BURNSIDE — The Rev. Byron Brazier of Apostolic Church of God sees a new lifeline for Woodlawn in plastic cutlery.
On Thursday, Brazier will open the Building Self Determination factory at 9551 S. Cottage Grove, one of the largest projects yet of the Arthur M. Brazier Foundation and a $3.5 million bet that there is new life for manufacturing in Chicago.
Robotics is the key to making it happen.
“The technology has replaced people in many cases, and what we’re doing here is to apply people to the technology,” Brazier said. “As opposed to the people doing the work, the robots do the work, but the people maintain the robots.”
The whole operation is meant to be its own sort of automaton, churning out people freshly trained in a high-demand field, producing socially responsible products that companies are asking for and generating revenue that gets invested back into Woodlawn — all in continuous loop.
Brazier estimated the facility took $3.5 million to get up and running, with the CHA contributing $2 million, the city another $1 million and a $500,000 grant from Chase Bank. He said he expects the factory to generate $3 million in profits annually, with the first $1.25 million going straight to neighborhood schools.
“The plan is to by the end of 2018-19, to give every school in Woodlawn $250,000 a year in perpetuity,” Brazier said.
The remaining profits would be used to support the efforts of the Network of Woodlawn to improve safety in Woodlawn and plan for development in the neighborhood.
To hit that number, the facility needs employees trained in robotics, who are in short supply in the city, and enough orders to keep the factory’s two main production lines humming at full capacity to produce 123 million forks, spoons and knives every year.
Brazier said he thinks he can hit the target on orders, with contracts already signed with University of Chicago Medicine and the local Hyatt hotels, both of which are looking to order products at a competitive price that help them keep their commitments to social responsibility.
Trista Bonds, a former electrical engineer with Ford and other manufacturers, is in charge of hiring workers who know how to run the robots that make the cutlery.
It was Bonds who originally went to Brazier in 2013 with the idea to create a training program around robotics, a field she’s been working in for the last 18 years and has discovered to be a safe haven within an often turbulent manufacturing world.
“A lot of the jobs are gone — two of the plants I worked at at Ford Motor Co. are gone,” Bonds said. “And a lot of those people I knew who were making a good wage had to take jobs making half of what they were making or are jobless because of the circumstance I saw happen.”
Bonds has picked up an idea started with Focus Hope in Detroit that brings together training and on-site job experience as a way to reinvest in communities and re-engineer it for robotics.
“I felt like this was a hidden jewel to tap into for training because there weren’t really any training programs really training robotics automation technicians when I came up with this idea,” Bonds said.
She’s spent the last four years developing a curriculum that provides one of the only certifications in Chicago in robotics.
Daley College has agreed that the 13 months of courses and apprenticeship will also count as course credits toward a degree, and the CHA has agreed to pay for its residents to take the classes for free.
Bonds said there are 40 students in a class, and while some graduates might go on to apply for a job making spoons, she said she expects most will get snapped up by other firms looking for technicians.
“Anyone can buy a robot, but if it’s not plugged into a system, it doesn’t do anything, it means nothing,” Bonds said.
Brazier said the idea is meant to be a model for other neighborhoods in Chicago struggling with unemployment, disinvestment and a lack of education options, but it’s also meant to be a model for him.
He said he already has plans in the works for three more facilities, two that would do other injection-molded plastic products and one that would be a distributor of chemical cleaning products.
Brazier said the product doesn’t have to be romantic, it just has to be in demand and be able to produce jobs for people with a valuable skill and produce revenue that can be put back into making institutions in the neighborhood stronger.
“It could have been electronic hotel keys, these are all things that are manufactured, and none of them are romantic in themselves — plastic products made a lot of sense to me,” Brazier said. “We’re not in the robot business, we’re in the workforce development business, and this just happens to be the first product we’re looking at.”
The factory is expected to employ 30 people working three shifts when running at full capacity, according to Brazier.