A bit of writing over at Make Magazine caught my eye today and I thought I’d talk a bit about reshoring and “artisanal manufacturing,” two buzzwords that could reshape the way things are made here and abroad. In Make, Stett Holbrook notes that with Foxconn’s hints that it is moving some manufacturing to our shores comes the tantalizing idea that rather than “ramping up” manufacturing, hardware makers here in the U.S. could simply use America’s unused manufacturing cycles. In other words, there is no reason to build huge factories when, for example, there are thousands of unused manufacturing tools at our disposal across the country and around the world.
Imagine, then a sort of Shanzhai market for components here in the U.S. Small manufacturers could offer small-batch jobs to hardware hackers and larger orders could be completed by multiple manufacturers working in concert with a centralized QA testing system in place to ensure each part was made correctly. In fact, this vision of “crowd-sourced” manufacturing isn’t far off from what it was like in 18th century Switzerland. Watch and clockmakers during that time would travel to the Jura mountains in the Fall and drop off metals and other raw materials with farming families who would soon be cut off from civilization by heavy snows and impassible roads. Instead of lying dormant all winter, these families would grind out gears, hands, and plates for the watchmakers in Zurich and then, when the snows thawed, send the finished product into the cities. In this way many farm families gained valuable experience in making metal parts and watchmakers could build hundreds of watches without spending a fortune on manufacturing costs.
The same could be done for smaller batch hardware manufacturers in the U.S. and with the rise of crowdfunding, this is becoming ever more important and lucrative. Why, for example, make gadgets overseas when there are plenty of folks right here aching to build almost anything to order?
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a hardware hacker in Detroit. He was working on a highly secure computer case and drew a very simple diagram on a piece of paper and took it to a sheet-metal specialist. The specialist looked at the diagram, tweaked a few things, and had a prototype ready in a few hours for about $100. The hacker wanted to pay him more but the Michigan-based maker didn’t want more cash – he just wanted an order for a 1,000 more pieces at the same price. When tools lie dormant, everyone loses.
I have a Makerbot Replicator in my attic, a few feet from where I’m typing right now. I’d love to manufacture things for people nearby or even across the country. I’d love to put my hardware to good use, make a little extra cash, and turn out a product that someone will enjoy (seriously, if you need anything printed, just tweet me). As it stands I build a few things a month and try out new materials but I rarely put the Makerbot through its paces.
Our manufacturing might used to be measured in square miles of assembly lines, warehouses, and worker housing. Now it’s measured by how much smarter we work to build the same number of products at the same pace. My grandfather worked for Wheeling Steel and they lived a company town along the Ohio River. In the 1970s, his hometown, Martins Ferry, topped out at 10,000 people, all working in a galvanizing plant. Then the boom went bust and Martins Ferry is a veritable shell of its former self with about 6,000 residents. That was then.
This is now: Manufacturers no longer need to build boom towns, however, when their talent lives everywhere in the world. There is no need to devastate an economy when those same steelworkers, with a little help, could build some amazing stuff right there on the Ohio River. It’s a pie-in-the-sky dream, to be sure, but it can be done and, in a sense, has to be done.