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The return to making and the rise of urban manufacturing in Toronto

Toronto is under construction, and that industrial noise is not just about the new buildings going up. Take a walk in the alleys of the Junction, down Queen Street, the old Garment District, and pay attention to the new storefronts sprouting up all over the city. Bikes get assembled and painted. Leather gets laser-etched next door. Throw t-shirts, hi-tech jewelry, and 3D printing into the mix, and it's hard to miss the telling signs: Toronto is getting its manufacturing groove back. 

Toronto MADE responds to growing demand for locally manufactured goods

Just ask Toronto MADE. Derek Brunelle started Toronto MADE as a brand platform and network to promote and encourage local manufacturing in the city. He sees repurposing of older manufacturing space, the rise of interest in local food and food processing, like craft beer, woodworking, garment, and 3D printing as an important factor for economic diversity. 

"Locally sourced products and the network that's created is good for the environment [and] local culture," says Toronto MADE founder and director Derek Brunelle. "Economic diversity is important to the city's vitality and resilience. When things are made locally, there's a sense of civic pride, quality, a special tie to products made close to home. I based Toronto MADE on similar successful brands in New York, San Francisco and Montreal." 

Brunelle wants Toronto MADE to be the platform that brings urban manufacturers together to grow the network and hopefully influence policy to support small-scale creators like garment and jewelry makers, as well as bigger employers, like Canada Goose and Red Sugar Factory. 

"It'd be great if this helps protect industrial jobs in the city. Because they're well paying jobs people love," Brunelle says. Toronto, with its industrial past, would know. 

Urban manufacturers build on Toronto's rich industrial history

Gallant Bicycles houses all manufacturing in one of the Junction's repurposed warehouses. All the bikes come completely raw and unfinished, on unpainted frames, and are made-to-order. 

Tony Mammoliti, co-founder of YNOT Cycle and Gallant Bicycles, says the speed of change forced urban manufacturing to come back and has given it the ability for resurgence.

"The cheap manufacturing that existed in Asia is starting to dissipate, and people's tastes are changing so quickly. Our YNOT bags and products are all made here, and so we can tweak and change design on a monthly basis. In Asia, I'd be placing an order for six months at a time. Manufacturing everything locally means we can be flexible and adapt," says Tony. "We have a sense of pride in sourcing our materials locally. We deal with suppliers in the old Garment District, where the Roots factory used to be, even though we can find things online. It's better to have a relationship with them." 

Mammoliti hires and trains OCAD and Ryerson students, because it isn't easy to find the skills his hands-on business requires. 

"The people that we employ all live in the neighbourhoods around us, and I know they think about what they purchase and support similar local, like-minded businesses. We don't have anyone who drives to work. Thinking and acting that way definitely helps develop that sense of community, the neighbourhood," says Mammoliti. 

He says it takes a strong, utilitarian design, a usable website that allows people to customize bikes and accessories, and a deep understanding of the market to survive the competition. Yet, despite the high costs of doing business this way, more entrepreneurs commit to making it in Toronto.

Accessible makerspaces, 3D printers feed dreams of manufacturing revival

When MakerBot, the first affordable 3D printer popped up on the market in 2009, it launched people's imaginations and revived interest in the art of making. Now that we're well into 2014, 3D printing has gone mainstream. 

The maker community in Toronto feels more vibrant and connected than ever. 3D printers are more accessible than ever before: Toronto Library owns a few, and runs workshops. Toronto makerspaces are plenty and thriving: hacklab.TO is moving into a new and large space. Toronto Tool Library is closing in on one thousand members. Hot Pop Factory, Site 3 coLaboratory, MakerKids, and MAKELAB offer workshops for every age and skill level, a variety of 3D printers and laser cutters, and access to all kinds of tools and expertise. You will soon be able to get 3D printers at The Home Depot, and yet, many people are still buffered by the technology.

MAKELAB makes 3D printing more accessible and trains people how to use the printers and software. You may spot their 3D printers at events, birthday parties, and places where people don't expect to see them. 

"If you're an inventor, a maker, if you run a creative shop, or simply like building things, you probably have a 3D printer, or you thought of getting one," says Jonathan Moneta, owner of MAKELAB. "If you're printing a lot of intricate parts, or doing a bunch of prototypes, having access to the fleet of eight consumer-grade 3D printers we have at MAKELAB can be useful." 

