"Making" Manufacturing Relevant Again

September 2016


It’s often heard that in America, we simply don’t make things anymore.  And yes, if the barometer for such a statement is that we don’t mass-produce and export like we used to, it would be accurate.  But quite a few Americans are still making things, and the way it’s happening today may usher in a transformation of our economy in the coming decades.  And it’s possible that transformation may be most apparent in America’s Rust Belt.

Welcome to the Maker Movement.  It’s probably best understood as an extension of DIY (do-it-yourself) culture into the realm of technology, intersecting with the hacker culture that undergirds much of the explosion of technology itself.  But the Maker Movement comes with an emphasis on building things, rather than building code.

Remember the tinkerer in your neighborhood who had stacks of Popular Mechanic magazines and spent hours on end in the garage working on, well, no one was ever quite sure?  That person qualifies as a maker.  The difference is, the price of tools necessary for making high-quality products — whether they’re furniture, barbeque grills, rugs or bicycles — has come down substantially, to the point where self-described inventors can purchase them.  In addition, the expansion of technology has made communication far easier, meaning ideas can spread faster and farther, and that actually selling your product using nontraditional means is achievable as well.

Here’s how James Fallows of the Atlantic describes the roots of the movement:

“Since the dawn of the capitalist heavy-industrial era, to succeed in manufacturing you needed capital. You needed money for giant production equipment. Blast furnaces if you were making steel, assembly lines if you were making cars, machine tools if you were making engines, coordinated supply chains if you were assembling complex devices. Then you needed distribution arrangements with stores, and lots of inventory for them to keep in the warehouse, and other impediments that collectively made it hard, expensive, high-stakes, and high-risk for newcomers to enter a business.

This is the equation that the tools revolution of the past few years is also changing for manufacturing. A combination of 3D printing (which allows people to make and revise prototypes onsite, and produce certain high-value, low-volume items themselves, rather than going to a factory); much less expensive laser cutters, milling machines, and other sophisticated machine tools; the evolution of Arduino controls, which allow designers to add sophisticated electronic functions without doing all the coding themselves.”

Fallows also notes that smaller firms with equivalent technology have the agility to substantially reduce the “mind-to-market” timeline (the period between the initial conception of a product and its appearance in the marketplace):

“Faster means an edge on the competition. It means less tied-up capital. It means a better ability to offer new features or efficiencies. It means quicker response to shifting tastes and market trends.”

Today, the Maker Movement is beginning to gain wider recognition and revel in its growing relevance.  The movement has a magazine that touts the work of individuals and firms utilizing the tools and strategies of the movement.  Maker Faires, a sort of science fair/carnival for tech enthusiasts, engineers, inventors and hobbyists, have sprouted worldwide, with the intent of spreading the word on the Maker Movement.

This has great implications for America’s manufacturing sector — it becomes more nimble, more responsive and produces more meaningful products, likely at a lower cost.  The movement continues to unite the creativity of the technology sector with the brawn and heft of the manufacturing sector, and to the benefit of both.

As someone who writes about cities, with a particular interest in Rust Belt cities — if there was ever a place where Americans made things, it was the Rust Belt — I see this as having great implications for cities as well.  Before they were manufacturing centers for mass-produced goods, most Rust Belt cities were the homes of small-time tinkerers following through on a glorious idea.  Think of Nathaniel Wales and Alfred Mellowes, who invented the refrigerator in Ft. Wayne, IN in 1916, or Orville and Wilbur Wright’s Dayton, OH bike shop that sprouted the development of the first controlled, heavier-than-air aircraft in 1903.  Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, but his tinkering nature and background in engineering helped advance its development into a practical product.

Rust Belt residents have long pined for the return of the days when super-sized manufacturers employed thousands of workers at good wages.  Deep down, they realize those days are long gone.  However, something might be rising that takes full advantage of the region’s skill and know-how.  Cities may transform themselves from relying on, say, five large-scale manufacturers employing 20,000 workers fifty years ago, to 1,000 agile and nimble firms each employing 20 a few years from now.  And it could be a difference “maker” for its cities.


This article was written by Pete Saunders from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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