We Still Make Stuff in San Francisco

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By Lizzy Bennett

There are 200 to 300 businesses that actively manufacture products in San Francisco. I work for one of those companies - Timbuk2 Designs.

Timbuk2 has been making custom bags in San Francisco since 1989. We were started by bike messenger Rob Honeycutt, who became fascinated with just-in-time manufacturing and applied the Toyota model to the making of messenger bags. He hired a team of highly skilled sewers, several of whom are still with the business. One of Timbuk2's sewing leads, Hui Wu, has been with Timbuk2 for thirteen years, and she and her 15 person team - 13 sewers, 2 cutters - can make up to 400 bags a day in our San Francisco factory. Wu and her team are fully cross-trained so they can work on any machine, and their skill is incredible.

Filmmaker Brent Bishop recently spent time in our factory while making this movie, and despite having grown up in his grandfather's sewing factories, he was amazed by Wu. After watching her sew a messenger bag flap, Bishop exclaimed, "She was just blowing around those corners!" A lot of folks don't realize that women like Wu still exist in the US or that the city of San Francisco is able to find an outlet for her talent.

A mini-break to convince you that I'm not just trying to sell you bags. For me as an online marketer it's tempting, but I know better than to ignore or misread my audience. I'm including Timbuk2 in this post because it's a story I know, and because it's a core part of a local manufacturing story that I find really compelling! It may not sound modern or even possible, but local manufacturing is happening in American cities and it's actually working. Here's why.

Like most of the rest of the country's, San Francisco's manufacturing peaked in the 1970's. Honeycutt says, "When I started in '89, there was a lot of sewing in San Francisco. I remember as a bike messenger seeing all the sewing factories letting out South of Market." He adds that with the exception of a handful of companies like Timbuk2, "All the sewing left San Francisco during the 90's." But today, San Francisco manufacturing is on the rise again.

How do San Francisco businesses make it work? Kate Sofis of SFMade - a non-profit dedicated to supporting and growing manufacturing in San Francisco - explains, "Companies here share a few very noteworthy traits. They are almost all consumer-products companies [that are] design-driven, intensely customer focused, increasingly sell direct, and often marry technology in their business model."

Technology is a key ingredient. Over the last five years, there has been tremendous growth in custom or DIY product sales online. Companies like Nike and Converse build product configurators online and customers select what materials and colors they want on their products. Larger companies, specifically Nike and Converse, manufacture their products in Asia and FedEx them directly to the customer. The model works well for everyone but the customer who has to wait 3 - 6 weeks to receive a product. But because Timbuk2 is local (i.e. in the USA), we manufacture and ship custom bags in 2 - 3 business days. And if the customer is in San Francisco, we can do same-day manufacturing and delivery. This is more in-line with what online shoppers have learned to expect. Amazon Prime has both ruined it for everyone and made our lives better. Free overnight shipping? Yes please.

Low minimums and speed to market are other huge advantages. We can make and sell one unit of a bag to see if anyone bites. If people do, we can ramp up production in San Francisco to meet local demand, and if the product is a screaming success, we can move the manufacturing to Asia to meet the larger demand. Betabrand, another company that designs and manufactures in San Francisco, similarly benefits from producing locally. Betabrand's founder Chris Lindland explained, "Quick lead times and limited batches allow Betabrand to test out new ideas in a snap and quickly follow up when they have a hit."

If you pair the growth of custom products with speed to market and lightning-fast delivery and then layer on much larger factors like rising energy costs, the need for manufacturing jobs in the US and China's look inward to its own consumer market, local manufacturing could actually grow in the US. According to Honeycutt, "There are big things on the horizon."

If San Francisco manufacturing - and manufacturing in other American cities - is going to grow, policy will have to support manufacturing in urban areas. It's happening in San Francisco. A recent re-zoning of industrial areas in San Francisco has helped bring rent for industrial spaces in-line with rental prices in the rest of the city. Sofis explained, "We now actually hear from local companies who are trying to grow in place or are even considering moving here (big surprise) from other parts of the Bay Area." It may sound or feel foreign to people my age, but local manufacturing can make sense. And importantly, local means faster and fast has become an expectation, not a luxury.

Lizzy Bennett is the online marketing manager for Timbuk2 Designs in San Francisco.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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