News
02.27.2012
Industrial Revolution
Southern California emerges again as an architectural manufacturing center.
Working with glass and steel at Enclos' Pomona factory.
Courtesy Enclos

You probably assume that every architectural product you specify, from glass to lighting to metal, is produced in China or India. After all, that’s where all products are made nowadays, right? Wrong. In fact Southern California, which has a long history of industrial clout, is holding its own as a center for architectural production. There’s even growth in some areas as manufacturers recognize what Southern California has to offer: higher-skilled labor, lower shipping costs, and quicker turnarounds.

“The tide has shifted and people who build domestically may win in the long run,” said Steve Nadell, president at Troy-CSL Lighting, which opened a new factory in the City of Industry about a year ago. The 200,000-square-foot facility, which is leaps and bounds cleaner than what you might imagine, produces recessed lighting, LED fixtures, and landscape lighting, among other things. The factory uses cutting-edge equipment like CNC lathes and robotic welders to help offset the higher price of labor. “We just banged out a custom job of 1,100 pieces and it took two hours. It would have been days upon days doing it manually,” explained Nadell.

 
One of C.R. Laurence's several manufacturing facilities in Vernon (left) and Curtain wall assembly at the Enclos facility in Pomona (right).
Courtesy C.R. Laurence and Enclos
 

The facility has numerous advantages over the company’s other factory in the Philippines: it allows the outfit to produce large products that just can’t fit in shipping crates; it produces custom fixtures that the company can’t engineer effectively overseas; it allows for production and delivery in a matter of days, not weeks or months; and it creates the highest-quality components of all of its operations.

“We think that great product basically always wins. We’re very focused on design and engineering,” said Nadell.

While other companies, said Nadell, are “100 percent at the mercy of vendors and of countries with volatile currency rates, laws, and politics, we’re taking control of our own destiny.”

Troy is not the only one. A 2011 study by Boston Consultant Group shows that investment in U.S. manufacturing is beginning to accelerate as the country becomes one of the cheapest locations for manufacturing in the developed world.

And while there has been a steep drop-off in manufacturing in the past two decades, the U.S. is still the largest manufacturing economy in the world, making up 21 percent of all globally manufactured products.

While traditional manufacturing is still in decline, recent growth, points out Kim Ritter-Martinez, an economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC), comes from higher-skilled jobs and more sophisticated products. “We have to be that much more productive and concentrate on more high-tech innovative industries,” she said. That’s the case in recession-battered California, which nonetheless is still the number one state in the U.S. for manufacturing employment, providing over 1.2 million jobs, or more than 10 percent of the jobs in the country, according to the LAEDC.

Architectural products are following the national trend, especially because architecture and other building trades often depend on customized products that can be produced on order and changed equally quickly. Near LA, product makers gravitate to places where land prices, zoning, location, and tax structures favor production. Plus they like the company of their own.

“I think most people don’t think anything gets made in Los Angeles. But Vernon, Industry, and Commerce are all very vibrant manufacturing centers,” said Lloyd Talbert, president and COO of C.R. Laurence, a hardware specialist that has been located in LA since the 1960s and started to focus on custom architectural products—like handrail systems, perforated panels, and aluminum storefront systems—in the past few years. Their new 310,000-square-foot facility, which opened last July, is among five the company owns in Vernon.

 
Computer-controlled fabrication at Troy-CSL Lighting's factory in City of Industry (left) and welding at C.R. Laurence's Vernon facility (right).
Courtesy Troy/CSL and C.R. Laurence
 

The size of the new plant—which fits plant workers, engineers, drafters, and even sales staff in the same facility—allows for ease of interaction among all players. “Communication should be frictionless,” said Talbert, who points out that building sites constantly have questions and problems and can now talk to the “brainpower,” aka the engineers, on the plant floor nearby, not in another country. His company is able to get its products to building and architectural firms almost instantly and deliver fixes just as fast.

Technology in the company’s new facility includes CNC lathes, brake presses and routers, laser cutters, water-jet cutters, and robotic welders, most of which are preprogrammed by on-site engineers, meaning that workers basically have to just set things up and press a button.

The company still produces about 20 percent of its products overseas. But none of that work can be shipped or distributed as quickly in the U.S. Indeed, location is everything in the highly customized world of architecture and construction, especially when the products are a lot bigger than a trinket from Target.

Enclos, a curtain wall manufacturer that still outsources much of its materials, assembles all of its West Coast curtain wall units at its factory in Pomona, including the entire curtain wall for Gensler’s Ritz-Carlton JW Marriott tower at LA Live. They only had to ship it a few miles.

“It’s not uncommon for people to ship parts to China, where they’re assembled and then shipped all the way back. It’s crazy,” said Mic Patterson, director of strategic development for Enclos.

Patterson dreams of the day when manufacturing will be carried out on-site through a group of trailers that contain their own factories inside. The trailers would be assembled using “auto-assemble robotic technology” to produce units faster.

Of course, that vision is still a ways off. Closer to home, some dreams of manufacturing have come true. “You have to find that niche that works,” said C.R. Laurence’s Talbert. “For us it was the rapid customization and last mile of distribution. It’s a tremendous investment. We look at it as a big competitive advantage that’s hard to match.”

Sam Lubell