Retooling Manufacturing in Detroit

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By Diana Budds / Published by Dwell
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Manufacturing and the history of Detroit go hand in hand—from heavy industry to automotive to personal accessories and more. There's a belief that one can get anything fabricated in the city and in 2012, researchers at the University of Michigan embarked on a study called Re: Tool-Kit for Detroit to discover if that was true.

Lead by four University of Michigan faculty as principal investigators—Heidi Beebe, Seth Ellis, John Marshall, and Julia McMorrough—a research team that included students and historians interviewed 47 businesses in Detroit and the surrounding metropolitan area. A grant from Alan and Cynthia Berkshire at Taubman College at the University of Michigan made the project possible.

The Re: Tool-Kit for Detroit study sought to create an honest assessment present-day manufacturing in the city and metropolitan area.

"By mapping the fabrication landscape of the city, and packaging the research in a way that is accessible to designers, and students of art, architecture and design who may not be fabricators, the research seeks to create new opportunities for the under-utilized fabrication capacity that already exists in Detroit and to encourage new collaborations between university and city, design and fabrication," Beebe stated in a paper presented at the 2013 Architectural Research Conference held in Charlotte, North Carolina. To learn more, we sent a few questions to John Marshall, director of the new Integrative Design graduate program at the University of Michigan, who contributed to the study.

How did Re: Tool-Kit for Detroit come about and what did you hope to accomplish with it?

I was approached by Heidi Beebe, a colleague at Taubman College. She had been looking for "a fabrication person" that wasn't an architect and several people had suggested me. Heidi was new to the area from Portland, Oregon, and wanted to discover if the often-heard view that "you could get anything made in Detroit" was true. My impression was that it was easier to get something manufactured in China than in Detroit—there is an entire industry whose business model is to help you to do that.

I teach design students at the University of Michigan and I wanted to see if there was a way to connect them with local manufacturers after graduation to see if they could make staying in the region more attractive. Also, I was interested in the similarities and differences between Glasgow [where Marshall attended the Glasgow School of Art] and Detroit.

In a way, Detroit's post-WWII success was at the expense of Glasgow's heavy manufacturing. This is all wrapped up in the shift from the British Empire to the United States as superpowers and in the transition from steam to the internal combustion engine. Glasgow had experienced steady decline through the 1940s to the late 1980s in ways that are not dissimilar to Detroit's. Things began to turn around in 1988 with the Glasgow Garden Festival and European Capital of Culture in 1990, but the process would take 20 years and still would not reach into all neighborhoods of the city. As I said, I saw similarities and wanted to have a closer look. It's too easy to think that Detroit is unique, a couple of generations from now, Shenzhen or Bangalore will be experiencing the same thing—so long as we persist with the current model of production.

Re: Tool-Kit found that a marked shift in the city's manufacturing landscape occurred in 1980. In years prior, production centered around industrial fabrication whereas the following decades saw an increase in artisanal and bespoke work.

What are the most important lessons to be gleaned from the study?

There are over 400 manufacturing businesses within the City of Detroit. That's incredible. Some of them are operating at as low as 20-percent capacity and when they finally close their doors that knowledge will be lost, simply gone. As an outsider, you can look at a facility and say, "You have all this knowledge, skill and equipment—can't you make something else?" But most often the response was, "What do you mean? We make these, for Automaker X." I was shocked by how focused on one industry or component some businesses were. Others are doing just fine. On the ultra high tech end, aerospace and bio-medical contracts are most sought after.

Of the 50 or so businesses we interviewed, when we listed them all there was a clear split in 1980. Everything before this date was focused on industrial work and mass production. After 1980 all the businesses we spoke to were more focused on artisanal or bespoke work. Although our selection method was not scientific, this shift is striking and definitive. Perhaps this indicates the roots of what is called the maker movement go much deeper than the current hype cycle would indicate.

What did you find to be most interesting about the the study?

Almost everyone we spoke to indicated that their preferred method of communication is word of mouth. The Detroit economy is founded on reputation, endorsement, and trust. It is not a networked, globalized, 21st-century model as you would expect it. This is the first thing anyone thinking of relocating to the city needs to understand. Eye contact, handshakes, and investment of time have value here.

The Re: Tool-Kit book features easy-to-digest snapshots of the 47 fabricators surveyed in the study.

Based on your research, what are the biggest obstacles and hurdles to manufacturing in Detroit?

Detroit is huge. I don't think most people can comprehend the scale of it. You can fit San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan into the footprint of Detroit. That's an awful lot of infrastructure that has to be maintained. Even before thinking about the bankruptcy or social problems facing the city, there's just no way to sustain it all on a population of less than 700,000. Many things that are taken for granted in other cities are stretched so thin in Detroit.

We spent a year on the project. During that time, a number of businesses we had already spoken to burned down, relocated, and went bust. On the other hand, many of the students that worked as research assistants on the project chose to stay in the city after graduation. Detroit isn't Silicon Valley, but that's exactly why it's right for some people and some businesses.

From a policy perspective, how could the city better support manufacturing?

If I do a Google search on how to manufacture a product in China there are thousands of results that are companies that want to help me to do that. If I Google how to manufacture a product in the USA, I get a number of articles targeted at entrepreneurs, mostly about why that might be a good idea. Near the top of these search results is a Businessweek article from 2009 that mentions a database of products made in the USA. If you type "Detroit" into their search function there are exactly three results. One is a manufacturer of leaf and coil springs for the custom restoration of out-of-production automobiles. One is an Internet service provider whose website returns a 404 error. The third is a site for amateur telescope makers. Granted, I wasn't being very specific with this search but it all seems very one-sided. I know there are over 400 manufacturing businesses in Detroit. Some of them are operating at as low as 20-percent capacity, as I mentioned earlier. It seems that someone could be doing a better job of connecting people that want to make stuff from around the world and the people that can do it in Detroit.

Among the manufacturers surveyed, was there a common thread in their business practices that have allowed them to keep their doors open?


What are the most thriving manufacturing industries in Detroit today?

In terms of dollars: the companies serving ultra high tech, aerospace and bio-medical needs. In terms of social capital: the grassroots, triple-bottom-line, start-ups.

Where do you see potential for manufacturing to grow in the city and region?

Youth. I keep telling my students if the bottom-line is their only bottom-line and they want to flip something as fast as possible, move to Silicon Valley and get in line with everyone else. If however, they want to roll their sleeves up for the long haul they should get involved with something already happening in Detroit: get to know people, take their time, and something will happen. I see a trend towards increasing numbers choosing the second option.

I believe it is my responsibility as a faculty member to educate well-rounded individuals with the capacity to create, communicate, self-educate, and engage in their community. Ideally my students can operate in situations that are ambiguous, uncertain, and complex; can pose new questions and attack problems experimentally; can get beyond binary points of view; have competency and fluency in making and thinking; can navigate fluidly between contexts; and will have relevance in the world beyond academia. They are the people to whom you should pose this question.

To address the question that started Re: Tool-Kit, can you get anything made in Detroit?

It is possible, but your attitude, values, and approach have significance. It's not simply a matter of financial transactions; it's about people.

To learn more about present-day manufactuing in Detroit and ideas for the future, attend the Detroit Made panel discussion on September 24, 2014.