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The Sky is the Limit

April 18, 2024

Fairfield manufacturer Sky Factory is one-of-a-kind worldwide

When Skye Witherspoon and his siblings required orthodontal work as kids in the 90s, their father Bill took it upon himself to make the experience more enjoyable. He’d been painting watercolor landscapes on walls and ceilings since the 60s and bartered with their orthodontist to do the same above their chairs. This initial project eventually turned into Sky Factory, which now manufacturers the only research-verified virtual skylights in the world.

The company was founded in Fairfield in 2002 and started out creating printed ceiling tiles. As technology advanced, they transitioned to digital images and developed their own LED backlighting system to make the images more compelling. Now, they specialize in products for healthcare facilities as well as dental offices, commercial spaces and senior living.

“In general, there’s a greater awareness on occupant wellbeing, and people are becoming more sensitive of how built environments affect them,” Skye said. “We’ve found that there’s a super strong need in different healthcare environments, spaces where people are under a lot of stress and anxiety. So, our goal is to help relax patients and put them into a better state of mind.”

Raising the Bar for Wellness

While Sky Factory initially designed their products based on customer feedback, they decided to conduct neuroscience studies in 2012 to offer further insight. They were already aware of the architectural world’s biophilic design, which incorporates nature into an environment via windows, natural materials and water features. But they wanted to better understand the physiological impact of their product and its digital compositions.

They conducted two research studies with Texas Tech and Covenant Hospital using an fMRI machine to analyze participants’ brain activity. The first study had participants observe four sets of images: positive, negative and neutral shots of nature followed by a Sky Factory product. The second study took place in 12 patient rooms, six of which had Sky Factory’s luminous sky ceilings while the other six had regular white tiled ceilings.

The research reiterated their skylight benefits – Sky Factory’s products were shown to activate a unique part of the cerebellum related to special cognition and depth perception, changing how the patient observes the space. The second study also revealed that their products caused a 53% reduction in acute stress and a 40% reduction in anxiety.

“There’s something that feels really good about being able to deliver that amount of relief, and that’s what makes us unique in terms of what we create,” Skye said. “At the end of the day, we’re doing something that’s helping people and that’s super important to us.”

With that knowledge, Sky Factory set out to further improve their products. They began implementing moving imagery alongside static photos. Each product features photography from all over the world, custom framing to allow it to accommodate a room’s structure and a 6,500 Kelvin LED backlighting system. Almost every component is manufactured in-house by 35 employees with the help of equipment like a pick and place machine.

A Manufacturing 4.0 grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority in 2021 allowed them to upgrade their current machinery, resulting in more automation and increased productivity and quality. This improvement also gave them the opportunity to experiment with more precise processes and products. They’ve since developed new applications, like large-scale wall installations with improved adhesives for shallow spaces.

Becoming an International Star

Such innovation has paid off – Sky Factory presented their OpenView Luminous Virtual Windows at the 2023 Healthcare Design Conference & Expo. It won the Nightingale Gold Award for the architectural products: non-medical category, which recognizes products that use design and innovation to promote healing and productivity.

“We wouldn’t have been able to earn that award without that new equipment and our incredible team,” Skye said. “We need to have a high degree of flexibility, creativity and collaboration from everyone. Every team member is valuable.”

Today, Sky Factory’s products have appeared in a memory care assisted living facility in Florida, mental health clinic in Virginia, chemotherapy treatment center in California as well as a luxury hotel and high school in France and an airport in Sweden.

As more people experience their virtual skylights, windows and aquariums, the compliments and admiration for Sky Factory’s technology are never ending. A company favorite came from a child who, while looking at a Luminous SkyCeiling, asked her dentist: “What do you do when it rains?”