“There’s No Place Like Home” for Littman Brands Lighting
When Elaine Culotti, a Los Angeles-based designer of high-end residential homes, needed an eye-catching light fixture for the entryway of a home with a rustic aesthetic, she selected the Rockstar, a pendant light made of agate stones and hand-crafted metal with a gold leaf finish.
That light, a core product in the Corbett line from Littman Brands Lighting, was manufactured in the company’s factory in the Philippines, where 500 employees steeped in a design and crafts culture hand-craft the fixtures with metals, shells, woods, and fabric.
May Poon, design director at Dallas-based Wilson Associates, was looking for something quite different from the hand-crafted Rockstar when she created Mikko, an origami-inspired, sculptural light fixture made of powder-coated aluminum scales for her company’s charitable foundation. She turned to the custom manufacturing team at the Littman-owned Troy-Creative Systems Lighting (CSL) factory in Los Angeles County’s City of Industry because staff at this 250-person factory can fabricate complex custom designs.
While the intricate fixtures are fabricated and finished in the Philippines, at Troy, “we combine hand-craftsmanship with technology,” says Steve Nadell, president of Troy-CSL Lighting at Littman, a family-owned company that encompasses the Corbett Lighting, Troy Lighting, Hudson Valley Lighting, and CSL brands. “All I did,” explains Poon, “was make a little doodle and send it to Troy-CSL. Within less than two weeks, Nicolas Baldoni (manager of design and engineering) came back with computer models for it. Then, he took a couple more weeks to work up a prototype.” This kind of collaboration is made possible by keeping some manufacturing in the United States. “Most everybody has moved their businesses off-shore. We’ve tried to take more and more of it back here,” says Nadell.
“Here” means a 250,000-square-foot building located in a blue-collar, low-rise neighborhood some 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The factory, which was built five years ago, is physically almost identical to the Philippines plant. Under its roof are corporate offices, a manufacturing and stocking facility, and a product showroom. The goal, says Giancarlo Roio, the plant manager, is to “complete one fixture from beginning to end.”
The Italian-born Roio got his start at Littman in 1994 in the paint department, and now oversees around 120 shop floor workers. While conducting a tour of the huge, airy factory floor, he proudly explains every detail of the fabrication process.
It starts at the large doorway where raw materials first arrive: sheet, tubing, extrusion, coil, aluminum steel, stainless steel, galvanized steel, copper, and brass. From there, these materials work their way through a production line arranged in a horseshoe shape, according to Roio, and subdivided into north, west, south, and east.
Materials first go through quality control, then machinists prepare them for milling into component parts. Roio points to two large laser machines, a computer numeric control (CNC) milling station, a CNC brake press, and a CNC cold saw—all purchased within the last five years.
Next comes the hand assembly of component parts. That is the job of experienced sheet metal workers clad in protective gear. They pass off the fixtures to the painters, who powder coat the products by hand or in an automated spray booth. Then comes drying, finishing, and packing. Finally, packers box up the completed fixtures and place them on vertiginously high shelves, ready for shipping out.
The process is tracked every step of the way. “Once we receive the raw material,” says Roio, “it is put in inventory in a dedicated bin, each with its own bin location so you can track material live, whether it’s on the floor, on the rack, or in WIP [work in progress].”
This tracking is about to get even more precise, as the company readies for the March installation of a new SAP inventory tracking system. It will unite the tracking information in the two factories, with the goals of keeping customers informed and further increasing the output of this company that currently ships around 600 units per day.
All of this computerized efficiency necessitates people who can run, maintain, and program the machines. While the majority of the hires at the company are sheet metal operators, “you are not just cutting the metal with your hands anymore,” says Tommy Vargas, CNC machinist. “You have to be able to machine it with a CNC machine using code, and that has to be taught—the mathematics of it, the trigonometry of it.” Vargas learned these skills at a nearby training program provided by the National Tooling and Machining Association. So, too, did his brother, two cousins, and his uncle; one relative works in cardboard box manufacturing, where the same technologies apply.
So, how does he find working with computers compared with manual work?
“I would say it’s more brain,” Vargas replies. “I have to troubleshoot the code, and make a precise part down to the tenth of a thousandth of an inch. Say there are 100 lights. I have to have all 100 exactly the same so that I can get a part and put it with any other lamp and it will fit precisely.”
While precision is the goal for some fixtures, a less high-tech process produces the organic effect desired by designer Culotti. The Rockstar lamp she chose, handmade in the Philippines factory, comes with the tagline “no two stones are identical.”
On the other hand, Poon needed a combination of precision and customization for her metal artwork Mikko project. “We’ve used Littman’s off-the-shelf products on many, many projects,” says Poon, “but I’d never experienced getting something custom done as quickly as this.” Mikko met its Boutique Design New York (BDNY) 2015 deadline in less than two months.
For Littman, the future lies in this mix of factory locations and processes: handmade and high tech, custom and mass production, and all tracked for maximum efficiency.
About the Author
Frances Anderton is the executive producer and host of DnA: Design and Architecture, a weekly radio show and blog exploring what matters in the designed world, broadcast on KCRW public radio station in Los Angeles and at kcrw.com/dna. She has received wide recognition for her work; awards include the Esther McCoy Award for educating the public about architecture and urbanism.