How to change the process of production in the States?
November 30, 2011 7:01 AM   Subscribe

How can united states manufacturing be made better?

I think that members of the United States need to make manufacturing of products that only are made from raw materials available here in the states a "thing". I really liked Schumachers idea of bringing the human spirit back into the manufacturing process. No one grows up thinking, "I want to become a factory robot worker."

But what if we could change that? Would it be possible to bring elements of creativity and a sense of human touch into the manufacturing process? This isn't how factories tend to be designed, but what if they could be designed differently, to enhance the experience of people who work in them?

What if we could take inventory of all the raw materials available in the states and set up a network of manufacturers who produce goods only from those materials in a way that allows workers to feel like they are part of something and like they are doing work they can feel proud of?

I know myself, I would not want to work on a manufactoring chain repeatedly doing x and go home and say, "I put lot's of part A onto part B today. I am so glad my work is so meaningful."

Is there a way to change this, or is it impossible? We're losing manufacturing jobs to technology itself and to outsourcing to countries where conditions are so bad people jump at the opportunity to be factory robots. It's possible that eventually the lack of jobs in the states could result in people in the states jumping at the opportunity to be exploited factory robots too.

I'm thinking in terms of growing plant materials for production and figuring out every useful product that could be made by a combination of using natural resources that cause little environmental impact, recycling donated used goods into other useful products, and using fair trade practices to important any needed raw materials. And skipping the production of goods that can't be made in this manner. While there are some products that are essential that probably can't be made in this way (I'm thinking of products that allow hospitals to keep people alive that would otherwise not live, components of computers that keep our communication system working and improve human life) there are a lot of products that cause a lot of pollution and the existance of manufacturing robots that are not essential items. I'm saying we start from scratch and see what can be produced through ethical means.

Is there a way we could manufacture the goods that people need to live life with a human face?

1. Is this already being done, if so by who? Link? Tell me about it? I am aware that followers of E.F. Schumacher have a website but I see more ideas there than actual projects to change the face of production.
2. If it's not, what are some ways this could be done?
3. Whatever ideas this makes you think of? LOL This is just brainstorming so if you have a different way of thinking about this that might solve the problem, share away!
posted by xarnop to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
This isn't necessarily what you're getting at along plant-based lines, but you might be intrigued by the NUMMI plant, a joint venture of GM and Toyota. This American Life devoted a whole show to the story; you should check it out.

Spolier alert: worked great but was apparently too good to last :P
posted by Madamina at 7:05 AM on November 30, 2011


The Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century might be of interest, if you're not already familiar with it.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:05 AM on November 30, 2011


TheophileEscargot beat me to it. The sort of craft work you're describing generally results in very nice, very expensive products affordable primarily by the affluent. It's not a mass-market solution. The additional constraints of using only domestic materials would drive prices even higher. No, this is not economically realistic.

Also, there are already lots of people in the US who would jump at the chance to do repetitive factory work. They just aren't willing to do it as cheaply as people in less affluent countries will do it, because a living wage in an economically depressed country is well below a living wage in (still relatively) affluent America.
posted by jon1270 at 7:11 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Jon1270, you are most likely right about the prices. BUT this could be economically realistic still, if trade agreements between the US and countries where manufacturing is a lot cheaper would be re-negotiated. Tax heavily the imported goods that could be produced at home with available resources, trades your resources for those you don't have, re-industrialize the country and have the central bank support the whole thing with enough fresh cash.
We may go towards this direction no matter what : with unemployment and poverty rates high up, it is really necessary to create well paying jobs for all. Creating the sort of industrial culture xarnop is describing is most likely an important step on the way. Besides, we may be reaching the limits of mass markets anyway : with high enough oil prices, shipping massive amounts of basic goods around the world will become absurd. Going towards more self sufficiency may not be idealistic at all.
posted by that_guy at 7:26 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think you're making a lot of incorrect assumptions.

- There is no centralized "we" that has control over American manufacturing. Manufacturers more or less work to meet consumer demand for items and consumers generally are most concerned about price, so producers focus mainly on reducing their costs. In some niche areas consumers care more about quality or ethical production and companies in those niches are already doing what you're thinking of but until overall consumer sentiment changes it is not scalable to most things.

- I don't think there's anything inherently exploitative about factory labor.

- Just because you wouldn't take pleasure in factory labor doesn't mean others wouldn't find it a worthwhile occupation. Ask an autoworker if they take pride in their job, I bet they're proud of the vehicle they produce, even if they're just a cog in the machine.

- Many people in the United States would be glad to take factory jobs and not just because they're desperate.
posted by ghharr at 7:38 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


that_guy: Tax heavily the imported goods that could be produced at home with available resources... re-industrialize the country and have the central bank support the whole thing with enough fresh cash.

