Meme tracking: Is the manufacturing industry ripe for a renaissance?

I phrase this as a question, and I’m reluctant to put a time scale on it, because the forces at play are so large and unpredictable. But there are some interesting trends emerging, which may be part of a bigger movement.

The consumer world that we’ve enjoyed for the last 50-odd years (cheap plastic goods; disposable clothes; an endless stream of new electronic gadgets) is made possible by cheap oil and off-shored labour.

The oil and labour won’t last for much longer. The question is, are we going to move away from this world before rising prices force our hand?

Are we becoming bored of our consumer culture? Are we starting to re-appraise craftsmanship? Are we willing to pay more for something made sustainably, or just made at home? Is the fear of the world we’re moving into driving us to behave differently today?

If it is, it certainly won’t mean a return to the manufacturing industry of 100 years ago. Sustainable manufacturing costs more today than the unsustainable kind. For consumers to pay more for goods, there has to be a clear benefit. We have to find new ways of making things. And we have to re-imagine the way we frame material goods and the stories we tell about them.

Here are some early indicators of how that might look:

Small-scale production to make ‘locally relevant’ products

Jay Rogers runs a business called Local Motors, which makes cars in small local factories using designs co-created with their community. They’re setting out to redefine car manufacturing:

If the mass production and marketing methods of Ford and GM ushered in the first generation of automaking, and the lean Toyota Production System ushered in the second, Local Motors represents the first fully functioning “Automotive 3.0” company.

The whole approach is fascinating, from design to manufacture, sales, servicing and disassembly. Co-creation and collaborative design could be key parts of a manufacturing renaissance, but it’s the local factories that caught my attention:

The factories are small, low capital facilities that look more like small assembly shops. And they’re in your home town, or will be. […] They allow the local creation of a relevant and meaningful car, and they allow sustainable end-of-life use of the parts in that car in a way that we don’t do today”

Jay spoke at this year’s Do Lectures (from where the quote directly above was taken) and he told a compelling story of their mission:



Cottage industries for specialist needs

The outdoor gear industry is dominated by a few high street brands: Berghaus, The North Face, et al. But in the margins, a flourishing cottage industry is emerging to cater to those with more niche interests. Ultra-lighters hike for days with less than 10kg (or even 5kg) on their backs, compared to the 20-30kg that your typical West Highland Way walker struggles with. That means using custom packs, sleeping gear and clothing.

Hendrik Morkel, who writes the wonderful ‘Hiking in Finland’ blog, has interviewed several of the people who make this custom gear, at a variety of scales. Some are producing by hand. Others, like Go-Lite have grown to be much larger businesses (you wouldn’t call Go-Lite a cottage manufacturer any more).

But all are driven by the desire to make the best possible product for themselves. And in doing so, they often end up making a product that is compelling for others too. They’re not necessarily mass-market brands, but still viable manufacturing enterprises. Here’s Tom Hennessy from Hennessy Hammocks, talking about how he refined his hammock design:

Over the next six years I made over fifty different prototypes for my ventures into the Everglades, Costa Rica and Mexico. This project started out as a personal design challenge. I originally had no intention of going into the business of selling hammocks. I just wanted to make the best, lightest, most comfortable and inexpensive hammock that I could possibly dream up. After six years of designing, sewing and travelling I wanted to wrap up this design project, I decided to go back to Florida. I rented a van, bought two sewing machines, picked up a piece of plywood at a building supply, drove down to Key Largo and set up in the camp ground where the Winnebagos park to have access to power. I pulled the plywood out of the van, put it on the picnic table, set up the two sewing machines and plugged them into the power plug on the tree. In the morning, I would cut out an improved model, in the afternoon I would sew it, assemble it and then sleep in it that night. Each morning I would make a note of all the little adjustments to make it a little more comfortable or a little simpler or lighter. Then I would start again, cutting, sewing, sleeping in the hammock. I did this every night and day for two weeks straight. The Winnebago campers were always stopping by to see the weird gadget that was changing every day. After two weeks of fine-tuning, I realised I was finished with the design. I couldn’t find any way to make it lighter, simpler or more comfortable.

Laufbursche (a Hiking in Finland favourite) is one of the small-scale brands getting a lot of attention in the ultra-light community.

Lighthiker:

On my long way back home in the train I started to inspect his pack more closely and the people beside me saw that I got more and nervous because I could not find a single thread dangling around! This is one of the quality checks I always do. Turn the thing inside out and inspect the seams and threads on the inside. Usually it looks like a real mess but not in this case. Not a single one needed to be cut. All seams straight and the attention to detail in this construction was second to none at least compared to other packs I bought in the past.

hrXXLight:

The great huckePACKs, the objects of desire, stand on a shelf in the showroom. My eyes espy a new version of the huckePACK made with Dyneema X Gridstop. The pack looks awesome. Everything is planned to detail and has been tested on tour. LAUFBURSCHE is a perfectionist and his packs are more than perfect. That is quality ‘Made in Germany’.

