and the dissemination of digital manufacturing in the United States.

Opened in 2014, UI Labs is a membership-based organization like New Lab, but the membership consists of established OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) looking to solve big problems in R&D, with access to smaller start-ups and a variety of new supply chains—even those of competitors. The idea, says Colette Buscemi, a senior director, is to “create unnatural alliances where the government, large and small corporations, and academics in advanced digital manufacturing can rub shoulders.” Of UI Labs’ current 300-plus member companies, three-quarters come from industry and the remainder from academia or nonprofit research organizations, with three membership tiers. Members, Buscemi adds, “can be confident that they are working on the most pressing and promising issues in digital manufacturing because of the strategic planning that we do with all these experts at the table.” This hope is borne out in practice: One company that was developing a software tool assisted a neighboring start-up to develop wind turbines using a simple integrated technology.

Besides offices and coworking areas, the facility features a 25,000-square-foot “factory of the future,” with $6 million worth of equipment, including 12-axis machines and a metrology lab in a controlled room. Where others might simply aspire to con- tribute to job-market growth, UI Labs has actually embarked on a new campaign to create 1,000 jobs in Chicago, the goal being the promotion of digital skills among a new wave of entrepreneurs.

In their own way, each of these laboratories and institutes contributes—spatially, organizationally, financially, and perhaps most important of all, collaboratively—to Industry 4.0. Perhaps those a bit rougher at the edges might have an even greater impact; most inventions are created in more random situations, not while sitting at one’s computer or in a lab. But as they are all challenging the status quo, they must be as nimble and flexible as the entrepreneurs they house.

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