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Instruments of Power by Thomas Hart Benton (1931); {detail} Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bringing Manufacturing Back to Our Communities: What’s to be Done?

Ted Hall
Ted Hall
Jan 21, 2017 · 8 min read

I’ve argued for revitalizing manufacturing in our communities by encouraging and supporting new, local entrepreneurs whose small manufacturing operations will be made competitive by digital fabrication technologies and digital infrastructures. But how do we accomplish that encouragement?

The answer is simple: grow local support. Grow facilities, incubators, and infrastructures appropriate for local manufacturing; and, make local manufacturing development an attractive and realistic path for those who have the energy and enthusiasm for it. That’s all that it takes to facilitate manufacturing and product development that favors local production. Reservoirs of entrepreneurial enthusiasm for small manufacturing are waiting to be tapped.

Let’s not make it a grandiose challenge beyond what it needs to be — and especially, let’s not over-promise vast new employment from manufacturing as a political ploy. We hear about politically attractive projects for quick solutions to declining manufacturing employment almost every day. Local and state governments have had no problem giving massive tax breaks and other inducements for large companies to move their factories from one state to another. Yet, we are typically disappointed with these investments in outside businesses when jobs for local citizenry fail to appear, or are only transient, or when the work is menial. Investing a portion of such funding in nurturing new, local, technology-based manufacturing offers a better return. It’s the type of manufacturing that has the technological advantage to be sustainable and that can attract the entrepreneurial energies to make it a reality. It is, after all, a local thing we are after.

Local Programs

Programs to encourage new, small-manufacturing do exist and some communities have made compelling starts. Support for technology-oriented, manufacturing entrepreneurs can be found in community colleges, high-schools and middle-schools, community makerspaces, TechShops, craft-centers, and even libraries.

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President Obama checks out digital fab manufacturing at Lorraine (OH) Community College (this facility is one of the early, MIT-inspired FabLabs).

Community colleges in particular, long recognized for involvement in workforce development and training, are becoming active. Indeed, it could be argued that community colleges are one of our few institutions with the agility and scope to lead an effective campaign for a new kind of manufacturing. They operate collectively in a way that is uniquely widespread in ambition and coordination, yet individually they are locally focused. Being un-encumbered by constraining histories and administrative or political bureaucracies, they often show unusual agility and creativity in responding to community needs.

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Community colleges in particular, long recognized for involvement in workforce development and training, are becoming particularly active. Open Works digital workshop [from Baltimore Business Journal, Morgan Eichensehr].

Consider the new collaboration in Baltimore between the Community College of Baltimore County and the makerspace Open Works. CCBC is offering design, fabrication, and manufacturing courses making use of the resources of Open Works. Open Works is a natural setting for experiencing and learning about small manufacturing technologies and is itself oriented to offering various types of workforce training for manufacturing, along with the more typical tool, instructional, and work-space resources of a community maker-space. It’s the definition of being engaged in developing community-oriented production and encouraging an enthusiasm for it.

National Programs, perhaps …

Over the last 8 years, the agenda of the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTEP) has been about both DIY-making, renewed manufacturing, and the relationship between the two — with STEM education for backing. Thus at a national level there is recognition of the opportunities for a renewed manufacturing and strong intentions to help make it happen.

Unfortunately, at a national level the importance of establishing realistic and sustainable local manufacturing is obscured by the political rhetoric regarding the effort to re-shore mass production — often concerned with bringing back the centralized factories that are increasingly robotized. It’s an effort that is also accompanied by much hand-waving about “advanced manufacturing” from the very companies and institutions that just decades ago, off-shored so many of our industries and were responsible for our loss of industrial infrastructures, described as our loss of the industrial commons. Some of the bravura has an appealing futuristic ring, but it’s an effort likely to be marginally related to re-establishing small manufacturing.

It goes without saying that we will always need production of high-volume commodity items. And, we also want to be makers of those “advanced” items that simply can’t be produced without large investments of capital owing to scale or the nature of specialized equipment required — think SpaceX. For these interests, it will be helpful to pay some attention to bringing back our off-shored mass-production manufacturers and to encourage highly-capitalized producers. But the Federal government is unlikely to provide a strong stimulus for the encouragement of local manufacturing.

Aren’t We Supporting Entrepreneurs Already?

You might be thinking to yourself that there is already an appealing public effort supporting start-ups and local incubators. True. But this enthusiasm is not one that is oriented to manufacturing.

