The common thread between Jury Captains for our Core77 Design Awards is they are all experts in their field with fascinating stories as to how they got there. That's why we love getting to know them better in interviews we share with our audience. In 2022, we're proud to have a number of judges out there actively changing the industry as we know it. This includes the Jury Captain of our Furniture & Lighting category, Ian Yang, Founder & CEO of Gantri, a digital manufacturing hub and online marketplace that helps designers bring lighting visions to life using digital fabrication.
When chatting with Ian Yang, you almost get the sense that no one in the world of design and business is thinking quite as thoroughly about systems as him. As founder of Gantri, his mission is not just about making beautiful lighting solutions. The CEO is thinking far into the future, envisioning a company that not only works tirelessly to improve its carbon footprint, but also builds an ecosystem that helps independent designers they work with create holistic success in their own business. He also works hard to ensure the happiness of Gantri's own workforce. Yang argues the secret to success in all of the above may lie in nurturing and building innovative technologies while also centering the importance of community within your work.
Ian Yang, Founder and CEO of Gantri
We recently had the chance to speak with Yang, where we discussed everything from how to implement more sustainable materials into a supply chain, his visions for the future of production and digital manufacturing, and creating opportunities within your own design practice that allow you to generate even more innovative ideas.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and what brought you down the path of design, engineering, and manufacturing.
I've always felt like design, art, creativity and manufacturing have just been part of my life and identity. I grew up in the UK and China. So during that time, obviously with China already growing as a manufacturing hub, I was running around with my parents in factories, doing tours and visits, so manufacturing has always been something I'm very familiar with. It's not a mystery to me because I've seen how things are done.
Back then, it was obviously a lot more manual than it is now, but I've seen how things are made, and I just love seeing raw material come to life as a real product. [Those experiences] really helped me build up my philosophy around materiality, physicality, and quality of life. And it's a really important part of how I think about my work and purpose.
Then growing up in the UK, I had an opportunity to get exposed to a lot of really amazing designers and create work in fashion and art. When I was in school, I organized a fashion show in Covent Garden for UNICEF. I went to Central St. Martin's and met a ton of designers and I felt like this is really the ultimate form of human expression, of being creative, having thoughts and ideas. So, in a way, I've always sort of known that I wanted to work in these fields, but I guess it wasn't until Gantri that I really merged everything together in one more coherent package.
Where did the idea for Gantri come from, and how did that journey begin?
I've always been a very curious person, and I love to learn new things. I love to learn about technologies, physics, biology, psychology… I'm just very curious about how things work. And after I moved to San Francisco, I got exposed to a lot of technology-driven knowledge I didn't have before. So learning software development, data science, machine learning, UI/UX, those were all new to me. And I spent some time actually working as a software engineer, just to really understand how everything works, but the thing that really attracted me was hardware because, going back to me growing up in a manufacturing environment, I love just the physicality of things, and I love to build something from nothing.
Before I started Gantri, I was like, Okay, I have to learn these manufacturing processes, and the ways of making things. So I joined the SF Tech Shop, which was a maker space where you can learn about CAD and different types of processes like injection molding, CNC, and laser cutting. And that's when I first got exposed to 3D printing. I know it wasn't a new technology when I first got exposed to it, but it was really new to me. And I think because it was so fresh to me, I came at it from a different perspective, and I immediately got super hooked on 3D printing. I built my own 3D printer that actually was the one that I used for probably the first six months of Gantri was live!
The Gio Task Light, designed by Ammunition for Gantri
Wait, the first 3D printer you used was one you made?
Exactly, and we have it in the office at our Gantri "museum"! I loved it, and actually immediately connected the world of on-demand, digital fabrication with the world of creativity and design. Knowing designers, and knowing the struggles they go through to put their work out into the world, and as a design consumer how expensive things are, for me, 3D printing [wasn't just] a technology of high art expression or printing little trinkets at home. It's really a powerful technology to help reduce some of these constraints of bringing a new design to the market. I made that connection immediately.
Then I thought, Oh, this is really exciting, there's something there, and started doing market research around, how much cost-saving are we thinking about? What exactly does that process look like? How can we turn something that is really just for making prototypes into making production quality products? And that's how the idea of Gantri was born.
A lot of times, people think of founding a company as sort of a binary– you know, "This day, this company was formed." That was actually a long research process. I spent months just thinking about the market, talking to my friends who are designers, understanding their frustrations, prototyping in my own garage, getting my neighbors really angry with the fumes. It's a long, messy process!
