21st Century Manufacturing

Here’s a bold bet for the century: manufacturing will return to the U.S.

The 20th century was largely about realizing the vision of the Industrial Revolution: a world of plenty, where goods could be cheaply manufactured and efficiently distributed to consumers. We’re entering an era where those problems are largely solved thanks to the magic of Capitalism and global trade – the world is not lacking for Stuff. Even the poorest in the US don’t lack for T-shirts or underpants. We don’t need cheaper goods.

So the 21st century consumer isn’t just looking for Stuff, they’re looking to express themselves. Consequently we’ve seen an evolution of Brands from “Our Stuff Is Good,” implying you shouldn’t buy the possibly-shoddy stuff sold by other vendors, to “You Should Identify With Our Values.” People don’t buy Nike because they think non-Nike shoes are bad shoes – Nike marketing doesn’t even try to touch that – people buy Nike because they want to be and be seen as the sort of go-getters who Just Do It. Modern brands are about expression more than quality.

But expressing yourself as a brand’s identity is an abstraction – how much do you really understand me just because I am wearing Nike shoes? When the brands have small constituencies, identification is more meaningful, but without broad recognition, identification is much more challenging. Namely, it’s cool that you wear True Religion jeans, but until they become well-known I don’t know what that means — and by the time True Religion jeans become popular, it by definition means less to associate yourselves with them. This is part of the reason why we see “hipsters” always seeking to identify with a brand before it’s popular and move on once a brand “sells out” or becomes mainstream. While many people just dismiss hipsters, it’s legitimate that they’re looking to express themselves and their “brand churn” demonstrates that brand expression is inherently ineffective because it’s a generic intermediate, a poor proxy for values. Which is to say that no brand can actually represent you.

Consequently, the natural conclusion is that your only brand is yourself and your direct expressions. Online platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and WordPress allow the individual to push their unique thoughts and tastes to a wider audience, but they still don’t cover the world outside of the computer. As people hunger to legitimately express themselves in person, they will want goods they identify with and that uniquely and directly express their values, without intermediaries. An increase in the sophistication of just-in-time custom manufacturing and the need for rapid turnaround and shipping will mean that “synthesis factories” in the US will be able to turn out large quantities of custom goods for consumers. Waiting for things to ship from China will just take too long, and lower labor costs will be obviated by automated machinery. Combined with readily available crowdsourced pools of designers who can help individuals create an maintain a personal aesthetic, by the end of the 21st century, most Americans’ clothes will be bespoke and manufactured here.

The same goes for custom skins for electronics, photographs, and other touches that help personalize a body or space. While bulk manufacture of electronics and other long-turnaround goods will remain overseas for some time, much of what is produced – like flash memory or displays – will be commoditized, much like importing raw materials. The actual synthesis and creation of value to pair a product with a consumer and put it in their hands will be done near the consumer.

Many thanks to @agentfin for a #brainbreakfast where we fleshed out some of these ideas.

2 thoughts on “21st Century Manufacturing”

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I agree with the outcome you describe, but I have a different hypothesis for how – or why – we’ll get there. Actually…it’s more of a complimentary hypothesis, or a chicken to your egg/egg to your chicken. Let me explain :)

    What I hear in your post (with some of my own interpretation mixed in) is that there is a fundamental value problem in mass marketed goods. Historically, achieving maximum “product benefit” in the form of self-expression has been tempered by “product cost” and (limited buying power). This has then resulted in a consumer regression-to-the-self-expression-mean. Through extrapolation of your thoughts, in the old 20th century world “price” ruled tyrannically over “value” and things like “demographic targeting” and even “target markets” and other abstractions of we-the-people were literally invented in order to achieve economies of scale and a price point that was viable. I suppose these abstractions do at least acknowledge some degree of buyer difference! And…sadly….that gave us the stepford wives, swanson dinners, wal-mart and only one pair of jeans to put our sexy asses in. Essentially, we’ve had to compromise between having the David-brand and having something we can actually afford. Put another way, during the 20th century we simply couldn’t afford to express ourselves. This is a pretty profound framing I think. Thank you!

    While you don’t say it explicitly, I think this ultimately a value problem …and…one that has always been there. This “its always been there” is probably pretty important – you would resist the notion that this we-are-approaching-the-one-brand-to-one-person-ideal is actually an aesthetic or fashion trend (you don’t believe the stepford wives really, truly, deeply wanted to all look and buy the same). So would I. So…I think its best described as a “problem” and I believe you’re postulating that we might come closer than ever to solving for it, inspired by the uber-scalable internet and enabled by general prosperity. Or…maybe we can even go as far as to say that this is the new world order and companies will have to solve for it if they want to survive. Cool.

    Back to my real point….what I’d like to add to your post is a supply side force that I think is as instrumental to this change as the demand/consumer side that you articulate. I think the most important force in the return of manufacturing to the U.S. will be the decreased diversity of labor costs in the global labor market. At some point the increased transport costs will eclipse the decreased labor costs and there will be no reason to have manufacturing far away. I think I diverge from you in that I don’t actually think price is irrelevant because people aren’t sensitive to it, but that that ability provide enough differentiation through price will be increasingly limited, perhaps to the point of being moot, and differentiation will have to be achieved through other means.

    Specifically, the ability to increase economic productivity through decreased labor costs will be gone but the need to compete will remain. If the ability to compete on price derived through the pursuit of cheaper and cheaper labor is gone, then here’s hoping that you are right and companies will be forced to compete on increasing consumer value which you speculate will be based on how much it allows the consumer to express their unique identity. That’d be dope.

    I think that one can’t / won’t happen without the other.

    Thanks again David.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>