A High Tech Incubator for An Old-School Industry


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By Patrick Lamson-Hall                                                                                                Illustration by Jason Walton

Manufacture New York aims to change the face of American manufacturing. The company’s Garment Center Pilot Program at 36th Street in Manhattan was the first step, using a business model more commonly associated with Silicon Valley or the Flatiron District – mentoring, product development, and shared facilities.

MNY’s innovation is applying this model to fashion and garment startups, the kind of companies that are written off by institutional investors and large firms. “Lots of companies want to invest in ‘fashion tech’ but they think that means platforms to get products to consumers,” said CEO and founder Bob Bland. “We teach investors that ‘fashion tech’ means hardware, real estate, assets.”

Running since mid-2013, the GCPP is housed in a 2,000 square foot space that Bland and her team built out by hand (they even poured the concrete floors). Space is tight, containing a phalanx of industrial sewing machines, pattern cutting tables, form fit models, and computers with the latest digital pattern-making software. The feeling on a busy day is vibrant – frenzied even – with more than 250 designers using the space.

While the pilot program is coming to a close in October, the project is far from over. MNY is moving to a massive, gut-renovated 160,000 square foot space at Liberty View Industrial Plaza in Brooklyn. The neighborhood is already home to a brewery, coffee roaster, offices and studios. The new space will include an incubator for high-tech manufacturing, with 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC machinery.

Continuing the work of the pilot program with 15,000 square feet of mentoring and co-working space, the new location will include 145,000 square feet of manufacturing room. Bland aims to attract and incubate small manufacturers to let prosperous designers scale up without having to outsource. Ultimately, the space could produce approximately a million garments per year, in small batches, based on designs developed in-house by independents.

“I’m going to create sustainable businesses by teaching people how to make clothes,” said Bland, “and it’s going to be vertically integrated, and it’s going to be in Brooklyn.”

 

Technology Creates Opportunity
in Light Manufacturing

 


Ten years ago, this would’ve been crazy
. No serious entrepreneurs were investing in the manufacture of products in the United States. But small-scale manufacturing technology, including rapid prototyping machinery, 3D fitting systems, and advanced pattern printers, have made it easier to turn even limited demand for a product into steady profits. To put it another way, production costs have fallen to the point where many things can be made in the same place they were designed – a revolution in light manufacturing, and a boon for creative people looking to turn their brilliance into business.

In fashion, there are three markets. There is a mass market, there is a designer market, and there is a couture market. Couture fashion companies will often manufacture just one or two copies of each style, which can be done through hand sewing. Large companies make thousands of copies of each style and can outsource most of the work to Asia. MNY is targeting the designers with production runs of a few hundred to a few thousand items.

MNY for blog

Bland & the MNY team will be on hand to help designers & makers navigate the difficulties of reviving American light manufacturing.

The decline of light manufacturing in the United States has left these small-but-growing fashion companies with what’s known in the industry as a “fulfillment problem” – the quantities they need to make are too small for major factories to be interested, but their products are not expensive enough to be profitable with hand sewing, and they lack the cash flow to set up their own manufacturing facilities.

Bland’s success, and the success of the designers at MNY, makes the case for a local, shared business model, with a high level of added value and quick, clean, efficient manufacturing techniques.

At MNY’s new facility, hundreds of makers will share the same space and the same equipment, maximizing the utilization of each piece of machinery, and creating the most value. At the same time, sharing space and machines allows small designers to grow at their own rate, taking advantage of market opportunities as they arise. The risks are small, and the rewards are shared.

Bland’s special sauce is to combine skill-building and design with industrial leases of 10, 15, or 20 years, in a space that is half the cost of manufacturing facilities in the Garment District in Manhattan. This will allow new manufacturers to amortize equipment and build-out costs over several years, dramatically lowering the barrier to entry.

Bland and the Manufacture New York team will be on hand to help designers and makers navigate the difficulties of reviving American light manufacturing. A new entrepreneur is a lonely entrepreneur; MNY is one of the few places where these people can interact with each other. Like many small business owners and freelancers, designers can often feel like they’re “going it alone” with no peer community to help them navigate the technical challenges, financial challenges, and ever-present stress of starting a new company.

“For this industry to be sustainable, everyone has to be included,” said Bland. “We’re all running businesses together.”