You're describing some economically very inefficient policies; such subsidies and protectionism create deadweight losses (not that we don't have a lot of those already). The most you can accomplish with this sort of policy is to give 'working class' people a larger slice of a shrunken pie. The status gap between rich and poor might be reduced, but on balance the country would be poorer. Some people might be better off, but most probably wouldn't.

Don't get me wrong, now -- the current situation sucks, and something has to be done. I'm just very skeptical that THIS is what needs to be done.
posted by jon1270 at 7:42 AM on November 30, 2011


Well, it is probably more politically sound to reduce income gap even though the economy as a whole is stagnating, rather than maintaining it. Your lower and middle classes won't stand for that very long, will they ?
posted by that_guy at 7:45 AM on November 30, 2011


"Just because you wouldn't take pleasure in factory labor doesn't mean others wouldn't find it a worthwhile occupation. Ask an autoworker if they take pride in their job, I bet they're proud of the vehicle they produce, even if they're just a cog in the machine."

I bet. Are you a cog in the machine? Would you nominate yourself for the role? Your children? If this is as true as you claim then why is manufacturing being sent overseas? Why is unemployment so high?

Fair trade and organic labelling does tend to enhance market value. I am just thinking we could create an organized standard for improving ethical means of production and give companies willing to make the costly changes labelling to enhance the sales of their higher cost products.


What you see now with "natural food" markets is that many companies are scrambling to get "no artificial ingredients", "natural" or "organic" versions of their products out because there is a market. I'm saying if you create a market demand for higher cost but ethically made american manufactured goods, with the benefit to companies of having labelling recognizing their economic sacrafice to increase their sales; it's possible it could become a thing; the same as fair trade and organics is a thing but trending toward higher income consumers.

If the enough consumers fed the market, you could wind up with producers specifically seeking out the labelling to enhance sales. Just as fair trade hasn't taken over the general market, nor has organics-- you can now walk into many regular grocery stores and find products with "all natural" or "no artifical ingredients" or "organic" along side products without the labels.
posted by xarnop at 8:00 AM on November 30, 2011


The "human touch" mentality is completely antithetical to the two things that make factories so economically efficient: division of labor and interchangeable parts. In order for things to be produced on the scale they are as cheaply as they are, assembly must rigidly follow plans, so that every single widget that comes off the line fits perfectly in every single socket that comes off, and every possible widget-socket pairing has the exact same range of motion so it can be installed in the mechanism that's designed to be perfectly calibrated for widget-sockets.

To me, the only solution to this problem is many small factories, where teams of people who are accountable to each other work together to make things for which they're accountable. The cool part about the internet is that, as long as people are good about documenting their specifications, it's relatively easy to design things based on parts (bolts, sprockets, etc) produced elsewhere, or to design a part and have a factory make it for you based on the exact computerized specs.
posted by Jon_Evil at 8:13 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, the market growth in "organic", "fair trade", etc labeled stuff is, largely, just "greenwashing" that doesn't actually make the world a better place or help the workers who produce the goods. Due to legislative loopholes and lobbyist wrangling, those labels are pretty much watered down, and moreover the regulations make it prohibitively expensive for the small-timers who are actually producing "real" organic/fair trade/etc.
posted by Jon_Evil at 8:28 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just because you dont want to be employed in manufacturing does not mean others do. While manufacturing can be tedious, repetitive, injury prone, and lower skilled* does not mean that people don't take pride in the aspect of their job. Particularly once the assembled product is unveiled.

Not everyone is going to be a doctor lawyer, accountant or what have you with regards to '"white collar" positions. Nor does everyone have the aptitude or drive to be in those positions.

Your comment of "would you want your kids to do it?" is particularly condecending and undermining those who do take pride, or *gasp* enjoy.

For the record, I have zero interest in ever having a manufacturing position, and am in a white collar position (albeit a low paying, ceilinged out position at this time).

* my brother manufactures high end speakers for a living. He loves it. He gets the ability to view his finished product, and his contributions to a product that will end up in some millionaires house. He is happy, content, and talented. There is NOTHING wrong with manufacturing.
posted by handbanana at 8:29 AM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


If this is as true as you claim then why is manufacturing being sent overseas?

Because Chinese workers work for $0.64 per hour and environmental regulations are less strict. Very, very simple.

Manufacturing practices are driven exclusively by costs and regulations. Businesses that operate on your lofty principles have only been successful as niche markets producing luxury goods. "Organic/natural" food is a perfect example. Most consumers are not willing to pay a premium for ethically sourced goods.

If you want ethics to play a part in it, then you need to encode the ethics in those costs and regulations. This creates financial incentives for businesses to "do the right thing". For example:

To encourage businesses to use locally supplied materials, levy taxes on the environmental costs of shipping, and raise the cost of gas.

