I grew up in manufacturing. Give me something -- anything -- to produce and my instinct is to spend all my time finding ways to make it more efficiently: faster, better, cheaper.

I'll try to turn five steps into one. I'll try to double the raw material yield. I'll try to ... well, I'll try to wring everything I can out of the process. That's what I do.

So when I stood in a manufacturing facility just outside Chicago and watched a machine drill 21 tiny holes into the temple tips of a glasses frames, it should come as no surprise that I said, meaning no offense, "That's crazy."

"Maybe so," I was told. "But crazy is what we do."

And maybe Scott Shapiro, one of the founders of State Optical, has a point. Forget drilling 21 holes into each side of the temple tips to display the firm's eye-catching logo. Shapiro and company decided to not just design but to manufacture their new line of frames in the U.S., and to do it at scale -- something no one else currently does.

The story starts with Europa Eyewear, a company started by Alan and Cynthia Shapiro, Scott's parents, in the 1970s. Europa imports and sells eyeglass and sunglass frames to independent retailers.

"Six years ago we started to look for a differentiator," Scott says. "Our customers were asking about products made in the U.S., but no overseas manufacturers wanted to come over and help us. They didn't even want to help train people here."

In a business climate where country of origin is important to many consumers, why weren't any companies manufacturing frames in the U.S.? "Everyone felt it was too hard and too expensive," Scott says. "So we saw that as a challenge."

In 2012, Scott met Mark Franchi and Jason Stanley, cousins who had taught themselves how to make frames and eventually built their own small shop in California. "We truly started from nothing," Mark says. "We got a booth at our first trade show without even having frames to show potential customers."

They decided to go into business together, and in 2013 the cousins moved to Chicago and walked into an empty facility with no equipment and no raw materials. They got to work, visiting overseas factories, meeting with materials suppliers, and designing some of their own equipment. Some equipment they purchased arrived without manuals or instructions -- so they figured it out.

In the meantime Blake Kuwahara, a designer and licensed optometrist (surely a rare combination), created the first designs. He focused on fashion but also on feel. "Fashion is important but fit and feel eventually matters more," Blake says. "There's that 'aah' moment when you pick up something that just feels right. There's that 'aah' moment when you wear something that just feels right. Fit and feel are no accident though -- they're a result of design."

He's right. I've worn glasses for 30 years, and State's frames do feel different. Like an iPhone "feels" right and a Trek Madone "feels" right, pick up a State frame and you can instantly tell. They feel different. They feel better. I can't quantify it, but they do.

Hence the drilled and opaque logo. Hence the specific curves and tapers built into the temples. Hence the contours built into the rims. 

And hence my concern about manufacturing efficiency, because all of those design decisions inform and impact the manufacturing process. In my experience, manufacturing -- and engineering -- work together with designers to compromise where possible and ensure a design aesthetic is achieved without making a product too complicated (meaning expensive) to manufacture. You can make the greatest widget in the world, but if it's too expensive, who cares? There are only so many potential customers for, say, a Bugatti Veyron.

But that didn't happen at State. "We looked at Blake's designs and worked hard to figure it out," Jason Stanley, the VP of manufacturing, says. "One of the advantages of building a manufacturing process from scratch is that we could find and modify equipment and create processes that support the design. We didn't have to figure out how to make the design fit into our process -- we made the process fit the design."

That process involves a number of different machines and way more hand operations; in all each frame undergoes more than 75 different steps before it's ready to ship. As I walked around the factory I kept saying, "Wait -- you're smoothing that contour by hand?" A craftsperson would say, "Yes we are, and here's why." I found myself nodding my head and agreeing, and then moving on to the next step and saying, "Wait -- you're hand polishing that frame again?"

State's manufacturing process doesn't fit my paradigm because the company is creating a different kind of product than I'm accustomed to. It works hard to achieve repeatability and conformance to exacting standards, but it also strives for a level of quality and attention to detail more befitting a Porsche than a Ford. 

That requires a different approach to manufacturing, one that involves people to an equal or greater degree than machines. My approach has always been to think automation (or human repeatability) first; State thinks about the end result first, and finds the best -- even if it's more time consuming and expensive -- way to achieve that end result.

"We're building frames," Scott says, "but ultimately we're building a brand. We want to help make the U.S. a key player in the optical industry again. Hopefully our success will inspire other startups. We're proud to be the first, but we don't want to be the only company that can say 'Made in America.'"

Published on: Feb 16, 2016
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