Left for dead a generation ago, the giant industrial park is now overflowing with artists and manufacturers. How it all happened.
I doubt that many Thomas Piketty or Bernie Sanders acolytes know what a 5-Axis CNC router is, but they probably should. Strictly speaking, the router is a robot, though if you’re expecting R2D2, you’ll be disappointed. This machine is more like a robotic surgery device. The patient— usually a slab of plastic, metal, or wood—lies on the bed, where it is “operated” on by a giant drill-like machine suspended from a track above. Following computerized instructions (CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control), the drill grabs the needed “bit” as it moves along the track to cut, trim, and shape the slab/patient. The resulting product is a seat, a domed architectural detail, or whatever it is that its human master is trying to make. The more ordinary and less expensive 3-axis has a drill that can move left to right, right to left, and up and down. Ah, but the 5-axis can go around and create swirly, curving, complex forms. Done by mere humans, these forms would be so time-consuming as to consign them to the category of one-of-a-kind sculpture rather than manufactured object.
I saw the 5-axis router in action at SITU Fabrication, a company housed in a massive garage still enclosing the train tracks attesting to its former identity as a locomotive repair shop. The space is located in the 300-acre Brooklyn Navy Yard. A mere 25 years ago, the Yard was the perfect symbol of the ruins of the American working class, its 40 or so structures strewn like industrial carcasses from a Mad Max movie. The buildings, used as warehouses and by a smattering of small manufacturing firms, endured regular blackouts, stuck elevators, and roads so cratered that truckers referred to the area as Dodge City. Occasional wild dogs and dead bodies (mob related, one assumes) completed a scene that was more film noir than site of legitimate business.
Enter through one of the five gates of the Yard today, though, and you’ll find scores of young companies....