Gantri does a lot to support independent designers. In what ways do independent designers need more support when it comes to launching their business that is sorely missing in today's landscape?
Supporting designers is sort of what my business is all about and I think the way we support them isn't just, "Hey, let's put out your ideas and manufacture products." It's actually much more than that. We start at the very high level, thinking about who you are, the designer, your strategy, thinking about how to tell your story to the wider world, thinking about how to translate your idea into creatives and copy, and thinking about who your audience is and how you can provide something no one else can. From my experience, the two main things designers really need support in: one is the economics of product development in general, which is just very expensive. You know, just the physicality of furniture and home goods– they're big, they're complicated to make, it's very expensive to develop them. You have to make tools and it takes a long time. These issues are real, and they won't go away under the traditional model. And so the economics of product elements is a really big roadblock in turning designers into creators and entrepreneurs.
The second thing is about finding your niche in the market that's sometimes very crowded, and very noisy. It's about understanding what makes you stand out, what makes you special, and how we can talk to your audience about the value of that differentiation, and how it improves their life in some way. I think that's often a more difficult and time-consuming process than developing a product. With Gantri, I think we've simplified the way of developing a product so much that once you have a really solid idea that's feasible, then boom, off we go. But understanding what is a good idea [versus] a bad idea, or a fleshed-out idea [versus] a superficial and shallow idea, that part is the one that takes a lot of work, and very often longer than development itself. I think that's the part I really enjoy in my work: talking to creators, designers, helping them understand their strengths, and how we can help them translate it into a commercial and business language so customers understand as well. Because customers aren't always as design-savvy as us in the industry, so we have to be that translator sometimes, to connect the two together.
When you first started developing Gantri, you also started working on a plant-derived filament. Why was that something you felt was important to implement at the very beginning within this design process?
As a founder, there's a lot of me in Gantri, and in particular, the idea around human-centric design and quality of life. And so that's one of the fundamental principles behind the company. It's something very lofty, but in order for us to thrive as a species, we have to live in harmony with our environment. And that's why sustainability has always been a huge part of Gantri from the very beginning, even when we were designing our identity.
"What we want to achieve [at Gantri] is a complete localized production vision where all the products we make are made closer to where they're consumed, because last-mile delivery is actually the most polluting aspect of the supply chain. So when you think about your Amazon packages on a truck, that pollution is actually much worse than the part where you have things crossing the ocean."
There are many facets of sustainability—there are the materials, obviously. There's the production, process pollution, there's waste. And so our business tackles a few different parts of this equation. When it comes to materiality, where I want to start is the plastic polymers, and the reason for that is actually, plastics get a really bad rap. And in many cases, it's justified, right? We consume around 1 trillion plastic bags a year, it's an astronomical number. And there's a lot of problems, especially around plastic petroleum-based polymers, around toxic production processes, the extraction of crude oil, post-consumer waste, you name it. And there's a lot of issues with plastic, but it's also a very strong, relatively inexpensive material that's light and flexible. So what I want to do with exploring materials for Gantri is figure out how I can have the best of both worlds, how can I retain the strength of polymers without the downside, and that's why it's so important for us to invest and continue developing the plant-based alternatives.
All of Gantri's products are 3D printed using a more sustainable, plant-derived filament
The way our current materials are produced, they're still using a polymerization process, which is similar to crude oil and how we end up with the material properties that are similar to crude oil-based plastic, but they're derived from fermenting sugar cane and breaking it down into molecule chains. And this process alone is a lot less toxic and more sustainable, and I think it's a really important place for us to start, because if we can prove that you can use this type of material for durable home goods. It's one thing to use single-use cups; it's another thing to prove, actually, you can build durable products using these materials too, and hopefully we can inspire other companies to use similar methodologies in other products, like consumer electronics, more durable packaging, you name it. So it's a really important place to start, and that's why we continue to invest in developing this type of material.
You started talking about this a little bit too, but what are the other ways in which your business models are more sustainable than alternative manufacturers and design behemoths?
Digital manufacturing in general is a fairly energy-efficient manufacturing process. But beyond that, there are a few areas, and one is really about waste materials. So in subtractive processes, you can always reuse materials– they get better, and for us, because we're building it layer by layer, additive processes– it's a really huge area of waste reduction. Inventory waste is actually the biggest one. We all know how much of our supply actually goes to landfill rather than into homes. And there's a reason why there are anti-dumping measures in place, because, at this moment, it's much easier for us to produce something than for us to find an end-use case for these goods. With us producing on-demand, it drastically reduces overproduction.
