Not-So-Dumb Technology

A visit to a cardboard-box factory has our columnist thinking about the future of manufacturing.

Early last year, I wrote a column in which I referred to cardboard boxes as “dumb technology.” I stand corrected. Just recently, I went on a tour of the Weber Display & Packaging Company, which has occupied the same square-block brick building in the Port Richmond district of Philadelphia since 1925. Inside are endlessly long machines that corrugate paper and print, die cut, and fold cardboard into boxes for shipping luncheon meats or fruit-flavored yogurts. The machines are controlled by computers and are as intelligent as the data-driven Jacquard looms that output Chuck Close’s new tapestries or the software that translates Frank Gehry’s flourishes into building components. I marveled as I watched a CAD-equipped cutting table slice a slab of cardboard into an intricate prototype for a store display.

Of course, I wasn’t at Weber to reevaluate the humble box. I was there in pursuit of an idea: that manufacturing—the making of things, whether it’s mass or small-batch production—is the ballast that keeps cities real. Factories provide solid jobs for workers who are not card-carrying members of the creative class, and they feed the supply chain that makes it possible for entrepreneurs, designers, artisans, and others to produce greater quantities of tangible goods locally. The quaint idea that there is intrinsic value—economic, social, cultural—in making things is beginning to reemerge. Even New York City’s Economic Development Corporation (which, under the Bloomberg administration, has been preoccupied with finding ways to develop old industrial waterfronts into upscale mixed-use communities) issued a report last year outlining initiatives to grow some 30,000 industrial jobs over the next two decades. A year earlier, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) published an industrial atlas, an in-depth study of land use in the city. The PIDC calculated that 20 percent of Philadelphia’s employment—or 104,300 jobs—is still industrial. The organization’s goal was to add 22,000 industrial jobs over the next 20 years. To that end, the city’s new zoning code includes recommendations made by the PIDC.

I was taken to Weber by the industrial designer Jaime Salm, who, together with his brother Isaac, a former financial analyst, runs a Philadelphia-based company called MIO that develops and sells a quirky line of household goods. Almost everything MIO makes is manufactured locally, and the company struck me as the answer to a question about sustainability posed last year by the architectural historian Nina Rappaport. Discussing vertical urban factories, she asked, “People are so focused on growing vegetables and keeping bees on the roof. What about making things?”

The Salm brothers set up shop as MIO in 2001 and began their product line in 2003. In between, they went on a field trip to the Canton Fair in Guangzhou, a vast pageant of China’s manufacturing might. “I know anything can be made there for any price you want,” Jaime says. “But there are no standards.” He rejected the idea of making things in China because he believed he’d have more control over the behavior of local manufacturers. If you value sustainability, he reasoned, you must see your vendors’ practices: “One thing is what they tell you, another thing is what they do.”

Weber is a swift five-mile drive up I-95 from MIO’s cheerful storefront studio, which is just north of Center City. Bob Doherty, the vice president of sales, gave us a tour. Doherty—who owns the factory with his family—led us down a narrow flight of steps from the company’s offices to its 100,000-square-foot production floor. The first thing I learned was how paper is corrugated. Three giant rolls of smooth brown paper are run through a brand-new, eight-million-dollar corrugator. The layers of paper are sandwiched together, and bonded with a cornstarch adhesive. The middle roll is automatically fluted, forced into those little ridges that visually define corrugation. And then, way down at the far end, come perfect stacks, four feet tall, of cardboard. “This is the heartbeat of this machine,” says Doherty, pointing to a computerized workstation beside the corrugator, where a monitor showed multiple video feeds of the work in progress: Cardboard Mission Control.

Somewhere, past machines die-cutting holes, creasing, gluing, and slicing, and beyond the area where forklift operators were perpetually moving pallets loaded with still-flat boxes, was a printing press applying a solid coat of dark-gray ink to smooth ovals of double-wall corrugated cardboard. “The key to this is consistent ink coverage,” says Doherty, as we watched a worker glide a photo spectrometer over a freshly printed sheet of corrugated, testing to see if it was exactly the right shade of gray. The ovals are components of MIO’s top-selling product, the Nomad screen; they are printed in ten different colors and sold in packs of 24 for $56. They’re distinguished from ordinary “this-end-up boxes” by their precise slashes, which allow them to be assembled into room dividers or trade-show booths that ripple with color and texture. The Nomad system nicely straddles the divide between the cardboard box and architecture.

MIO’s newest Weber-made product is FoldScape, a sculpted-paper ceiling tile that’s proportioned to fit into standard drop-ceiling frames. The eggshell-white squares of recycled cardboard are shipped flat, and, like unassembled Ikea products, they don’t look like much of anything. You then fold along the creases, origami style, and the tiles pop up into three-dimensional shapes. They hold their shape by means of an ingenious two-hole cardboard latch, a feature designed in conjunction with Weber’s R&D department. Installed overhead, the tiles create an expanse of repeating peaks and valleys, an alternative to the usual acoustic-tile landscape of tiny pockmarks.

At MIO’s studio, I asked Jaime Salm and designer Alex Undi whether the FoldScape tiles were configured on a computer, as they look like the output of sophisticated modeling software. The two laughed and brought out a small box stuffed with prototypes: folded pieces of paper. The collection, they told me, represents a month or two of trial and error.

There is a poetic quality to the design practice Salm has fashioned for himself, harvesting what remains of Philly’s manufacturing might. In a way, it’s like living off the land. As we drove from Weber to MIO—our wheels courtesy Philly Car Share—Salm gestured loosely, pointing out vendors along the way. Ten minutes out is the last real milliner in town; they manufacture lovely molded-wool bowls for MIO. A cut-and-sew shop two blocks away fashions windbreakers out of colorfully patterned, recyclable Tyvek. Pop-up metal bicycle baskets are laser cut from powder-coated steel in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, two hours away. The product line is shaped by the strengths and limitations of MIO’s manufacturers as much as it is by a design sensibility. “Why not maximize the vendors you have?” Salm reasoned. “They’re a constraint. But it’s a very good constraint.” He added, “For the most part you can make anything here.”

Well, sort of.

A few days after my visit to Weber, I read a depressing New York Times article by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher about why that exceptionally intelligent box, the iPhone, isn’t manufactured in the United States. The 4,500-word story boiled down to this: We don’t have the right workforce or the factories anymore. One paragraph jumped out at me: “ ‘The entire supply chain is in China now,’ said another former high-ranking Apple executive. ‘You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little bit different? It will take three hours.’”

That’s what Philadelphia used to be like, Salm told me, adding that it will never be that way again. Too bad. I’d imagined a small army of Jaime Salms, determined and idealistic, forcing the U.S. supply chain back into existence through sheer creative will. But it’s hard to imagine that even a generation of “makers” can overcome the fact that, at some point, Apple and myriad other corporations decided it was smarter, easier, and more lucrative to outsource manufacturing and send an entire nation’s technical skills into exile. The smart boxes will always be made elsewhere. We’re left with the dumb boxes, even if they’re not so dumb after all.

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