In 2010, newly graduated architect Tim Barnes was on a steep learning curve. Recruited by Philadelphia-based design studio Shiftspace, part of his remit was to identify metal fabricators to work with the company’s outdoor furniture brand, Shift. 

‘I had to deal with a group of people who had this very specialised knowledge,’ recalls Tim, now Shift’s creative director. ‘One of them said he was teaching me the “dark arts” of sheet metal. I was just trying to understand the machinery. From there, we saw the potential out there – this American workforce that’s a little bit hidden from view.’

Building on a framework

Establishing a national network of metal fabricators was key to engaging in what Tim refers to as low-waste ‘nodal’ manufacturing: setting up production of Shift’s made-to-order industrial picnic benches, bistro chairs and outdoor accessories as geographically close to the customer as possible while creating all of the computerised design work from the Shift HQ in Philadelphia.

‘It can sound high-tech because we’re talking about digital CAD/CAM – computer-aided design and manufacturing – but if you look at the landscape of machine shops and metalworking facilities across the US, a lot of them have had this technology for around 50 years,’ says Tim. 

By tapping into that network of industry experts, Shift has been able to achieve a strong national reach of some 80 to 90 workshops to cover its key supply areas – plus it has built a contact book of some 1,000 more workshops to call upon as and when needed.

See also: The new landscape for manufacturing

Quality not quantity

Managing manufacturers from afar is not without its challenges. ‘A lot of the workshops we work with have traditionally produced parts for the military and automotive industry, so they are very technically proficient. The difficulty can happen more in the finishing,’ says Tim. 

Ensuring that Shift delivers smooth welds, clean powder coatings and zero orange-peel finishes means staying hands on for the first few times a product is made, overproducing drawings for clarity and maintaining a regular flow of virtual correspondence. On the plus side, producing designs in small batches via digital tools has enabled Shift to be more agile, working directly with their customers on colour matches and customisations. 

‘In some respects, because we’re providing the technical files, all the shop has to do is push print,’ says Tim. ‘They’re really just overseeing. We don’t have to have them create a shop drawing that we then approve or any of that back and forth.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 39, February/March 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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