Real Talk: Sustainability, Manufacturing in the USA, and the Future of Production Pt. 1

I don’t know if you all have heard of Digital Direct Manufacturing (DDM), but thanks to my work with the SLA 3D printer manufacturer, Formlabs, I have become very familiar with the subject. I recently held a webinar talking about this new wave of manufacturing, and what it is.

I don’t want to rehash all of it here: I suggest you watch the recording if you’d like an in-depth dive on Microfactories, Makerspaces, and Print Farms, their revenue models, strategies, applications, and how to start them. However, I’d like to talk about manufacturing from a high level.

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on mass customization, wearables, 3D printers, makerspaces, etc. Dávid Lakatos at Formlabs wrote a great piece on how we are post hype cycle in 3D printers (link), which is exciting because we’re on the cusp of seeing what these machines can really do for the public.

The point of this article is that if we assume that all these new techniques are a reaction to a changing climate and world situation, then we should be thinking about what futures we will realistically see. I mean – if technological progress is navigating towards hyper-localized manufacturing, then maybe what we’ll see in the future is hyper-localized manufacturing: even if it’s not in the mainstream right now.

If we’re seeing a trend towards localized manufacturing, a repair instead of replace economy, nations like United States, Europe, China, and others moving towards roboticized labor for large factories, and lots of investment in new digital manufacturing technologies (especially 3D printers) – well, we can basically assume two things: 1) these things are valuable, and 2) they are either a reaction to or a driving force behind a more globalized economy.

This is not what manufacturing looks like anymore.

At this point, we really shouldn’t be talking about opening new large factories in the United States anymore – at least, not for the sake of creating lots of “manufacturing jobs”. The way we’re discussing manufacturing is all wrong: it’s thought stuck in the 40s and 50s, of when robots didn’t exist, factory jobs were plentiful, and that was just how bustling economies were built. That economy started going out of style before the Internet arrived, and with the advent of mass robotic manufacturing, like 3D printers, cheap gripper arms, low-cost sensors, it’s finally dying. The ill-informed media and politicians that talk about these “bring back manufacturing” initiatives are frankly, doing more harm than good, because rather than educating, they’re just repeating the same shit over and over again.

What we need now is to update the conversation, and talk not just about how manufacturing was, but how it is and how it could or will be.

America, I’m sorry: you’re not going to have huge factories providing thousands of repetitive jobs that require little and relatively specialized education. The new economy is all about well-educated people with a wide array of skillsets and abilities: adaptable people for adaptable jobs. It doesn’t really matter if you agree with me or not: we’ve already automated away almost all of our factory jobs (and the ones that are coming back are coming back with mostly automated labor), and people who own capital are looking to automate everything else that can be automated in order to stay competitive in the modern market. Like Elsa from Frozen, we need to let go of the past and focus on the now so we can be prepared for what comes next.

Manufacturing Today

Ok, so first off lots of manufacturing jobs moved to developing countries because the labor was cheaper there. We all know that. There’s a lot of complex and interwoven issues that caused that and it’s beyond the scope of this article to unravel them. However, everything you need to know about the real state of manufacturing in the USA can be found in this paragraph on this Wikipedia article.

“A total of 3.2 million – one in six U.S. factory jobs – have disappeared since the start of 2000. The manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy has experienced substantial job losses over the past several years. In January 2004, the number of such jobs stood at 14.3 million, down by 3.0 million jobs, or 17.5 percent, since July 2000 and about 5.2 million since the historical peak in 1979. Employment in manufacturing was its lowest since July 1950. The United States produces approximately 21 percent of the world’s manufacturing output, a number which has remained unchanged for the last 40 years. The job loss during this continual volume growth is explained by record-breaking productivity gains. In addition, growth in telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, aircraft, heavy machinery and other industries along with declines in low end, low-skill industries such as clothing, toys, and other simple manufacturing have resulted in U.S. jobs being more highly skilled and better paying.”

So as you can see: lots of manufacturing is still done in the US, it’s just all the cheap consumer products have either been automated or sent overseas. The only things left (usually) are well-paying specialist jobs, like aircraft manufacturers. You’ll also mostly find these factories in remoter areas, to keep costs down – you’re not going to have factories in the centers of metro areas anymore because it’s just so much cheaper to build one out in the countryside – and it’s a lot cheaper to pay your employees if they live out there too.

So you see, manufacturing never really “left” – it evolved. But if you listened to the popular diatribe, it’s like manufacturing just picked up and moved somewhere else and we just have to go there to get it, or change our laws to bring it back. That. Won’t. Happen.

Manufacturing now relies on highly skilled people with lots of training, people who can get machines to do the jobs it might’ve taken 50 men on a line to do way back when. When you’re manufacturing at scale, you’re minimizing your employee count and maximizing your automation – or you won’t be competitive. I worked at a factory that was relatively un-automated: we did all of our painting and welding and a lot of our metal bending by hand. We even put thousands of glass beads into chandeliers by hand. But you know how management was able to do all of that? Two reasons: we relied a lot on laser-cut parts and we had a second factory in China that did most of the actual fabrication and assembly. Our American plant was relatively small.

Manufacturing as it could be

Ok, so mass fabrication in the US is doing well – but it will never bring back mass employment, and it won’t bring high paying jobs to the people it fired and/or let go. But let’s think about what these jobs did bring during their heyday:

1) Useful skills.

2) Decent, livable wages and jobs.

3) Life to local communities.

What can we do to bring these things back? Is there precedent for hyper-local community run assets or institutions? Fortunately, there are libraries, so there is a historical context, but what solution exists today?

Next time

In the next article, I’ll talk about solutions from today that can help us get to tomorrow – so stay tuned!