From Hand Made to Engineered and Hand Made

Some companies start up with investors and a lot of money to purchase equipment at the inception of their business. Others must bootstrap their organization and try to stay solvent until they can get their product out in the marketplace, squeeze out profit and then grow organically. This is a story about the latter, and their history of growth from an engineering and manufacturing perspective.

(Image courtesy of Interiors by Steven Gambrell and Photography by Eric Piasecki.)

The Urban Electric Company (UECO) was founded in 2003 by Dave Dawson, when he was looking for a manufacturer to build him custom light fixtures as he was renovating his historic home in downtown Charleston (see Image 1). When he couldn’t find anyone to do the work he envisioned, it dawned on him that there may be a promising niche industry. So, they rented out a corner in someone else’s shop and learned the art of building hand-crafted light fixtures (see Image 2).

Image 1. The Dawson Residence.

Image 2. The early UECO “Manufacturing Center.”

The interest in these hand-built pieces of functional art quickly formed a customer base in the luxury lighting industry, which lead to upscaling and growth. In the early days, the company had a handful of dedicated craftsmen and an artistic director who designed new products for the company’s product catalog.

However, one thing that was missing was engineering and process control. Designs were hand-sketched, and order details were written on graph paper (see Image 3) rather than entered into a computer. The building process was done entirely by hand and crafted together on a benchtop, where sheets of copper were cut by hand with shears, and the pieces hammered and soldered together until the correct form was completed (see Image 4).

Image 3. UECO hand-drawn sketches.

Image 4. (Left) Hand-crafted luxury light fixtures in the early days of the company. (Right) Assembly of hand-crafted luxury light fixtures in the current workshop.

After a couple years, hand-drawn sketches transformed into digital 2D AutoCAD files. In five years’ time, these morphed into 3D CAD files in SOLIDWORKS (see Image 5). At this point, the company culture was firmly behind having very talented craftspeople, so new products weren’t always designed with a lot of thought towards design for manufacturing and assembly—which reinforced the need for highly talented craftspeople.

Image 5. Custom design in SOLIDWORKS.

This was also around the time that the company purchased their first waterjet cutter. Like many small companies, growing pains are normal. The files for the waterjet were manually nested, which meant it took a long time to do, there was a lot of material waste and it was simply an inefficient process. A short time later, nesting software (SigmaNest) was purchased to help make this process much more efficient. Today in 2020, there are now four waterjets on site.

The reputation of The Urban Electric Company grew during these years of internal capability improvement and many well-known celebrities, athletes, news anchors and even the White House came calling about the potential for installing their light fixtures (see Image 6). The brand was cementing itself in the industry.

Image 6. New light fixture, designed for the White House, still in place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The culture of UECO is very employee-centric. With tickets to local sports teams, plays and shows that come into town, park passes and the three cafes with free coffee and specialty drinks (see Image 7), it’s a great environment to work in. It is equally important to the greater Charleston community, with the company stating:

“We are committed to supporting local, non-profit organizations that provide a basic need in our community. With this mission in mind, the company and its employees provide time and monetary support to several local groups in North Charleston including: Fresh Future Farm, Lowcountry Orphan Relief, Metanoia and The Disabilities Board of Charleston County.”

Image 7. One of UECO’s cafes.

The next large investment in manufacturing equipment was a CNC machine. Learning from the issues with the nesting software for the waterjet, UECO made sure to purchase CAM software along with the machine. Urban Electric has now moved totally away from all of the manual raw material manufacturing processes and has able to take on more orders and grow in revenue. There are now three CNC machines and a turning center on site (see Image 8).

Image 8. UECO’s CNC mill.

With additional demand for their products, there was a need for more team members. The issue for Urban Electric’s need for more personnel at this point in time was that the craftspeople were still highly skilled individuals, and it took an average of six months for a new employee to get up to speed and become a fully productive member of the team. More about how this issue is being solved later.

With increased manufacturing capabilities, it was time to look at the design side of the company to determine whether there were any ways to come up with improved efficiencies. Until 2014, the standard product designs were printed out and held in a filing cabinet. As an order went through the shop, a production worker would go over to the filing cabinet, pull the design that was required and when done, place it back in the filing cabinet.

When an engineering change order was created, the new drawings would need to be printed out and placed back into the filing cabinet after pulling and destroying the old prints. However, some production team members that had kept old prints in their tool chests kept building an outdated design.

In 2014, UECO implemented data management with SOLIDWORKS PDM. Now, revision control is maintained, automated processes for project creation are a reality, searching capabilities are greatly increased and design integrity is realized through the check-in, check-out process of files. Many different groups in the company use the PDM system in various capacities, including engineering, manufacturing, sales, marketing and quality. It has certainly changed the way the company works in a very positive way.

The motto for The Urban Electric Company is “Always Proud, Never Satisfied,” and is a call to action for all team members to always improve (see Image 9). With this in mind, in 2018 The Urban Electric Company implemented the use of DriveWorks, a design automation tool to help increase design output from the custom engineering team, which now accounts for around 20 to 25 percent of the company’s annual revenue. It is commonly asked that teams be more productive with the same amount of personnel whenever possible.

Image 9. The company motto: Always proud, never satisfied.

Now back to the issue of how long it takes to get new hires up to speed.

In 2019, The Urban Electric Company invested in SOLIDWORKS Composer. This software utilizes the 3D models created from SOLIDWORKS to create additional content such as work instructions with diagrams. UECO’s content is now digital and accessible by everyone in the company and if there is a change to the model, the diagrams are updated immediately. The work instructions allow for every team member to follow the same set of instructions, which creates reliability in the final product along with providing new hires with exact instructions on how to build a light fixture (see Image 10).

Image 10. UECO work instructions.

What will the future hold for Urban Electric Company? The future is bright (get it?) and centered around enhancing the customer experience. A customer-focused eCommerce site will be launched in the near future, which will completely change the sales experience. New interactive installation instructions created through SOLIDWORKS Composer are also planned for the future. In addition, with improvements to manufacturing processes and potential expansion, the lead time for products should decrease and efficiencies throughout the organization should increase.

UECO has transformed from the corner of a small shop with three employees to having a three-building campus on the Old Naval Base in Charleston with 300 employees. Its growth continues – despite economic downturns and a pandemic. You can see a timeline of the history of The Urban Electric Company here:

Learn more about SOLIDWORKS with the whitepaper Designing Better Products in the Cloud.

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