A New Age of Small-Batch American Manufacturing

In a once-crumbling city with a storied manufacturing legacy, American production is starting anew. And the rest of the country is catching on.


he popular images of Detroit – abandoned homes, factories in disrepair, cracked pavement, desolate landscapes – are a bleak reminder that the city has seen better days. Despite the powerful manufacturing legacy, its economic strength has been in a nose dive for decades with an unemployment rate that peaked at nearly 28% in 2009. The population has dwindled to less than 40% of its peak in 1950, and the city's recent bankruptcy filing reflects a deep, systemic problem in the local economy, plus a harsh visualization of the country’s changing priorities.

The storied Argonaut Building in Detroit, home to two full, sprawling floors of Shinola's production facilities.

It’s a complicated issue, since manufacturing decline can be tied to increased efficiency or shifting economic focuses, which aren’t necessarily bad things. Moving from an industrial to a post-industrial society necessitates these kinds of growing pains, according to economists, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach for local economies and the craftspeople looking for honest work. For them, the evaporation of manufacturing positions hits hard when you consider that 33%, or 5.7 million of the country’s manufacturing jobs were lost between 2000 and 2010. Even taking into account a post-industrial shift in economic priorities, the job losses have been unexpectedly sudden and severe, calling into question the role of domestic production in the 21st century.

Daniel Caudill doesn't seem to mind the intimidating numbers. He's the creative director at Detroit-based watchmaker Shinola, part of a new breed of companies committed to making stylish, durable products here in the US.

"We were looking for a place that had manufacturing in its blood,” he says. “There’s a history, a work ethic, and an inherent sensibility here that’s just a part of the culture, because of the car industry.”

Shinola needs all the manufacturing spirit they can get, too: in addition to their watches, they also meticulously handcraft bicycles and leather goods, as well as curating a lineup of products from small workshops around the country. The company sees Detroit for its possibilities and history, rather than the run-down streets and empty homes.

Shinola is located on a 30,000 square-foot floor of Detroit’s College of Creative Studies, with a state-of-the-art watch movement and assembly layout. The huge, historic building was originally built as the General Motors Research Laboratory in the '20s, but the car parts have been replaced by Shinola's pressurized, glass-enclosed studio that's so clean and pristine it’d make a surgeon blush.

That means the products that come out are top-of-the-line, with an obsessive commitment to detail. The production is set to double in size, too, as Shinola expands to a second floor in order to build their own in-house leather factory to supplement the business they do with domestic tanners.

Admittedly, locally made goods may cost a few bucks more, but according to Caudill, the market doesn’t seem to mind: “You can really see right now that there’s a shift in consumer priorities. People want to know who's making their product, and where it’s coming from. They want to know the components.”

The numbers back him up, too. Thanks in part to subsidies and rising labor costs overseas, some production has slowly and cautiously returned stateside. Manufacturing’s contribution to GDP rose for three consecutive years between 2009 and 2011, and though the gains are small, it marks the first consistent rise since the peak of domestic manufacturing in 1953. Companies are returning to the states and opening new factory floors, taking advantage of tax breaks and negotiated union contracts that add up to a competitive bottom line – along with a small boost to the country’s manufacturing spirit.

The same also applies for American designers, metalsmiths, and craftsmen of all kinds who are creating tough, covetable products domestically, like TM1985, Ebbets Field Flannels, Machine Era, Bison Made, and plenty more. Americans, as Caudill says, have an appreciation for the kind of careful, consistent craft where quality is at the forefront – the kind that lets you buy a product to last for the next five years, rather than the next five months. And as an added bonus to the manufacturers, their products can be fine-tuned and quality-controlled to perfection since you don't have to board a flight to visit the factory, or wait weeks to review samples.

"People want to know who is making their product, and where it’s coming from. They want to know the components.”

For example, Adam Blitzer, who makes durable travel goods under the label Blue Claw Co., uses factories that are in Minneapolis and New Jersey. So when he gets last-minute input or a spark of inspiration, the designs can be changed at the last second – adding a pocket here, or changing a rivet there – to make sure the finished product is just so.

Local factories like that make constant oversight possible, so that quality assurance managers at both shops can watch over the process from start to finish to make sure that everything is up to par. And then there are the materials: the brass hardware on Blue Claw’s designs, for example, comes from a domestic manufacturer since the higher end options aren’t available overseas.

While the heavy hitters like G.E. – who recently overhauled a sprawling Louisville factory to produce a choice few of their appliances domestically – lead the way in the numbers game, smaller labels have captured the made-in-America ethos and have hit the right chord with today’s market.

For guys who want to wear Cone Mills selvedge denim from North Carolina, a belt made from Chicago’s Horween leather, and Alden wingtips from Massachusetts, the pride of locally-made goods with an American history outshines the higher price tags. Shinola is determined to capitalize on that in Detroit by restoring the once-celebrated city to its manufacturing glory, and like-minded companies the country over are producing some of the most covetable goods out there to showcase sharply designed American products.

So far, they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it.

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