A Tiny Balloon Factory, Small-Batch Whiskey, and 3D Printing: A Dispatch from the Future of Manufacturing

"There are certain things you can do in low-volume that you can't do at high-volume."

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Caroline Linder (left) and Lisa Smith of ODLCO at their new (semi-finished) space in Chicago.

If you live in the Bay Area, you probably know that there are two things that everyone is talking about: artisanal food products and "desktop manufacturing." Now, a Chicago design startup, ODLCO, is attempting to combine these two ideas through what they call "small-batch manufacturing." They fly in the face of the idea that making physical products requires mass-production. 

Lisa Smith and her cofounder, Caroline Linder, don't use 3D printers; they use traditional manufacturing practices. But their story -- triumphs and struggles alike -- is a signal from a future in which many more people can make physical things in small batches. They already are where many Foo Camp-attendees think the world is going.

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If you follow Randolph Avenue due west for a mile or so from downtown Chicago, you end up in an industrial stretch of brick buildings that has long served as a series of meatpacking and storage outposts for the nearby Fulton Market. When Linder and Smith took over one of these two-story units recently, the first floor was still dominated by a massive meat locker and a fork lift. But neither of those is visible now. Linder and Smith are maximizing the mixed-use potential of this place, turning it into a small-scale manufacturing facility in back, showroom up front, and an apartment above, where Smith is already living.

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Linder and Smith's company, ODLCO, is the second iteration of a collaboration they originally called Object Design League (ODL), through which they produced exhibitions and operated pop-up shops. But, Smith says, they tired of exhibitions. "It's so unsatisfying when you have your thing on a pedestal, and then no one can really buy it, it's a one-off, and no one's really using it," she explains, "So we thought that instead of doing exhibitions it would be nice to actually produce works...in the design world, helping these things come to life."

So Object Design League became ODLCO, and to date the duo has produced three products: a cast-iron pot, a butter dish, and a forthcoming silicone trivet. In each case, they have done extensive leg work to track down makers who specialize in exactly the kind of production process they need. The pot, for example, was manufactured by a small company they found up in Wisconsin that makes cast-iron boat anchors. "They've been doing that since the 40s, it's their bread and butter," says Linder. 

Startups, Chicago style.
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After looking at the ODLCO prototype, the manufacturer determined that they could produce the pot, but it would require the designers' collaboration to figure out how to get the product they wanted out of the infrastructure that was there. "That is the part of small-batch manufacturing that we're really interested in, which is where some of our skill sets come in to design for the preexisting methods of making," says Linder, "They're not souped-up, they're not high-tech there, it's just, 'This is what we have, if you want to work with it that's cool.'"

What emerged is a heavy, elegant, and still totally utilitarian pot that's meant to be used under a grill, on a campfire, or in an oven, while still having aesthetic value worthy of being displayed on a table. At $150, it's about the same price as the popular multi-use Le Creuset cookware.

Presented by

Sarah Rich and Alexis Madrigal

Sarah Rich is the editor of Smithsonian's Design Decoded blog, co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project, and a former senior editor at Dwell. Her most recent book, Urban Farms, was published in June 2012. Alexis C. Madrigal is a contributing editor for The Atlantic. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.

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