Lastly is localized production. Because traditional production really relies on a global supply chain, you have your fasteners coming from one place, your other components from another, you assemble them all in China, then ship them to the US. What we want to achieve is a complete localized production vision where all the products we make are made closer to where they're consumed, because last-mile delivery is actually the most polluting aspect of the supply chain. So when you think about your Amazon packages on a truck, that pollution is actually much worse than the part where you have things crossing the ocean. So producing things locally reduces last-mile delivery, and the total carbon footprint of the entire production process decreases. And that's really the vision of Gantri going forward. We want to build production facilities sustainably in places where customers consume products.
That's fascinating, and it just further emphasizes how important systems design is now for the impact aspect of design. Speaking of manufacturing, my next question was fueled by an article I saw discussing how there's this excitement about building homes with 3D printers, but there's also this question of, is concrete actually the most sustainable material we could be using? It made me think about digital manufacturing in general, and the ways in which it can improve. What's the reality of the situation, and how sustainable is digital fabrication right now?
I think the first thing you've already kind of hinted at yourself is to separate out the buzz from the reality. There's a lot of buzz around 3D printed homes, which is absolutely amazing, but they're amazing for a different reason than sustainability. Because concrete uses a lot of CO2, as you said, so the problems they solve are about the speed of production, the cost of production. In a lot of the US, and especially California, building a home is a very expensive exercise. If you want to make homes more affordable, this is a very good way to go about it.
So the goal of 3D construction from that perspective is not sustainability– it's more about housing supply, reducing homelessness, which are really great goals, but in general, there are a few areas. I can't speak for industry in general, but there are ways, on the Gantri side, we want to improve in our way of further reducing waste. With any manufacturing process, there are always failed parts. How do we reduce the failed parts going into it so that they're more sustainable? And my team was working on ways for us to re-polymerize failed parts into something we can then reuse into the product. How do we deal with post-consumer, post-lifecycle waste, so if a customer purchases a product and they want to exchange it for a new one, how do they return it back to us and we re-use that into something else? These are all topics that we're thinking about a lot.
"I'm hoping other industries are seeing [digital fabrication] as a positive thing, not only for sustainability purposes, but also as a new business model, as a more efficient and cost-effective way to produce. Because at the end of the day, that's really the big draw. Less waste is not just better for the world; it's cheaper!...And I want to get this message out to people that being on-demand, being sustainable, is better for your business. It's not just for the world."
The key takeaway for me is, digital manufacturing in general ought to be something we strive towards—not just for Gantri, [but] for other industries as well. It is just so much more efficient, so much less wasteful than traditional mass industrial production. And it opens up a lot of opportunities for people to get access to this production process or technology in a way that only Apple and HP had access to in the past. Despite it not being perfect, and there are definitely flaws, I'm super confident this is the direction we have to push for as a society going forward.
The Kobble Collection, designed by Karim Rashid
On an optimistic note, Gantri's business model stands as an inspiration. But I have this pessimistic part of me also thinking, you're such an outlier in the industry.
I don't think we're an outlier actually, there are a lot of really great uses for 3D printing we don't really think about. Invisalign, for example, in the medical fields, they're actually really prevalent. More and more as we build Gantri and build this new possibility, I'm hoping other industries are seeing this as a positive thing, not only for sustainability purposes, but also as a new business model, as a more efficient and cost-effective way to produce. Because at the end of the day, that's really the big draw. Less waste is not just better for the world; it's cheaper! I don't think people realize just how aligned that business goal is with our mission. And that's what's really exciting about what we do, having less waste, we pay less for materials. Who wants to pay more for the same thing? And I want to get this message out to people that being on-demand, being sustainable, is better for your business. It's not just for the world.
The design and manufacturing worlds have reinforced this weird, backward logic. We live in a reality right now where virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic. But what you're saying is, if we were to take some radical choices and change the systems, then ultimately it would be less expensive.
You can start with internal, right? That's how I was thinking about our internal processes, to recycle and reuse. Because yes, on an industry level, you're right. Virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic. But as a company, and on a company level, why pay for virgin when we can pay nothing on waste? I think it sounds very obvious when you say it outright, but it takes a lot of process changes within your facility, or within your company, and it's why it's a hard project to take on. But because we started fresh, we don't have the baggage of traditional industry. We're empowered to take that approach rather than just do what everyone else is doing.
