1. Economics
November 14, 2014

Is manufacturing moving back to cities?

By Barbara Speed

One transition common to most world cities, especially in the developed world, is the shift from industrialisation to post-industralisation. As service economies became more profitable, “making stuff” became less fashionable. In 1960, manufacturing accounted for 30 per cent of London’s wealth; by 1990 it was less than 11 per cent. Shad Thames, an area once known for its warehouses and docks, now plays host to Italian chain restaurants and “I  London” memorabilia shops.

Of course, London’s move away from manufacturing has a lot to do with space and money: in a city where you’re short on both, it makes sense to move your loud, large equipment elsewhere and seek a location where overheads, including wages, are cheaper.

Shad Thames today. Image: Geograph.org.

But new technologies might be changing things yet again. Last year, The Economist ran a special report on what they called the “third industrial revolution”. It argued that, in an age of complete mechanisation and technologies like 3D printing, labour costs were dropping and the factories of the future will be small, “squeaky clean”, and “almost deserted”.

As a result, “maker spaces” (sometimes called “hacker spaces” or “labs”) offering space and tools for production are opening up in cities around the world. This month, the South London Maker Space opened up; in Paris, there’s Fabelier, ArtLab and La Pailasse. Groups that might once have been seen as crafters or hobbyists are now, thanks to new technology, producing small-run, marketable products.

Makerversity, founded in October 2013, is the largest such operation in London. Its four founders believe central London became a “Disneyland” as it deindustrialised, full of leisure activities but devoid of production. To counter this, they rent out workshops and studios where start-ups can produce their wares on in-house 3D printers, CNC wood-cutting machines, laser cutters, and old-fashioned drills and sanders. Makerversity’s member companies (it currently has 150) pay a monthly fee for access to a desk or desks and the smaller workrooms; they can pay additional fees to use the equipment.

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The group operates from the once-derelict bowels of Somerset House, a stone’s throw from Waterloo station and the West End. At a recent New Cities Foundation conference, one of the founders, Andy Merritt, boasted that members can run a manufacuring business employing a room full of staff from a single set of shelves, stocked with a 3D printer and some materials. One member company, Knyttan, produces personalised jumpers on an electric loom; another, Stables & Lucraft, produce lighting and interiors.

Image: Makerversity.

Merritt says he was inspired by the shops in Istanbul’s markets, where anything from jewellery to furniture is made and sold from the same tiny space. He believes this model could revitalise the dying British high street: a shopfront-sized space could be enough to make and sell everything from 3D-printed sunglasses to CNC-cut flatpack wooden chairs. For some businesses, the ability to sell online makes retail space a low priority, even entirely unnecessary. 

Another advantage is that consumers have a growing appreciation for local products, as coffee shops running their own roasters and the rising popularity of farm shops testify to. Merritt says he’s aware of a “general hunger to see how things are made again”, and adds that consumers like a “story” with their purchase: “Producing a narrative around your business isn’t so easy for big, international companies.”

From the producers’ point of view, it’s equally helpful to be close to customers. Technology like 3D printing has made it possible to tweak your designs whenever you need to: if a style of sunglasses drops out of favour during a single summer, you can adapt. Proximity gives producers a first-hand look at what buyers might want. 

Knyttan’s electric loom. Image: Makerversity.

Turning a retail or residential space into a mini-factory does have its obstacles, of course. For one thing, leases in cities tend to operate on an annual basis: not ideal if you’re installing expensive equipment and slowly building a business. (Makerversity managed to sign a seven year lease with Somerset House, but this is pretty rare.) Spaces like this are also unsuitable for heavier types of production like welding.

As such, it seems likely that production in cities will remain limited to boutique products for a while yet: the technology is best suited to small, customised runs, and operations like Makerversity are still few and far between. But as climate change and reports of poor working conditions make outsourcing and importing less appealing, the tiny, city-centre factory could become an everyday sight.  

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