Eric Boyd, President at hacklab.TO believes makerspaces and similar spaces help people to brainstorm ideas, collect information and build product prototypes. "I've used Hacklab to make about a hundred Sound Sparks and Heart Sparks for my electronic jewelry company Sensebridge. Handling it all manually inspired my recent work on a Retro-Populator, a jig and software for allowing a 3D printer to do electronics pick-n-place assembly." Hacklab.TO is also growing, expanding into the new massive space in Parkdale this fall. Just last year, Hacklab.TO occupied a tiny busy space above a store in Chinatown. One year is a long time for this city.

Last year, Toronto Mini Maker Faire, a weekend showcase of DIY inventions, 3D printing, science, tech & hardware innovation drew over 4,000 people to the sold-out family-friendly event. The Maker Faire featured 3D printed chocolate, twitter typewriter, robot cavalcade, toy hacking, biolab on wheels, and other creations by local makers. Over 700 people learned to solder, and many more got to experiment, play with new technologies, and talk to makers. This year, the organizers expect over 8,000 people to come to the event. Toronto Mini Maker Faire is free to attend and will be held at Toronto Reference Library on November 22-23. 

Christina Hug, Toronto Maker Faire co-organizer, runs a popular newsletter to keep track of all the creative maker events in the city, The Makers Digest. Hug says Toronto's maker community is growing at a tremendous rate. "I started The Makers Digest as part of The Makers Nation in 2013, right after the Mini Maker Faire. Over the past year alone there have been new makerspaces like The Shop out of MakeWorks popping up, and community meetups that are growing exponentially like Wearable Wednesdays TO," says Hug. "I love how the maker movement encourages people to be creators rather than just consumers. There is such a sense of pride when you can tell people that your side table was made down the street, or your dress is by a local designer in the Junction. Through urban manufacturing and maker movement, cities are developing communities of inventors." 

The Makers Digest is the pulse of the maker community in Toronto today, and Hug, who first worried she might not have enough events to include, now says there's almost too many. That's a huge paradigm shift for the city in just one year.

Mixing it up: traditional materials meet modern tools

What does it take to start and grow a business, to commit and manufacture everything locally? A chance meeting on the street, among other things. Noelle Hindi bumped into Alex Cirka while walking her dog, seven years ago. Today, the duo behind The Leather Atelier combines traditional leatherwork with computer illustrations and laser etching to create their unique line of leather products. Recent designs, inspired by emoticons, look striking on iPhone cases, clothing, and jewelry. 

Noelle Hindi was working in the field of architecture, spending her days in front of the computer, longing to go back to making things with her hands. "I fell in love with leather, and did everything: hand-dyeing, stitching. I would then laser-etch into the leather all the illustrations we draw on the computer," she says. 

Their clients would rather support products made locally. Relationships with local suppliers make it possible to quickly do custom work for the clients and control quality of the materials. 

"We made friends with a small company that does brilliant leatherwork and has been in the business for a long time, but it has been tough. We're able to keep them busy and help sustain their business. I go down the street and get samples, zippers, and I know exactly how it'll all look, feel, work. It's cool to be surrounded by businesses in the Fashion District, all the suppliers that have been around for a long time, and add our own new entrepreneurial twist to the fashion industry," Hindi says. 

Hindi and Cirka just moved to 401 Richmond heritage loft building, and use the new space and their equipment, their sawing machines to help people interested in creating and making things with leather to try things out, grow and learn the craft. 

Made in Toronto

The maker movement is about sharing knowledge, and Toronto's urban makers and manufacturers are learning as they go. There's a sense of optimism and revival that they all seem to share, and an excitement about the possibilities. Made in Toronto. Think about what that means. Whether it's lampshades, dresses, wallets, tables, or 3D printed bow-ties, just when you thought Toronto can't get any cooler, it did. 

Elena Yunusov is a Toronto-based journalist, startup marketer, communications professional and community organizer.  She covers startups and tech news for BetaKit, curates the conversation at Pressly, manages digital communications at University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine and helps organize various community events, like HoHoTO, HaiHaiTO, Fluxible and Toronto Maker Faire. Elena likes coffee, robots and believes in paying forward. Follow her on Twitter @Communicable.
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