How to Build a Spoon
By JOE NOCERA
Published: April 26, 2013 79 Comments
I have seen the future, and it is in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
I’ve seen young entrepreneurs creating companies that actually make things — not some digital app (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) — but actual products you can hold in your hand. I have seen prototypes being churned out on 3-D printers. I have seen the Navy Yard’s 300-acre complex of buildings — whose disrepair was once a symbol of manufacturing’s decline — become a symbol of manufacturing’s revival.
Sorry to sound so highfalutin, but it is easy to get carried away after you’ve been to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It offers something you don’t often feel these days when you contemplate the future of the American economy, with its loss of middle-class jobs and the widening of the income gap.
It allows you to feel hopeful again.
I went there this week because I had gotten interested in Spuni, a little start-up that was operating out of a development called New Lab — essentially shared space in one of the Navy Yard’s buildings for entrepreneurs and artists. (To be more precise, David Belt, New Lab’s developer, is using temporary space in the Navy Yard to house his tenants, while he refurbishes some 85,000 square feet in the old naval machine shop.)
Spuni is a product dreamed up in the Boston kitchen of Isabel and Trevor Hardy. The 30-something parents of two small children, they got to mulling the mess that William, their first child, made as he was transitioning from a bottle to a spoon.
“We both have design backgrounds,” said Isabel, “and we were trained to solve problems by using simple design solutions.” The problem, the Hardys concluded, was that spoons are poorly designed for small children. As they bite into the spoon, the food in the back half has nowhere to go but the floor. One day, as they were kicking around this idea with their friend Marcel Botha, a serial entrepreneur who shares a South African heritage with Trevor, they came up with the idea of a flatter-shaped, more ergonomical spoon that would allow a baby to suck the food off it.
Trevor and Isabel have full-time jobs. Once upon a time, their little idea would have remained just that — an idea. But Marcel, who had considerable small-manufacturing experience, was convinced that they could create a company to make the Spuni, as they quickly named it. First sketched in the spring of 2011, the Spuni saw its first prototype within two months. Using a 3-D printer, they went through a half-dozen prototype iterations until they felt they had the Spuni and its packaging exactly right.
To raise capital, they relied on crowd-sourcing, generating almost $38,000 by preselling Spunis on the Web site Indiegogo. Marcel, meanwhile, cut a deal with a small German manufacturer he had used before. When we spoke on Friday, he was just returning from Germany, where he had supervised the first quality tests. Within weeks, some 8,000 Spunis will be available for purchase. Marcel expects to be manufacturing 600,000 Spunis within a year’s time. If all goes according to plan, Spuni will be churning out around one million spoons a year by 2015.
The role of the Navy Yard is as an incubator of companies like Spuni. Andrew Kimball, who runs the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, a nonprofit with a 99-year lease from the city, told me that between public and private investment, around $1 billion has been raised to make the Navy Yard a destination for small entrepreneurs and other members of the creative class. According to a recent study by the Pratt Center for Community Development, the companies in the Navy Yard have been responsible for $2 billion in direct economic output and another $2 billion in indirect economic benefits. Kimball says there is a waiting list of 150 companies trying to get space in one of the Navy Yard’s buildings. “It’s cool to make things again,” he said.
Still, for all this glorious activity, the Navy Yard companies employ only 6,400 people. That’s up from 3,600 in 2001, but it is a far cry from the 70,000 men who once built ships during the Navy Yard’s muscular manufacturing heyday. That, of course, is the downside of the manufacturing revival in the U.S. — it simply doesn’t create the number of jobs that the old-style assembly lines used to. When I asked the Spuni founders how many employees they would need in the U.S. if they got to 600,000 in annual production, the number stunned me: 10. In Germany, the factory, at peak production, would probably not need more than 20 employees.
Marcel told me that his goal is to create a small manufacturing center in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He would like to employ 100 or more people and produce a variety of products, not just Spunis. This is the model of modern American manufacturing.
Welcome to the future.