How to Recapture the Soul of American Manufacturing?

This is a conversation between Kevin Czinger(KC), the Founder and CEO of Divergent 3D, and Alex Teng (AT), an environmental scientist at Divergent 3D. In this post, Kevin and Alex discuss how to recapture the soul of American manufacturing by enabling small teams to create and manufacture. They discuss how additive manufacturing is the new technology base for the 21st century, and how it will help us tackle pressing problems of deindustrialization and the environmental crisis. Learn more about Divergent 3D.

KC: We as a planet are facing some global existential issues. For the most part, everyone looks at these issues and says, “How do we create the next Manhattan Project?” — meaning throw massive resources from a massive organization at the problem. And that’s really been the trajectory of the 20th century. If you look at software though, the trajectory has been the other way, and the question is, “How do you give smaller and smaller teams more and more power?”

The obvious efficiencies you get from a software mindset, like object-oriented programming or levels of abstraction, have not yet been fully established in the hardware field.

AT: So a simple question that leads from that is when can you establish those concepts in manufacturing? And is that where you realized additive manufacturing allows for that? That’s so interesting because a key development in the industrial revolution is the shift from hand working to machine tools to achieve enough precision for interchangeable parts. And so with machine tools, you can mass produce. Tooling really creates those economies of scope and scale. But it also locks these designs into design specific manufacturing hardware.

KC: Right. The 20th century is all about achieving scope and scale in manufacturing — standardizing and scaling. And then you look and go, “How do you achieve the kind of innovation and speed and creativity that’s happening on the software side?” And that’s by architecting a system that allows small teams to be creative. You can’t do that if in manufacturing you need design-specific factories and tooling that are expensive and have a long amortization period creating long, risky product cycles. It’s not flexible and resilient enough. You need to architect something like a universal constructor — a machine capable of making any device given the right set of materials and a construction program (think pond ecosystem meets Von Neumann machine).

Years ago, as I was reading about additive manufacturing, I realized this is the digitalization of manufacturing. Use a computer to numerically engineer something and then click print. It’s not as simple as that since to truly make a universal constructor you have to create an entire system. It’s not just as simple as buying a lab-grade 3d printer. But committing to the creation of a universal constructor may be how you recapture the soul of manufacturing.

Human beings are a universal constructor biologically designed and specialized to perform on the surface of the planet Earth. More than that, we’re Homo Faber, a creature that derives huge joy from creation. What is the technological system consistent with those first two statements that should be built and how should it be architected? Is this the new technology base for the 21st century? And if so, how do you bring that together and how do you create that machine?

AT: That’s an exciting vision for me of the future of manufacturing. When I was growing up, people told me manufacturing was dead. My picture of manufacturing resembled the factory floor, where people were doing repetitive, tiring work. And so there was no desire to learn anything about manufacturing.

As an environmental scientist, though, I’m confronted by the fact that if we don’t tackle the way we make things, we miss basically most of the important impacts we have on the environment. What sets most design is what can be cost-effectively manufactured and supported by the market. It’s so crucial for our future that we learn to make better, more efficient things. But I do believe that because of the stigma I grew up with, my generation is not interested in manufacturing.

KC: When I was younger, I’d read The Hardy Boys books at the library. In them, the brothers and their friends actually build a rocket and do something, and I’d be, “Holy smokes these cats built a rocket? How cool is that?” Then you’d assemble parts and build a mini-bike, a go-kart, a chopper bicycle or later a hot rod for street racing — and you’d feel tremendous pride in your creation. Those increasingly larger steps gave you confidence to dream big.

The car companies have built things so that they’re now a black box and you can’t do anything with them anyway, right? You can’t build on them anyway, so our building skills are becoming vestigial. We are taking away from humans one of the fundamental cornerstones of what makes them human. It shouldn’t be that way and doesn’t need to be that way.

AT: Absolutely. It seems like, in my generation, the builders are all coders. Part of the way we recapture the soul of American manufacturing is to convince people that soon we’re going to need a hundred times more designers and builders of things because the means of production will be accessible to so many more people.

KC: Exactly. We’re getting people to do commercial adoption and drive down the price so that somebody goes, “Holy cow, I can be a car designer and manufacturer? I can create locally in small teams for my community?” I’m hoping that people get excited by this vision. I’m hoping they want to learn more and ask how they can get a job in this field. Additive manufacturing will reconfigure the industrial base. It’s up to your generation to do whatever they are going to do with it.

If you look at the Foxconn and Tesla models of enormous manufacturing scale, as tremendously successful as they are, I just don’t think that should be our only option. There needs to be an alternative to hundreds of thousands of people performing repetitive tasks in a behemoth factory centralized in the lowest cost geography — with loss of manufacturing jobs everywhere else. In our filled-up planet, we should start to re-localize and democratize production. Focus on small teams. Focus on adaptation to the local environment. Think resilience. Think adaptation. Think meaningful, human scale work.

And frankly, that’s how we recapture the soul of manufacturing. What’s the most fun? We play team sports because it’s fun. We perform together in bands. People form companies because they love small team startups. What is really fun is working in these small teams. There might be business and political reasons to want to maintain scale and scope. But to me, that’s keeping the current structure in place. And we can’t afford to do that. Remember the famous Margaret Mead quote — “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; it is the only thing that ever has.”

AT: Yeah, the environmental crisis we’re facing is an existential threat. Business-as-usual isn’t an option. I don’t think people are thinking about manufacturing enough, especially in the United States. We seem to believe we just shouldn’t be making things here anymore. And the conclusion of that statement, therefore, is that so many of the world’s problems are out of our personal reach. Microgrids are a trend going against that, where people are designing and building for themselves. But I just don’t see a lot of it going on.

KC: Manufacturing got wiped out in a lot of places across the country. I was watching Van Jones on CNN. He went to Trumbull County, Ohio. In the last five years, this county has had a huge number of jobs move overseas. And people were like, “None of these politicians came to visit us, talk to us, did anything. Our diners have closed down; our dry cleaners closed down. Everything’s gone.” All that manufacturing is moving. It’s still moving overseas.

Who knows how to rebuild? We are facing a challenging manufacturing future with a lot of conflicting views on how best to proceed. No matter what, though, we should think about humans and their quality of life first and create a system that is flexible, adaptable and resilient, not one that locks us into the same manufacturing infrastructure and products with its cost and scale when we don’t know what the answer is. Technology can concentrate power or technology can distribute it — it is up to us to choose the architecture. Continued concentration or democratic distribution — this is a fundamental question for the future of our civilization. My contribution to this is that we need to build technology locally, democratize the means of production and dematerialize products (make them better performing while using less material and energy in a closed loop). Build jobs locally. Keep them local. Have them adapt locally. And you do it everywhere in the world — small team factories in Los Angeles and Cleveland, Turin and Shanghai. Local jobs, local creation, local adaption — global progress through shared know-how. To paraphrase Jacob Bronowski — that’s the ascent of man.