Over the past five years, PCH International, an engineering firm located at 135 Mississippi Street, has engaged in numerous industrial design collaborations and sponsored exhibitions for California College of the Arts (CCA) students. PCH’s Potrero Hill office, housed in a building previously owned by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, contains 3D printing machines, a laboratory to assemble wearable products like vests embedded with smart technology, and multiple meeting spaces.
According to PCH Chief Executive Officer Liam Casey, the facility makes it possible for engineers to fabricate and replicate products quickly. “Industrial designers and companies can see and feel products early in the development phase, and make adjustments and refinements based on prototypes and builds made in Potrero Hill,” he said.
Claudia Ceniceros, PCH vice president of global communications, said the facility offers the equipment needed to design-engineer and develop manufacturer-ready products. “We work from the initial concept phase, where we define, explore, and architect products to the design-for-manufacturing and supply network phase,” said Ceniceros.
The company’s U.S. headquarters is home to about 60 Bay Area-based employees, including electrical, mechanical, and firmware engineers, as well as human resources, marketing, and information technology staff. A few PCH employees work in offices located in Cape Town, South Africa, but most – 70 percent – of the firm’s workers are in Shenzhen, China, where PCH manufactures and provides global distribution services.
“We love being in Potrero Hill because the weather is great, there are many good restaurants we frequent, and the neighborhood has good energy. It’s a great location to get to Silicon Valley because it’s close to the freeway. Plus, there are many world-class industrial design studios and startups in Potrero Hill and SoMa,” said Ceniceros.
According to Casey, who founded the company in 1996 in Ireland, many Hill employees bike to work. He said it’s valuable to be near colleges and universities, venture capitalists, angel investors, engineering talent, and established companies. “We would love to have a closer relationship with UCSF. We see an opportunity to grow our relationship,” he said.
With his office located close by CCA’s Eighth Street campus, Casey serves on the college’s board of trustees. PCH hosts the industrial design senior thesis exhibition for graduating industrial design students, an opportunity for CCA graduates to show off their work to investors and the local industrial design community.
“It’s a chance for our grads to pitch the industry. Their work may consist of eight-foot by four-foot presentation boards, mockups, 2D visualizations, full-scale prototypes, and sometimes working prototypes, as well as an iPad to show videos of how the object works. PCH allows 35 to 40 students to set up projects and invites the industrial design industry for that evening. It’s always packed,” said Helen Maria Nugent, CCA dean of design.
PCH engineers also critique CCA students’ work during junior and senior design reviews. “These occur mid-semester and end-of-semester. Students working on a design product present their body of work to external panelists. They show renderings and models. These are moments where our students can step out of being in school. It’s very nerve-wracking but it’s a productive way for students to get better at what they do,” said Nugent.
Nugent said PCH employees help CCA industrial design students understand how to make their concepts a reality. “Often design ideas get dumbed down. That’s the exact opposite of what happens at PCH. They’re about how you can make things possible,” said Nugent.
Philip Winter, co-founder and chief executive officer of Nebia, a Y-Combinator company that makes a water-saving shower system, said his employees value working with PCH because the firm is “world-class at designing high-end and technically challenging consumer products. We’re located at 17th and Alabama streets, about a 20-minute walk or bike ride from their office. To have them in our backyard is amazing. Our work requires a lot of technical and creative brainstorming. We would do weekly or twice-weekly check-ins in person. The really complicated problems to solve are much easier to work through in person,” said Winter.
Nebia began working with PCH in its early product development phases. “When we started working with PCH’s team, all we had were a few prototypes and the core technology. There were still many core features that were un-designed. One thing we wanted the shower system to do was slide up and down without any buttons, something that’s never been done before. PCH’s design team worked and worked on it. Now the product uses a coil system to move up and down, and it really feels magical. The product is manufactured in the U.S. We’ve now shipped over 15,000 Nebias around the world,” said Winter.
Winter said his staff have found PCH’s team to be good partners. “You develop a lot of empathy working together. Grinding on a problem alongside folks you trust and respect helps you focus on the fact that it’s all about making the best product possible,” said Winter.
PCH’s ability to design different types of products appealed to Brett Lovelady, founder of Astro Studios, an industrial design firm located on Sixth Street. “We’ve designed drones for 3D Robotics and have recently collaborated on a cosmetics project for L’Oreal. We do the industrial design. They turn that into producible, engineered CAD files and prototypes. They have the expertise and perspective for manufacturing things around the world,” said Lovelady.
Lovelady said he appreciates PCH’s direct connection to China. “The Bay Area is the gateway to Asia. PCH is doing a really good job of bridging the cultural exchange that allows us to make smarter deliverable products,” said Lovelady.
Yves Behar, founder of fuseproject, an industrial design firm located on 16th Street, said he’s grateful that PCH has become familiar with the local industrial design culture. “The success of their work is a result of their talent and the way they fulfill their mission of helping companies realize their vision. There is a similar ethos among the businesses and artists that make up Dogpatch and Potrero Hill,” said Behar.
Behar said Southside has long been a creative hub. “Over the years, the presence of designers, artists, and independent businesses across a wide spectrum of industries can be deeply felt here. With new prominent gallery spaces and artist studios, this area is consolidating its reputation for the design and art hub of San Francisco. We’re seeing more investment in the area as well, in terms of landscape architecture, creating green spaces, and more housing. It’s a neighborhood that continues to thrive by being about creativity, engagement and innovation,” said Behar.
Behar’s team has collaborated on a number of projects with PCH, including the redesign of a sun care product – MY UV patch – packaging for products from La Roche Posay, a skincare company; and a UV Sense product. “We often try new products on our street, Carolina, or in the Potrero Hill athletic field that’s next to our office,” said Behar.
Philipe Manoux, vice president of engineering at PCH Lime Lab, the company’s design engineering division, first got to know Potrero Hill when he lived in Bernal Heights more than 10 years ago. “I used to come here to skateboard. Bottom of the Hill and Thee Parkside, with punk rock and indie music, were a big lure. They’re still there. Now we do happy hours at Thee Parkside frequently on Fridays. I’ve gotten to know not only the industrial design firms like Box Clever and Branch Creative that we work with, but also Deluxe Distribution, a skateboard company across the street from us. We’ve visited each others’ studio spaces and we’ve 3D printed a few things for them. Normally we wouldn’t cross paths,” said Manoux.
Manoux said being close to 18th Street and the wide variety of Potrero Hill restaurants enables PCH to make a good impression on clients. “We’re able to bring people out for lunch after a meeting and people are often just surprised…with all the little gems. They say, “What is this neighborhood all about?” said Manoux. “Our physical neighborhood celebrates uniqueness and originality. Nothing here is mundane or boring. That helps us with our design work. As a product development and creative services team, we have to avoid group-think.”