Making the best possible product

Staying outdoors for a moment… If you’re going to the Arctic, or other extreme environments, you need the best gear possible. And the best gear is often made by people who don’t want to scale up to high street (outsourced-to-China) proportions. Petesy paid a visit to one such enterprise, PHD (Peter Hutchinson Designs) in Stalybridge, who make some of the finest down-insulated gear on the market. But it’s not just the quality of the gear that is appealing:

PHD may be a relatively new company, but the depth and the heritage in the fabric it’s made from are something that no advertising budget can compete with.

The entrance above takes you into a Victorian mill. The stairs are worn into a gentle U shape from the passage of countless mill workers, the arched ceilings are supported by iron columns and the very building feels alive with the weight of the history which has soaked into it. As an engineer this stuff means something to me, it’s a tangible connection to the past. History might read like a list of kings and queens, but it’s the men and women of the past two hundred years who have filled buildings like this, have toiled and have been forgotten who are the real heroes for me.

And they score well on sustainability:

There is an up-to-date relevance here as well, carbon footprint. Existing building re-use, samples aren’t flying backwards and forwards to China to get tweaked for production, then shipped in bulk to a distribution warehouse for redistribution to shops. PHD’s operation is very lean, there’s no unnecessary steps in there. Old school methods as a template for the future?

Another common thread – a smaller gap between the manufacturer and customer – is present here too:

Tha gap between the customer and production is about as small as it can get at PHD, so when there’s an issue or feedback comes in that something’s not working, change is pretty much instant. There’s no container full of stock to sell first or next season orders to try and change without incurring penalties.

Taking back control by doing it yourself

Make is a magazine, website and meet-up (also in the UK) that helps people make things themselves. Mark Frauenfelder, the editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine, has written a book called Made By Hand, which covers this culture and tells the story of how he became a do-it-yourselfer.

Ed Cotton at Influx Insights calls out ‘making’ culture as a phenomenon of growing importance. He quotes from Frauenfelder’s book:

“Today’s consumers are already conditioned to throw away perfectly good TVs, computers, and MP3 players to make room for the latest model. It’s not easy to see through the consensual illusion that buying stuff will make you happy. But the people I’ve met through Make have succeeded, to one degree or another, in deprogramming themselves of the lifelong consumer brainwashing they’ve received. They’ve learned how to stop depending so much on faceless corporations to provide them with what they need (and desire) and to begin doing some of the things humans have been doing for themselves since the dawn of time. They’re willing to take back some of the control we’ve handed over to institutions. They believe that the sense of control and accomplishment you get from doing something yourself, using your own hands and mind, can’t be achieved in any other way. They make things not because they are born with a special talent for making but because they choose to develop and hone their ability. And yes, some of the things they make are mistakes, but they aren’t afraid of making them, because they’ve rejected the lesson from the Bernays school of brainwashing that says handmade stuff is bad because it isn’t perfect.”

He goes on to lament the impoverished vision of most crowd-sourcing projects (“Make our new ad!”) and I would certainly agree with him on that. But more than that, ‘making’ culture shows that wresting back control over ‘the means of production’ could be one of the most rewarding aspects of a new approach to manufacturing.

Celebrating the makers and process of making

Field Notes is: “an honest memo book, worth fillin’ up with GOOD INFORMATION.” It’s a project of Coudal Partners and the Draplin Design Company. You can buy three of their notebooks for $10. At 48 pages each, that works out at about 7¢ a page. If you’re wondering why anyone would pay that much for what seems like a commodity product, just watch the video:


Wings: Making the Field Notes 2010 Fall Edition from Coudal Partners on Vimeo.

Linking up makers and buyers

I couldn’t resist linking to Etsy again. Etsy thrives on the personal connections it facilitates between makers and buyers. The personal connection makes the products more compelling. Here’s some advice they offered sellers recently on their blog:

Let me tell you something about Etsy buyers: They don’t want a thing. If they wanted a thing, they’d go to Wal-Mart. They want a unique, handmade item, yes. But it’s far more accurate to say that they want a story.

When someone compliments a necklace that someone bought on Etsy, the first thing they will say almost every single time is, “Oh, yes, I found it on Etsy… it’s handmade and one-of-a-kind!”

If you made that necklace out of something repurposed from an old, original use (my mother has a bracelet made out of antique typewriter keys) they’ll continue and add, “… the maker takes these old things and makes them into jewelry!”

If you’re blind and say so in the product’s description, you can bet for certain that the buyer will add, “… and she’s blind, so she does it all by touch, putting together jewelry that ‘feels’ beautiful!”

Buyers of unique items are not looking to buy an item. They are buying a story to tell

Whether these examples are a sign of changing times, or just one-offs operating in isolation, I couldn’t say. But they interesting models for brands, makers and consumers to draw on.