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21st Century Manufacturing

January 27, 2012

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.

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