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Shining a light on Chicago's metal fabricating and manufacturing industries

May 30, 2023

New Star Lighting helped with the execution of the lighting package for this carousel bar design, created by 555 International, at Francois Frankie in Chicago. Francois Frankie image by Eric Kleinberg

If you ever find yourself on the Southside of Chicago and you want to see where the city's manufacturing past meets its present day, check out the massive brick buildings that dominate the couple of city blocks south of McKinley Park.

The buildings, specifically those between Western and Ashland Avenues, were built in the early 1900s as part of the city's Central Manufacturing District (CMD). Some consider this the nation's first industrial park.

The owner of the Union Stockyards, Frederick Prince, financed the development of the CMD. (He also owned a railroad at the time and looked at the development as a way to boost that business.) The first phase of the CMD project focused on Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood, while the second phase led to the construction of warehouses and factories along Pershing Road, which is part of what is today called the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

By 1931, the CMD spanned 900 acres, according to a public radio story that Chicago real estate reporter Dennis Rodkin compiled in 2019. Large companies, such as Westinghouse Corp. and Spiegel Inc., flocked to the area to take advantage of the manufacturing space and the direct access to conveniently located rail lines.

The years after World War II saw many of the manufacturing companies relocate to the open spaces of the suburbs, leaving the large brick and terra-cotta structures empty for a new generation of manufacturers. Of course, some of the buildings have been repurposed for office space and other uses, but manufacturing does live on in Chicago. It's just not homogenous—thousands of the same kind of product being manufactured for a world that doesn't expect a lot when it comes to choices. Today's manufacturing in Chicago is diverse and sophisticated, much like 555 International and New Star Lighting, two companies carrying on the city's manufacturing legacy in the CMD.

O-Cedar brooms and mops used to be made in this building in the middle part of the 20th century. (The company name still is etched above what was once the front entrance.) If the building's exterior needed any obvious evidence of its age, an old coal-fired heater with a towering smokestack can be found in the building's rear.

But manufacturing in this four-story facility today is nothing like the mass production of household cleaning tools that once took place on the wooden factory floors. Today, the manufacturing effort is dedicated to bringing "concepts," "atmospheres," and "environments" to life for customers in the retail, hospitality, and commercial arena. True, these words aren't commonly used in traditional conversations with metal fabricators, but sometimes a customer speaks an entirely new language that the fabricator needs to learn.

James Geier has been speaking the language of creativity for more than four decades. He has a passion for fine arts, especially sculpting, and has an industrial design degree from the University of Illinois. As owner and founder of 555 International, he occupies a unique place in the world supporting demanding and sophisticated clients looking for spaces that stand out but don't put off: He can envision the idea and then turn it into a tangible experience. The artist is also a fabricator.

"I didn't want engineers to tell me what to do when it came to making stuff," Geier said. "Being an engineer, I can work with all these materials and processes and create—not industrial design for consumer products—but all the other things you live with and engage with, like when you visit a restaurant and hotels."

Geier started 555 International in 1988. The first office was in a 150-year-old carriage factory at the corner of Roosevelt and Ashland Avenues. Geier said the facility had one of the largest freight elevators in the city, which was needed at the time to move the hansom carriages from one floor to another during the assembly process.

555 International handled all design aspects for the retail outlets at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., and fabricated most of the fixtures, shelving, and merchandising elements found in those stores.

555 eventually relocated to its new home in Chicago's Central Manufacturing District, where the four-story building houses different aspects of the company's design and fabrication activities. The lower level contains manufacturing equipment. The main floor acts as the hub for design, sales, and administration. The third floor is the home of the wood shop, and the fourth floor is a place where plans come together before the end result is shipped off to a customer for an installation.

A good example of what 555 does would be the "retail program," as Geier put it, for the new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., which opened in 2020. The company was involved in not only the interior design for each retail space, but also building out the spaces, relying on metal fabrication, millworking, and metal CNC skills. Most aspects of the displays and fixtures were handled by local craftsman working in the building that used to be dedicated to broom manufacturing.

555 also worked on the nearby Madhouse Team Store located at the United Center on Chicago's West Side. Dedicated to selling gear for the Chicago Blackhawks and Bulls, both tenants of the United Center, the store contains some very specific Chicago elements, such as a real-life modified and repurposed Chicago Transit Authority train car. Visitors also will notice 8-ft.-tall replicas of the National Hockey League's championship trophy, the Stanley Cup, and the National Basketball Association's Larry O’Brien Trophy. A company doesn't win jobs like this by thinking small or being boring.

Having said that, this type of work is not all glitz and glamour.

"In these types of retail programs, we do everything, like perimeter wall systems, shelving, merchandising stands, fixturing, cases, and racks," Geier said. "We design and make it here in Chicago."

The metal fabricating needed for these projects is done around the block at a six-story building that was once the L. Fish Furniture Co., right across the street from McKinley Park. Geier said that 555 had purchased a metal fabricating and lighting company in the 2000s to help it with its metal fabricating activities.

While the relationship between the sister companies served each other well, with the lighting company being able to count on high-end custom work and the other knowing it could lean on its metal fabricating partner for quick turnaround on projects, Geier said the lighting company was sort of stagnant, churning along making products for other OEMs. The ownership team knew that they could grow the lighting business with the right leadership. In 2013, John Peña joined New Star Lighting and got busy readying the business for growth.

Peña has more than 25 years of experience in the lighting industry, mostly working as a turnaround expert, and owns industrial and mechanical engineering degrees from the University of Illinois-Chicago, an MBA from Emory University, and a doctorate in applied mathematics from Stanford University. He said the New Star Lighting job appealed to him because it gave him the chance to build up a business, and to stick around and continue to serve customers and build a future for his colleagues. He said he was done building something up only to see it sold off to another company who would then make decisions strictly based on profitability.

