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Chris Anderson Says We're All Manufacturers, Heaven Help Us

One problem with being a media personality is that you have to keep rolling out Big Ideas so you can continue to sell Big Books. Not that you actually have to do anything, or even know anything. Just write away. And that's the impression I'm getting from Chris Anderson and his latest craze: manufacturing without infrastructure. He reduces the issue of producing custom goods to an overly simplistic level and ignores some of the biggest time, energy, expense, and resource sinks. Unfortunately, too many people will nod and anxiously proclaim his latest gospel as Revealed Information from Above, causing too many executives in corporations to make really dumb decisions that only their employees and investors will pay for.

If you read Larry Dignan's account -- and to be fair, I wasn't there to hear the presentation -- you come away with the impression that this is Anderson's latest attempt to prescribe the future of the economy. He says that we're "entering a new manufacturing age" and so he's been "thinking about being analog and the world of manufacturing." I'm not sure what "being analog" is supposed to mean if, as reported, Anderson says that manufacturing businesses are using many techniques pioneered on the web.

But some of his examples, such as 3D printers, designing circuit boards at home, and then scaling up to manufacturing by clicking a button and having a robotic Chinese factory produce products, show how out of touch he is with what is actually required to manufacture goods. The big money isn't in simply running a production line. It's in engineering and design, testing, bringing products to market, supporting them, and dealing with the potential legal problems, to name a few items.

Anderson points to Local Motors, which has become one of the latest fascinations of Jeff Jarvis. I actually wrote about this in June at BNET Media. As I noted then, there's are some big fallacies in his notions:

He [the person behind Local Motors] is creating the platform and API for new cars that are designed collaboratively by communities and built in microfactories across the country by staffs of only 41 using almost entirely off-the-shelf parts. He says he will be profitable selling only 500 cars. He plans to build 3-5,000 of each model and he's months away from delivering his first.
The red flag is "off-the-shelf parts." They only exist because large manufacturers spent a lot of money to create them as custom parts for some car. Parts don't appear from nowhere. They must be rigorously designed and carefully manufactured if you want something that will fit as you expect and not break apart under use. In other words, such nimble manufacturing is essentially subsidized by old-economy industry.

Will it be easier for smaller companies to outsource aspects of manufacturing? Absolutely. And you know what? They've been doing that for decades. The concept of the design chain -- where various aspects of design, engineering, testing, and manufacturing can be trusted to partners -- has even been around in high tech for close to ten years that I know of. But the idea that someone will sit and home, spend the many hours needed to produce a design (after spending considerably longer learning how to design), and then have it made at a competitive price is silly. There is a reason that people have been specializing in what they do for a living since long before Adam Smith noticed them doing it. There's enormous inefficiency when everyone wants to do everything.

However, this will become a book, then get media coverage, and then some executives with more suits than sense will pick up on it and declare it the Future of Their Companies. They'll cut more of the necessary work that goes into manufacturing, assuming that it is needless. By the time anyone notices that no one can keep up with the pace of work and that products have become shoddy, driving consumers into the arms of competitors, these Visionaries will have moved on to the next company.

BNET Media: David Weir, who was also in the audience for Anderson's talk, has this take on it.

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