Produce locally, cheaply and favor the human factor? This is the challenge taken on by the workshop-store Unto This Last in London, pioneer of digital handcrafted furniture production.
London, from our correspondent (text and photos)
Even though artists’ workshops disappeared a long time ago in Shoreditch, arty and highly gentrified district of East London, in favor of the service industry, Unto This Last is putting up resistance. Set up in the neighborhood fifteen years ago, this furniture manufacturer takes the hybrid form of a workshop-store where one produces furniture in the place it will be sold. “Local is logical,” is printed on the employees’ t-shirts.
The trading name, Unto This Last, was chosen in reference to the essay carrying the same name, written by John Ruskin in 1860. A book that questions the economists’ capitalist ideas—Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill…—and calls for a convivial social organization, based on justice, sharing and collaboration. The text, very controversial when it was published, largely inspired the Arts and Crafts movement in the UK and was even translated by Gandhi. “I determined to change my life in accordance with the ideas of the book,” wrote the Indian leader in his autobiography.
“We don’t wait for machines”
In London, the SMB reinvests the idea of industrial manufacturing on a local scale, in the heart of the city, and relies on its dozen employees to make its revolution. Is Unto This Last the perfect example of a fabcity where industry is relocated in the city, on a human scale, thanks to digital fabrication? A few days away from the Fab City Summit in Paris, we met the team.
“When we set up the business, there was a strong emphasis on digital fabrication,” says Elodie Le Roy, in charge of production (and of French origin). “CNCs were quite new and we thought that technology would allow us to produce and make furniture locally at competitive prices. But there is a limit to this model.” First, competitors of Unto This Last equipped themselves progressively with the same CNC. We then started to realize that everyone was doing the same thing, that the offer was in fact rather limited and that we were not addressing clients’ needs.” Secondly, even the simplest machines require some degree of maintenance, which can create a “funnel effect”. “We cannot wait for the machines,” explains Elodie.
Since then, the team has focused on the “human scale”, discarded the machines and returned by and large to hand made work. “It seems counter-intuitive to go back to human fabrication rather than letting the machine do the job, but it makes much more sense in terms of quality of work, production and yield.” A good example of this is the Lean Chair, a chair with a simple design, one of the starter prices of the furniture store (£69, €78,50) and its most popular product. With the CNC, one machine hour was required for eight chairs, then twelve minutes per chair for the assembly, details the production manager. “In other terms, we had to wait for the machine.” By using lighter tools such as the router, Elodie Le Roy was able to simplify production and decrease the cutting time to eighteen minutes per chair and fourteen minutes for the assembly, while reducing the risk of errors and broadening the finishing choices. Facing the machine, the human being is therefore often “more precise, clearer, faster.”
In fact, in the workshop, nearly everything is home made and hand made; the clock, the garbage cans and even the ventilation system. “If you know how to make it, you know how to maintain or repair it.”
Optimization and stylish assembly
Forget the romantic vision of the carpenter and the powerful and patient wood work. Even if the workshop is highly Instagram friendly, here, the watchword is optimization. “We are not Ikea. We are not on the same scale, nor do we have the same constraints. We try to do mass production at competitive prices in an urban environment.” Prices incidentally, are not that far from the Swedish giant—except for entry level products. From £69 for a chair, £200 (€227) for a table and less than £100 (€113) for a shelving unit. Reasonable prices that ensue from a manufacturing process where the slightest waste is tracked down. They generate a turnover of about £1 million (€1.14 million). “We are very data focused and we analyze our data a lot: Where the waste is, how much time each task takes, how to break down each product in simple competences and how to optimize them.”
The process must not only be effective, it also has to be “elegant and comfortable,” explains Elodie. “Not all employees are carpenters. We do not require work experience in wood to jin us. All we ask is to have a brain that functions and be interested in the project.” The workshop is also open to the public and visible from the store. A noteworthy fact, it welcomes many women in the production process. “We do not want a violent assembly where the parts are hammered together. We want an intelligent system, at workbench level, that doesn’t break your back.”
Producing in the heart of the city center can be restrictive. The “elegant” manufacturing processes have thus allowed to reduce noise, while home extraction is “more powerful than the extraction on the market” and limits the dust to a minimum, assure Elodie. In order to reduce the need for space, the workshop delivers the product as soon as it finished, without packaging, and recently on bicycle, in partnership with the London company Pedal Me.
Unto This Last is also experimenting new processes to optimize space, like a vertical press. “A common preconception implies that furniture manufacturing has a strong footprint. But it isn’t the case.” Mainly, “there is demand, assure the production manager. People want jobs that make sense, that are intellectually challenging and this is what we offer.”
Unto This Last is reflecting upon duplicating its model. The company is in discussions with the governmental body Innovate UK to obtain a grant and explore future partnerships. “Regarding manufacturing and production systems, we found a lot of inspiration at Toyota,” says Elodie, who reminds us that the Japanese company “invented Lean production,” or “management without waste”. The team even visited one of their engine factories in Wales. “It was nearly shocking. We expected to see mad machines, but in fact there are very little robots, it is managed in a very simple manner, with a lot of data, Excel sheets and a few paper posters.” Would the 2019 trend be less is more?
Unto This Last will be present at the Fab City Summit, in Paris, on July 12 for a round table at 1.30pm, “New forms of making an impact, while making business”