It once launched warships during both World Wars, a gritty manufacturing hub that could have served as the backdrop for Rosie the Riveter. But the array of colorful cubicles, reserved black paint, and 3D printing machines now inside the this waterfront site suggest at least this portion of the Brooklyn Navy Yard has been renovated for the high-tech era.
The New Lab, a new 84,000-square-foot manufacturing site, stands as both an optimistic view on the future of industry and New York City’s most recent big bet on economic development. Originally built in 1902 as a shipbuilding facility, the space, which officially opens on September 24, offers some obvious symbolism; amid a forest of curated indoor plants, a fancy cafe featuring the work of up-and-coming chefs, and multihued work stations for laptops, the rugged cranes from decades past, which used to haul ship part, hangs overhead. Whether it can live up the the hype and expectations remains to be seen.
The selling point, according to David Belt, the developer behind this massive public-private partnership, is providing the kind of connections and shared resources that make software startups successful to new, high-tech manufacturing companies. New Lab provides space to a curated list of firms working in hardware, robotics, connected devices, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and smart city tech (as part of the Urban Tech NYC program), offering differing degrees of membership, from access to shared workspaces to permanent offices (studio spaces range from 1,000 to 10,000 square feet).
"Hardware is difficult to do anywhere, and especially in New York," says Belt. "Something like a makerspace or a hacker space doesn’t provide enough for these companies."
Belt, who runs the Macro Sea development company, first saw the site in 2011, a massive empty shell, and thought this space could be both preserved and utilized for today’s workers. He was inspired by the multidisciplinary ideals of famous schools such as Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, seeking to create a collaborative workspace that doesn't look like a stale, Silicon Valley stereotype. Designed with Marvel Architects, New Lab makes a deliberate nod to the past with its vast chasm of open space that bisects the building; maintaining the original layout of a shipbuilding hub makes things less efficient, but also makes a better case for historic preservation tax credits.
In addition to working in a space with peers in the tech and hardware worlds, New Lab's other big advantage for companies is the expensive shared workspaces, including fully-stocked wood and metal shops, CNC machines, digital lathes, and a huge 3D printer from a German company called BigRep that can print full-size furniture. Founders and designers get a high-end shop with all the gear they need for prototyping and testing out ideas, ideally allowing for quicker ideation and innovation, according to Belt.
Many of the tenants, who moved in earlier this summer, echo that sentiment. Francis Bitonti, founder and President of Studio Bitonti, a design firm that focuses on high tech manufacturing, says he was attracted by the caliber of talent at New Lab. He had been leasing another space in New York, but after spending a few months in the new Brooklyn facility taking advantage of the millions of dollars worth of high-tech equipment for testing and prototyping, he canceled lease on the other space.
"Not every idea you have works, but at New Lab, at least I have the ability to test things out," he says. "This places gives me room to play.
Sean Patterson, the CEO/Founder of StrongArm Technologies, which develops ergonomic robotics meant to assist industrial workers—think a harness-like exoskeleton that allows workers to carry heavier devices longer—also feels New Lab can help foster growth in New York’s manufacturing economy at large. Producers such as StrongArm that make specialized, limited-run products don’t benefit as much from the economies of scale that often send business to China, and instead need quick, efficient, and local work-for-hire. His team often contracts out work to machine shops and other businesses in New York and New Jersey, and he sees other New Lab tenants doing the same thing.
The space also seems comfortable, despite the mammoth dimensions, and relatively quiet, even with the cavernous, 70-foot-tall ceilings (engineering firm Arup consulted on sound design). The main floor contains banks of colorful cubicles amid the building’s black steel frame, as well as a cafe and lounge (done up in curvy, ‘70s-era Italian furniture and a custom infinity mirror bar). The second and third floors contain additional workspace and studios, with similar splashes of color. Typing away on a cubicle on the second floor, it can feel like working inside a college football stadium during off season.
Of course, the idea of this space is to not only support existing jobs, but to create many, many more by giving new companies space to expand and survive post-startup growing pains. The city hopes New Lab can help it meet its lofty goal to create 15,000 jobs in the Navy Yards by 2020, and gave plenty to the effort/ The 10-month redesign cost roughly $30 million, $12 million of which was public support and tax credits from the city and state.
Currently, 27 firms work at New Lab. Full capacity will be between 50 and 60 firms, and Belt expects to expand into other buildings on the Navy Yard site in the near future. Belt pointed to some of the other massive structures in the Navy yards and explained that this additional empty space will hopefully be filled by companies that "graduate." New Lab helps them become growth stage companies.
"We want to be a catalyst for a whole range of industries that support the firms here, such as design and advertising," says Belt. "New York is never going to be able to compete on cheap wages, but as manufacturing becomes more locally distributed, we can absolutely compete in terms of innovation and design."