Like those who have found a career in metal fabricating, he also liked the variety that came with each new day on the job.

"In our environment, I really don't know what's the next project coming down the road. It could be entirely different, just like on the design side at 555," Peña said. "You have to stay creative."

New Star Lighting also fabricated the lighting found under the DuSable Bridge along the Chicago River. New Star Lighting and 555 International are both based in the Central Manufacturing District on Chicago's Southside.

The New Star business was very different in 2013 than it is today:

Before the focus was on building up the sales channel, Peña spent time building up his metal fabricating team and establishing a company culture of trust. Peña said that he wanted all 31 employees at the time to know that he was doing everything that he could to make the company successful. (Today New Star employs more than 175 employees.)

"If I fail, I fail them," he said.

He also looked to invest in the right design, machine, and testing tools to help New Star stand out from competitors, which for the most part were large corporate behemoths. Peña knew that if he could turn around lighting product designs in weeks, when competitors needed months, New Star would move up preferred vendor lists.

The catch was that New Star was working out of a six-story facility, complete with an old-school mechanical elevator. Creating a streamlined manufacturing flow in a multistory facility can be a challenge, but that didn't prevent Peña from making it work.

If you visit New Star today, CNC metalworking machines are found on the main level with some additional metalworking capabilities in what is called the bulding's "sublevel." When 555 needs specialty parts made from thicker materials, those jobs flow through there. The main level has design, engineering, and administrative personnel and connects to the fabrication facility, where most of the manufacturing activity takes place. This includes punching machines, laser cutting machines, press brakes, welding cells, a polishing station, and resistance welding machines.

Peña said a new BySmart 3015 4-kW fiber laser cutting machine from Bystronic has been a big addition because the machine is connected to a ByTrans cartridge system which automatically loads sheets and unloads laser-cut parts and their skeletons. With the system being able to stage four cartridges while cutting is taking place, New Star can run the laser cutting machine during off-hours, giving it a head start on the next day's production schedule.

Also on the main floor is a powder coating operation. New Star leases out the space to a third-party who runs his own company, with the requirement that New Star and 555 orders take priority. Peña said the relationship has worked out well for both parties.

The second floor is where the light shines on lighting product assembly. Worktables are equipped with casters so that they can be reconfigured based on the size of the assembly project. For a project of 1,000 lights or more, a visitor might see an assembly cell, where the tables take up a large section of area. For smaller jobs, the tables can be broken into a couple of independent cells. Peña said this area is always a work in process because they are not afraid to try something new if it means a smoother assembly process.

A variety of welding booths also can be found on the third floor. Peña said that, while they struggle to find welders like most other manufacturing companies, they do well retaining the welding talent that they have. New Star's lead welder has 45 years of experience. The least tenured welder at the company has been there 18 years.

The automated loader/unloader on New Star's 4-kW fiber laser cutting machine allows it to cut parts unattended overnight.

"The custom stuff we do and the many different lighting products that we do keeps it creative for everybody. It keeps things interesting. You have to be on your toes," Peña said. "Everything that makes it challenging also makes it rewarding."

New Star has a dedicated team that works on the 555 jobs. However, if work slows in that area for a bit, they can float over and help out with the lighting jobs. It works the other way as well. That adds to the variety of tasks that helps the welders and fabricators avoid the monotony associated with simply doing production work on the same products day after day.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth floors provide for inventory of parts from repeat customers. The fourth floor houses the lighting products that have the most turns of inventory, and the fifth floor contains the items that are turned less often. The sixth floor not only has space dedicated for the inventory items with the least number of turns, but it also contains a showroom for the company's latest lighting offerings and a testing room where New Star engineers can dial in light patterns.

This testing chamber is a good example of the expertise tied to developing lighting products and the investment that New Star has made to demonstrate its design chops. The room is painted black; when the door is closed, you can't see your hand in front of your face. In the room is a goniophotometer, a tool that measures light emitted from an object at different angles.

This type of device is critical because LED light sources don't provide homogenous light distribution like their older cousins, incandescent light bulbs. LEDs tend to direct light in a certain direction. The goniophotometer is able measure just where the LED will send the light pattern.

On top of that, Peña said the company's engineers have a useful software program that gives them a good idea how a lighting product design will deliver light distribution. So before they get into the testing room, they have a sense of how the product will perform; the test helps them to fine-tune the design.

"Every lighting project is a custom order. Every time it's a different request from a lighting designer, an architect, or an institutional representative," Geier said. "The staff has to be experienced to know what it needs to deliver and if it can push the envelope a little bit. That comes with learning from each project."

Literally, a conversation about New Star's projects can range from providing light for a restaurant fish tank to a new lighting fixture for a prison setting, which is both tamper-resistant and bright enough to do the job. For a company with a definite product expertise, New Star has the potential to have a truly surprising mix of projects on its daily production schedule.

Geier said that the medical, institutional, and municipal sectors have energized New Star's growth in recent years. The company has about 100 more employees than when Peña started, and the company is bullish about its future.

"Our guys can turn around a design within a matter of weeks," Peña said. "In the world of our big conglomerate competitors, they might turn it around in a year. That's why we’re successful."

John Peña, New Star's general manager and president, shows off a punched blank that eventually will become part of a lighting fixture.

It's not unheard of for manufacturing companies to have two or more distinct operations, serving different customers, but relying on the same manufacturing talent and machine tools. But 555 and New Star have a unique sales proposition as they are able to take customers out to dinner, point to their lights underneath a viaduct, and then soak in their custom lighting job illuminating the high-end Chicago steak house where dinner will be served.

That's manufacturing in Chicago. Old is worth celebrating and modernizing, and new is exciting and catches the spotlight. You can make it there, so you don't have to worry about making it anywhere else.