As a young industrial designer fresh out of school, David Laituri worked at General Motors. “There were American cars and there were foreign cars, and if you had a Honda, you had to park it in the far parking lot,” he says. That was the 1980s.
By the late 1990s, when he worked at Polaroid, the company’s manufacturing managers would travel to China to oversee production, but film, high-end cameras, and medical devices were still made domestically. By the time Laituri took a job at Brookstone in 2004, “Everything was made in Asia. You had the buyers, the designers, the marketers hanging out with manufacturers there.”
This year, Laituri is launching an intriguing project called Onehundred. He and his son Calvin, a freshman at Wayland High School, are working to design 100 simple products that will be manufactured by firms within 100 miles of Wayland. All the items in the series will be 100 percent crowd-funded, which means they won’t go into production until a sufficient number of people commit to purchasing them on the funding site Kickstarter.
“It’s an experiment,” Laituri says. “Making things locally means that we can have face-to-face contact with the manufacturer. You get to know them. A community gets created.”
Kickstarter isn’t just about peddling a product, it’s about getting people to invest in the story of those who conceive products, and how they’re going to make them real. (Some $625 million has been raised on the site since it was launched in 2009.) And there are a growing number of instances, like Onehundred, where making things locally is part of that story.
A Needham start-up called Kenai Sports is recruiting backers on Kickstarter for “yoga pants to save the planet.” The fabric is made from fiber similar to polyester or Spandex, says founder Phil Tepfer, but it’s produced from recycled yogurt cups, plastic bottles, and coconut shells. The pants are cut and sewn by contract manufacturers in Fall River and Montreal, and a new plant in Massachusetts will soon begin making Kenai’s fabric, Tepfer says. (The company’s primary business is selling uniforms made from recycled material to institutional customers like college athletic teams and police departments, he says.)
“In the wake of things like the Bangladesh factory collapse, you’re going to see a very strong movement over the next five years toward wanting to know where the things you buy actually come from,” Tepfer says. But the products aren’t cheap: The yoga pants are $89, and a quick-dry, antimicrobial T-shirt is $50.
Another ongoing Kickstarter campaign from a Roxbury company, Project Repat, bemoans the textile jobs that have vanished from the United States over the past two decades, “and all of the big businesses that sit on their cash and don’t use it to help out other entrepreneurs.” The company takes nostalgic keepsakes — an individual’s old T-shirts, from concerts or charity runs — and “upcycles” them into new items like blankets, neckties, or tote bags. (A five-foot by six-foot blanket is $139; a tie is $40.)
Chief executive Ross Lohr says the company is on track to sell $1 million worth of transformed T-shirt products in 2013, its first full year of operations. Project Repat has sold 10,000 blankets since launching that product last March, Lohr says. And everything is made in Fall River or Lawrence.
“This gives people a way to support bringing textile and manufacturing jobs back to the USA, just by buying a product they want,” says Lohr. Besides, he adds, “logistically it makes sense,” since it would be expensive to collect T-shirts in the United States, ship them to Asia to be processed, and then ship them back.
The first product in Laituri’s Onehundred line is what he calls a “rechargeable thermal battery” — basically, a small cylinder of stainless steel that you keep in your freezer until you need it to cool a drink. Unlike ice cubes, the Puc doesn’t dilute a beverage as it cools it. Sounds a little wacky? Laituri and his son set out to collect $2,500 on Kickstarter to produce a small run. But they’ve already come close to $66,000 in sales, with a few days remaining in the campaign. (Every project on Kickstarter has a pre-set fund-raising deadline, to add a sense of urgency.)
The Pucs will be made at Howard Precision Products in Framingham, a machine shop that traces its roots back to 1842, when it was making clocks and scales. Laituri says he has visited other producers — a brick factory in Connecticut, a chair factory in Gardner — to come up with ideas for future products. The next ones might be a bird feeder or combination iPhone case/wallet.
Laituri says that Onehundred isn’t a political statement about “made in the USA.” “I’m agnostic about making things in China,” he says. (Another business he runs, Vers Audio, makes home audio gear there.)
But Kickstarter’s still-evolving ethos is sort of like shopping at a farmer’s market and getting to meet the people who grow the carrots you’re buying. Laituri sees the site creating “a tight circle” among “people who conceive, buy, and produce things.”
By backing a project on the site, you get to feel good about supporting someone who is trying to do something new. And there’s even more of a warm fuzzy if it’s something that will be made domestically.
For product creators, not all of them as seasoned as Laituri, there are advantages to working with production facilities they can drive to. While this is still a nascent trend, I think it could have a noticeable impact on manufacturing jobs in the years ahead.Scott Kirsner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.