Exploring the Bay Area’s manufacturing ecosystem

At Jacobs Hall, students have access to a wide range of tools for design, prototyping, and fabrication, from a waterjet cutter and CNC router to advanced 3D printers. But many students aren’t as familiar with what happens when designs leave the prototyping stage and move into production at scale — what does 21st-century manufacturing look like, and where does it take place? This spring, mechanical engineering assistant professor Hayden Taylor led a new Design Innovation course, Manufacturing Field Trips, that offered students a chance to look behind the scenes of the manufacturing ecosystem in their own backyard.

Over the course of the semester, the course offered a total of 18 field trips, with each student joining for at least five of these treks to local factories, foundries, and more. After each field trip, students wrote brief reflections on what they had seen. Here, we take a look at these reflections and the themes that emerged from them.

Students visiting GU Energy (image courtesy Brian Salazar).

New perspectives on local community

One common theme heard in students’ reflections was the experience of gaining a new perspective on their local community. This took many forms: at Factory OS, for example, field trip participants heard about how the company hopes to use modular construction to help alleviate the Bay Area’s housing crisis, a topic close to home for many students. At Edward Koehn Co., Inc. in Berkeley, meanwhile, students learned the backstories behind parts made for many local businesses, while visits to companies like GU Energy expanded students’ perceptions of the range of products produced in the Bay Area.

“The Edward Koehn Company tour was a great experience! Upon arrival, the owner gave us a little history of the establishment. Interestingly enough, the facility is family-run and is owned and operated by the third generation. The facility that we toured spanned around 2000 square feet. We were able to witness Swiss CNC turning, Screw Machining and CNC Turning in action. It is interesting to know that a variety of high-volume manufactured products are made so close to home! A lot of the products and parts that are machined at the facility are for local customers. While we were there we saw a part that was machined and manufactured for the Bay Area AC Transit Buses [which many Berkeley students use]….This was my first time visiting a manufacturing facility like this and it gave me a new perspective and excitement for the field.” — Colton Nichelson

Elsewhere, students explored production in another sector — food and nutrition—and learned about how a local facility navigates production for a global market.

“I hadn’t known that GU Energy was based here in Berkeley until the signup for this tour was posted. My best friends and I have been enjoying their Stroopwafels since they launched in 2016, so it was surprising to find out that so many of their products (though primarily their energy gels) were produced locally. They gave us a two-part tour of their office and processing facility, and while both were fairly small, enclosed in an inconspicuous building, there was a lot going on.
I was surprised to find out that they make a majority of the gels sold internationally on site and simply in rotation between flavors — talk about efficiency. The gels are labelled and packaged differently based on the laws of the country they’re being distributed to, and it was interesting to tangibly see what some countries prioritize on their food labels. I was also pleased to hear that they diligently collect and recycle all of their test and scrap packaging, unlike many companies who dispose of them for convenience.” — Jocelyn Kim
Autodesk’s Pier 9 facility (image via Instructables)

Integrating hardware and software

Although popular conceptions of manufacturing often center on hardware and mechanical tools, many of today’s manufacturing centers tightly link hardware with software, creating an integrated environment for fabrication. Students explored the latest developments in this space by visiting Autodesk’s Pier 9 facility, a workshop for design and digital manufacturing in which the company experiments with new fabrication methods.

“The most surprising part of the tour for me was getting to know how machine learning is being used in manufacture and architecture these days. For example, we crossed a bridge they made above their waterjets, which was made using their generative design process. It also incorporated machine learning to learn the stress parameters, and ensure that the bridge remained balanced….I was really intrigued by knowing how machine learning is being used for automation, whereby robots are self-learning parameters involved in manufacturing. It was an ideal tour for me, whereby I got to witness how software interacts with large-scale production and design.” — Keshav Beriwala

Other students shared this interest in generative design and its potential implications.

“We were shown all of Autodesk’s manufacturing machines, including a massive waterjet and an assortment of 3D printers. I found the CAD software that uses machine learning to have the software make the part for you (generative design) extremely interesting. It makes us ask the question if we will even need humans to make designs in the future. Generative design also produces beautiful parts that seem as though they could have been found in the wild.
It really surprised me that they had a massive woodworking shop. I thought Autodesk only worked on designing software before the trip. It was really interesting to see how designing software and actually manufacturing parts connected at Autodesk.” — Xander White

R&D and manufacturing

While many students are familiar with R&D and prototyping within the context of a makerspace, several field trips provided an opportunity to see how labs and companies conduct R&D with advanced technologies, whether for academic outputs, product development projects, or open-ended innovation initiatives. Here in Berkeley, students saw how a machine shop supports scientists’ research projects at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL).

“The LBNL machine shop was incredible. This place is a Disneyland for makers. They have a huge variety of machinery, ranging from sub-micron tolerance EDM machines to a 70-something inch vertical lathe! This gigantic vertical lathe was definitely the most surprising thing I saw. I had no idea lathes of that size existed, and to see the enormity of it in person was pretty breathtaking. I’d really like to see one of these things hack away at a huge hunk of metal some day. I assume it’s a somewhat terrifying experience, but the good kind of terrifying.” — Brett Bussell

Further afield, students explored R&D in a corporate context when they visited Flex, which works with companies to deliver “sketch-to-scale” solutions. While the Flex team primarily works on focused projects for customers, students also enjoyed seeing their more open-ended experiments.

“I was pleasantly mind-blown throughout the visit as we explored multiple buildings that housed everything from microelectronics to wearables to experiments with no real application at the present moment….I personally found these ‘useless’ experiments the most interesting — they were all ideated and designed in the innovation lab that exists for the sole purpose of creating to learn, not necessarily creating for use. They have this lab to build up the company-wide knowledge for future projects that may require such technologies. My favorite projects were a digital thermos that harnesses the heat from liquid poured into it for power and a clothes hanger meant to charge wearable clothing conveniently.” — Jocelyn Kim

21st-century manufacturing at scale

A highlight for many students was visiting Tesla’s Fremont factory. For a number of students, this visit brought together the themes they had explored in other tours, providing a look at 21st-century manufacturing at a large scale. While they couldn’t take photos or share specifics, students reflected on the experience.

Inside Tesla’s factory (image via Wikipedia)
“Inside the Fremont facility, we were given the opportunity to check out every stage of the production of the world’s most sought-after electrical cars. The general organization, or IEOR [industrial engineering and operations research], of the factory appeared to be as amazing as its products. The various departments were connected organically and smooth transitions were observed along the streamline. The machinery working on the assembly line also intrigued me deeply with their scale and strength.” — Adela Li

Some students were struck by how Tesla had integrated different technologies and systems in its approach to production.

“This is the finest crystallization of what was often referred to as Industry 3.0, the utilization and centralization of electronics and informatics in the manufacturing process. What’s more, Tesla is trying to accomplish, and [has] almost achieved, the ultimate goal of automobile production, which is to produce all the parts of a car in a single facility.” — Yue Feng

Others pointed to how this carefully engineered facility, and a focus on in-house manufacturing, had allowed the company to scale up and boost its impact.

“Visiting the Tesla factory was by far the most interesting and entertaining tour I had the pleasure of participating in this semester. It was very pleasing to get a peek into the manufacturing world of a company that believes heavily in in-house processing and pushing a goal of universal sustainable energy. Being that this company began as a small car start-up, it’s astonishing to see how far they have come in terms of manufacturing volume and quality of product.” — Alexander Zapata

Interested in design and fabrication, from initial sketch to the factory floor? Learn more about Design Innovation courses and other offerings at Jacobs Hall.

By Laura Mitchell