Activity around the growing of small businesses is positive — small business is difficult and supporting it important. Start-up incubators now sprouting in many cities are encouraging young people to break new ground and innovate in business development. But often these incubators and accelerators are narrowly focused on software or services and provide resources of convenience (e.g. office space). Many offer co-working space, office services, mentoring, and promotion to help get these business off the ground (here in Durham we are lucky in having thriving support for food-trucks and start-up restaurants…yum). Yet, few of these initiatives are oriented to the challenges of manufacturing.

There are also the accelerators I’ve described previously that are associated with investors and venture capital. These tend to target software or platform-projects that can be rapidly scaled. There’s little interest in manufacturing, except when it can be ramped to mass production in China. As noted in my first post, many such incubators, in being investor-oriented, are prospecting for high-growth opportunities and return. Investor enthusiasm for manufacturing is limited by it’s more modest growth trajectories and by the limited infrastructure for small manufacturing that we are currently experiencing.

Small manufacturing businesses are hard to jump-start. The needs for space and equipment are more significant, are more awkward, and harder to address in urban areas. And, for our neighborhoods, there is still some cultural fear that manufacturing is dingy and dirty. Getting any business started is difficult enough because of the disproportionately high costs for just about everything a small business does: healthcare, legal services, regulatory compliance, product and business insurance, HR, educational programs, and retirement funding. But, small manufacturers are doubly challenged.

Does Local = Cities?

Several initiatives are underway that are bringing the focus for economic and manufacturing development back to the city level and using the stimulation of small manufacturing that is based on new technologies. Here is Gerry Davis’ perspective on some of the new manufacturing activity emerging in Detroit.

The “city” as a focus for manufacturing recovery has been recognized by a number of groups, including the National League of Cities. They have provided a nice summary of the challenges for the future of work. An attractive specific initiative that pushes the city as the locus for renewal of creative productivity is currently emerging from the maker movement in the form of a program know as Maker Cities. Maker Cities, responding to the struggles of faltering cities, focuses on the “maker” as a driver for the value of manufacturing entrepreneurs for communities.

In a Maker-City-oriented message to the new President, Mark Muro & Peter Hirshberg have described the importance of re-inventing small manufacturing, some of the keys to making it happen. These themes are more fully developed in Peter Hirshberg, Dale Dougherty, & Marcia Kadanof’s playbook for making it happen (take it to your city council):

An inspiration for the Maker City movement and a broader, bolder, and more futuristic vision is the FabCity initiative. FabCity thinking links production, economic, and environmental sustainability with advanced concepts of cultural development. FabCities hope to create models for a future where resources and products flow cyclically through sustainable local ecosystems. FabLab Barcelona and IAAC (school of architecture), initiators of the FabCity concept, sponsor an entertaining video about this concept of the future for cities and the role of manufacturing, in the guise of a history or architecture.


Re-invigorating small manufacturing is not an either/or thing. It will always make sense to mass-produce some of our stuff (say, plastic waste baskets). Some types of production absolutely need a large capital investment just to get off the ground (e.g. jet engines). And, importing some items makes sense when they are things that are really best done elsewhere.

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Working Paper PDF, 2016

Perhaps more importantly, it is worth noting that a new industrial revolution may be hard to achieve. Anna Waldman Brown reviews the issues facing the new manufacturing and puts the challenges into perspective.

A renewed emphasis on local manufacturing is about the importance of doing some value-creating and innovation-stimulating production in our own communities. It’s about offering some hands-on jobs that are fulfilling and broadening because they engage people in work that is variable and evolving. And, it’s about recognizing the stimulating effect on learning, creativity, and innovation, that having production in our presence fosters. Production generates value and has the secondary effect of re-energizing communities. Boosting the creation of value, even at a small scale, will boost this wide range of related interests and activities. We start small and local. There is not a question about whether small manufacturing will happen. It is already happening around the world. It’s a question of whether we want it to happen here.

Summary: We are glimpsing the importance of small manufacturing for productive, creative, vibrant communities … that’s the spirit that we share with the makers and blacksmiths of our history. There are promising starts at locally fostering the small manufacturing of the new industrial revolution.

Suggested Reads: I tend to emphasize small manufacturing’s needs from a boots-on-the ground perspective. But, there is a lot of exciting and interesting work going on conceptualizing and planning for the new manufacturing scenario. I’ve tried to give some suggestion of this in the links — and there are probably too many already. So, from the above, for depth: Anna Waldman Brown provides a broad and thorough review of the prospects for this new manufacturing; for focus Hirshberg, Dougherty, & Kanadof in Maker City provide 9 chapters on how to implement new manufacturing in our cities.

Ted writes about the future of small-shop manufacturing and new fabrication technologies. Ted founded ShopBot Tools (digital fab equipment), Handibot (smart power tools), and with Bill Young, started the open, small-shop, fabrication match-up & resource, 100kGarages.

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