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Design and Manufacturing: Together Again

Photo Copyright 2012 Solar Innovations, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Last month, I had an eye opening trip to Pine Grove, Pa. There, I visited a factory for Solar Innovations, the company that is building the wood curtain wall and custom doors that will be an integral part of the façade of The Tower at PNC Plaza.

What I saw reinforced arguments I had just read in a pair of articles in The Atlantic. The first article focused on General Electric’s insourcing boom, and the second article discussed how new manufacturing tools are encouraging start-up companies to develop their products in domestic locations rather than abroad. Both documented the trend of “on-shoring” jobs back to the United States, a trend that is raising hopes about the future of American manufacturing.

Work at the factory also reminded me of an article in The New York Times examining how greater proximity of manufacturing and development teams within American companies is increasing innovation. Companies like GE are discovering that after 20 years of decoupling design from manufacturing, a feat accomplished by outsourcing the production overseas, they have lost touch with how designs are implemented. By returning the manufacturing work closer to the creative design work, companies are improving the efficiency of the appliances, and also the efficiency of the manufacturing and overall innovation.

Admittedly, the word innovation is much in vogue these days, and when I first read the articles in The Atlantic and New York Times, I found the reasoning behind some of the authors’ claims a bit dubious. The articles suggest that factories using computer generated prototyping, a process in which 3D printers create scale models of the finished product, are more likely to achieve greater levels of design innovation. While I understand the benefits of prototyping, I’m not sure I believe that it alone can be a game changer for the manufacturing industry.

But my trip to the factories changed my perspective. I saw that designers and machinists are quickly producing physical prototypes of products and testing those prototypes out on the factory floor. A high level of innovation can occur when a machinist can quickly produce a design, which can then be physically tested and observed first hand by the designer, and in our case the end user. It is possible to see that the buzzword of innovation, in this case achieved by proximity of design and manufacturing, might just be plain common sense.

At the Solar Innovations factory, employees are using machinery and aluminum the way designers use pens and trace paper. This way a sketch we produced of a handle for the doors within the Tower at PNC Plaza can be machined and tested within days, allowing manufacturers and designers to quickly prepare and review new iterations, thus ensuring the right result.

As noted in The Atlantic and the Times, I'm excited to think that part of our greater goal with The Tower at PNC Plaza is contributing to the re-energizing of the American manufacturing base.

Photo Copyright 2012 Solar Innovations, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ben is a Firmwide Technical Director based in Gensler’s San Francisco office where he explores how user behavior can inform building technology. Since joining Gensler in 2006, Ben has developed innovative architectural technologies for projects all over the world. He currently leads the technical design of The Tower at PNC Plaza in Pittsburgh, a project that pushes building performance to new limits and aims to be the world’s greenest high-rise. Such projects combine critical conceptual thinking with expertise in materials and systems, two of Ben's primary interests. Contact him at benedict_tranel@gensler.com.

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