What are you hoping to see in the future of production, manufacturing at large and 3D printing?
I believe in the future, work has to become more creative, because as we automate away more menial tasks, for our work and our spirituality to [co-exist], the creator economy is really where the world is headed. People are less inclined to sit in a desk job, to work in the factory, to drive a truck. So you have to realize, what do you want to do as an individual that represents yourself, represents your values, represents what you believe in? And that comes in a creative form.
So that's my belief of the trajectory of society, and I think any technologies and production methods that help us get there is a welcome [development]. And sometimes [these innovations are realized] in ways that are less obvious—[at Gantri] we work with a lot of deep tech we don't really talk about. One of the things we're implementing is a machine learning vision-based quality control system, because traditional quality control [is] done on a uniform part. So how do you do quality control on custom parts?
Without externalized quality control process, then we can't maintain all the different types of products we have and make sure they're really high quality, so it's a necessary step in order for us to do our job. There are different technologies working alongside humans, assisted robotics, rather than to replace humans, so people can be more productive in what they do. There are different types of digital technologies in different industries that are facilitating something similar without using 3D printing. In the fashion industry, there's robotic knitting, there are a lot of processes enabling on-demand production of apparel items, rather than having to do a whole batch at the same time, and cut a stack of jeans in time. I get really lit up when I see these types of implementations that really can help someone be creative and make a living from their basement.
"There are a lot of aspects of society that are...the symptoms of our industrial nature, being out of touch with reality. The inequality, the loss of jobs, people feeling unfulfilled, and the lack of opportunities—I think these could all be at least partially solved through building a very vibrant creative economy."
It's getting ourselves out of that industrial revolution mindset where people are just part of a production line, responsible for one task and you just keep the product going down the line.
I mean, it sounds very lofty, but it is the reality we live in. For me, there are a lot of aspects of society that are, I guess, the symptoms of our industrial nature, being out of touch with reality. The inequality, the loss of jobs, people feeling unfulfilled, and the lack of opportunities—I think these could all be at least partially solved through building a very vibrant creative economy. And already we're seeing that in a lot of industries, on the digital realm. But in the physical realm, it's still very much the same.
Gantri is demonstrative of, I would argue, the benefit of radical creativity and future-forward thinking. That being the case, I wondered if you had any advice for designers and creative professionals on how they can think beyond just the traditional scope of what you can do in order to come up with really innovative ideas?
I think focusing on being authentic, but different is really something that will get people places. There's a lot of noise out there, but there are infinite opportunities and possibilities. So it's really about defining what makes your voice different than anyone else's. And that's something I strive for with every single person I work with. Whether they're a larger studio or small independent designer, it's the same. I want to understand how your idea and your concept is different than anyone else's, your unique voice. I really think that's the key. What's unique to you, and just you, and how is it different than anyone else you see?
For example, I love design, I love technology, I love manufacturing. And so for me, my calling is combining the three. It's sort of how I think about my own purpose, work, and identity; it's where these identities cross that makes it the most interesting. Because that's so unique to you, and no one else has it. So being true to yourself and finding where the niche point is is the most important.
The Tiny Table Light, designed by YOWIE
What are the central values you hold closest within your work, that drive the work you do?
I get a lot of energy from progress and supporting people, and I think what I strive to do for myself and my friends, for people I work with, is to do my best to empower them, support them in being a better version of themselves. With empathy and kindness, but being very honest. I am a very honest person, and I want to help someone; I want to do that in a supportive way, rather than critical. That's something I think about and I try to do every day. And obviously, with Gantri, it's one of our missions.
You are this year's Jury Captain for the Core77 Design Awards Furniture & Lighting category—I'm curious to hear what you're potentially excited to see, and what are aspects of a project that would really stand out to you?
The story, I love. I love to see how a product tackles a problem, or tells a story unique to the designer, to their situation, to the experience in a very clever way. That, I'm really drawn to. So the story is super important, has to be authentic, has to be real. It has to have depth. And when I see that, I build the connection to the person through the work.
In the stuff we do [at Gantri], I'm always like, "Story, story, story!" I want to know, who are you? What's really special about you? What's your background? Why did you do this? That's how I think about design. It's like a functional art piece, right? You live with it, you build this connection with the person, and it's even more than art, because you use it every day. So if I can experience a little bit of your story every day, that's what really gets me going.
You can follow more of Ian Yang's journeys with Gantri at his Twitter account, @ianyang_.