Thinking about Manufacturing

Found a link today that really got me thinking. It's a great story about how some folks are thinking differently about manufacturing, and it's worth the read. It builds the case for what the author, Alicia Rouault, calls small urban manufacturing. The idea is to take abandoned and under-used factory sites in urban areas and open them up to really small (as small as 5 to 20 employees in some cases) operations such as craft breweries, coffee roasters and apparel makers.

Now before you dismiss the idea—as I almost did—as some airy-fairy, graduate urban design school project, give it a read. The folks involved in such projects, The Empowerment Plan in Detroit, Joshu + Vela in San Francisco and Buttonwood in Brooklyn, N.Y, don’t promise to solve the American manufacturing conundrum of this century.

There is, after all, no one-size-fits-all solution to “bringing back” American manufacturing. Anyone who has thought seriously about the issues surrounding the future of manufacturing knows that building a viable 21st-century manufacturing base for this or any other country is not simple. Equally valid, but conflicting interests have to be balanced. Inexorable technical, historical and demographic trends have to be addressed. Political pressure from all sides will play a part. So will what other countries, over whom we have little or no control, do about manufacturing. So will general economic trends and conditions. Also simple psychology and very human tendency to see no farther than the end of our own noses and our own comfort and well-being.

We are going to have to let go of some cherished pictures of what we think manufacturing ought to look like—sorry, but dad and granddad’s factories aren’t ever coming back. We have to rethink educational policy and practice. And we’re going to have to rethink that cherished American tendency to simply move on when the current place seems played out or no longer suits us.

Are microbreweries and artisanal ceramic tile factories going to save American manufacturing? No. But they are a small part of the solution. And who’s to say the some of the small solutions they come up with can’t be scaled up?

And starting out in the back of someone else’s factory isn’t all that new. In 1903, Lynde and Harry Bradley rented out space in the Communicator Bar Company factory for $3.00 a week to start work on the crane that was to be the very tiny beginnings of Rockwell Automation.

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