Power to the People!

From the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s, something happened that has had reverberating effects on the area of human production and capability. Characterized as the Industrial Revolution, a shift in production methods from hand to machines caused a comparatively stable low global GDP to skyrocket. Markets especially sensitive such as textiles, metal production, and chemicals were the greatest affected, but the results of those heavy movers influenced life in every way possible. Even here in the United States 200 years later, as our workforce is slowly replaced by robots and machines, our manufacturing capability continues to improve and be competitive on the world stage. On the surface this seems like it could possibly spell catastrophe for many traditional jobs…

Enter a shift in consciousness.

Manufacturing is traditionally associated with large investments into tooling and gear enabling the mass production of goods at costs giving the consumer more, (sometimes) better, and cheaper options. The strengths of this modern industry machine include cheaper goods, a consistent product, and predictable profit margins. For a large company with a solid offering, the only thing left is to hand off such a product to a dedicated and proficient marketing organization. For the small maker it seems a reasonable assumption that one starts with a handcrafted product and then migrates into the classic model seen by so many manufacturing powerhouses after a period of time. Maximum profit! The problem, however, is what you have to give up in order to participate in this process. Each product and part has specifications that deviate within a somewhat predictable range. The product coming off could either be perfect in every way, or, at the limits of accepted tolerance resulting in a less than satisfactory experience. Generally none of the subtlety remains in a mass produced part even if it is perfect off a jig. It takes tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per revision, and hundreds of hours to refit the assembly line per change. The result of that? A carefully engineered offering which intersects at cost per unit and profit per unit.

Not a recipe that a perfectionist would adopt.

Woe is us! There is no gray area! Either we continue with a laboriously slow handcraft, or we sell out to a major overseas manufacturing line for riches!

Sound dumb and hysterical? Good, we don’t believe in that reality either. The truth is that there are a few of us adopting a hybrid theory embodied in the maker culture, or sometimes the “maker’s movement.” The trickle down effect of heavy industry has created many small manufacturing alternatives we can leverage to gain many of the benefits of technology, while still preserving the art of classic handcraft. It used to be an entire chain of events where someone would design a part, then that part goes off to a drafting division to draw specification and tolerances, then off to a manufacturing engineer who designs the tools and jigs, then to trained operators to execute the manufacturing and assembly. Using computer tools and technology (such as 3D printing, rapid prototyping, CNC, stress testing, and metallography) combined with a knowledge of handcraft, we can reject those processes that introduce error and variation but accept the processes that contribute stability and consistency within carefully selected attributes. Approaching the problems scientifically and methodically also allows us to learn to OBJECTIVELY quantify attributes in order to control the final outcome in a predictable way.

The personal application to all of this mumbo-jumbo is as follows.

Less time spent adjusting parts off of less than perfect jigs means more time understanding, developing, and preserving the best attributes imparted by handcraft.

Having an objective measure of quality combined with exhaustive play-testing is important. Leaning hard into questionably effective changes for marketing purposes is not.

-Jeremy

March 20, 2018