Unfortunately, technology is the one advantage U.S. manufacturers have to compete with cheap foreign labor. Which means fewer U.S. factory workers, even when manufacturing is done in the U.S. So far the solution has been to try to retrain factory workers to perform other jobs.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:40 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree there is nothing wrong with manufacturing and I too have friend who worked in a small company producing high end speakers. Interestingly, they shipped manufacturing to China where this friend ran the factory and their customer based dropped completely due to concerns over the quality of the product and the outsourcing of the manufacturing processes over seas. The company collapsed and no longer exists.

He really liked it and worked in the warehouse manufacturing the product. However the little pieces required to make the final products were all manufactured by people overseas anyway because most people don't want to stand in a factory pulling one gizmo off the line and putting it a box without any knowledge of what it will become or why they are doing it.

I've worked nothing but minimum wage or a few dollars off of minumum wage jobs myself and I know what it means to be a wage laboror and I agree that many manufacturing jobs are rewarding and it can be a meaningful worthwhile profession.

However, I do not think every job in the chain is thus.
posted by xarnop at 8:44 AM on November 30, 2011


I think that members of the United States need to make manufacturing of products that only are made from raw materials available here in the states a "thing".

You mean it's not already a thing?

People buy products to fill needs within their lives. I like toast. To get toast, I need a toaster. I also like paying rent, so I'm going to buy the toaster that best meets my needs with regard to cost, quality and other ancillary factors (e.g. the size of the unit, the color of the unit, the advertising that let me know of the existence and benefit of the product, etc).

People attach different weights to different needs. For example, I care more about my imaginary toaster's retail cost than the fact that, say, it's environmental impact. If the impact is HUGE, then that will tip the scale (which is why I'm never going to buy a panda leather wallet).

If you want people to buy a certain product, it has to meet some, most or all the needs better than its competition (which can include the competition of "nothing," which is to say it's meeting a need I didn't know I had, like a desire for a high-def television).

You want to improve manufacturing? Focus on the needs.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:58 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


However the little pieces required to make the final products were all manufactured by people overseas anyway because most people don't want to stand in a factory pulling one gizmo off the line and putting it a box without any knowledge of what it will become or why they are doing it.

You're giving entirely too much weight to how people feel about work. The reason manufacturing moves overseas is very simple: it is way cheaper.

People in the United States would be glad to stand in a line and push a button all day to make frisbees or diodes or whatever but a combination of economic factors has made it unrealistic for manufacturers of those items to locate in the US.

Worrying about how meaningful your work is is a luxury most people don't have or even care about.
posted by ghharr at 9:18 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


[folks, asking a question in this way is okay, turning it into a generalized discussion of the topic is significantly less okay and turns this into a chatfilter situation which we'd like to avoid. Please stick to the original questions? Thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:43 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Non profit factory coops that place worker satisfaction, health, pay, and benefits at a premium are one answer.

There is no reason coops of non-exploited owner/workers couldn't produce competitive mid-range products at competitive mid-range prices while working decent hours in decent environments with respect, job stability, and other nice things.

So to help change America's manufacturing landscape:
1) provide funding and knowledge resources for the creation of these sorts of coops
2) provide networking pathways to link these coops together, so that they can share market, manufacturing, and other organizational knowledge
3) provide funding and knoweldge resources for branding and publicity efforts
4) recognize that happy, safe, respected workers exist only to the extent that they are legislated to exist, so encourage these coops to bribe lobby congress for favorable legislation
posted by jsturgill at 11:08 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


I had written a long (long) post that was probably less helpful than this:

First, your premise is wrong: American manufacturing is actually doing fine. We are competitive in a number of industries and still make a lot of stuff. It's a significant contributor to our GDP. However, it is only currently possible to compete with foreign producers by increasing our labor efficiency, because global economic imbalances make our cost of living much higher (even desperately unemployed people would be better off leaving the country to work elsewhere than to stay in the USA and earn, say, $1 per hour). This is good for manufacturing but terrible for manufacturing employment. If you want to increase manufacturing employment, really the only way is to correct these global economic imbalances (or wait for them to correct themselves over the coming decades).

Second, if you want to see more American-made, humanely-made and high-quality goods, that is really a separate issue. It all comes down to market forces which have driven the great majority of producers to compete on a cost basis rather than quality, creativity, working conditions, etc. Some markets have room for niche producers (organic farmers, for instance) but most consumers can't afford to pay that premium and so the overall market for a given commodity responds exclusively to price. You might try to distort the market through tariffs or other regulations, but like jon1270 said, you end up with a larger slice of a smaller pie. Given the global nature of the economy, this is bad policy.
posted by Chris4d at 11:41 AM on November 30, 2011


It's possible that eventually the lack of jobs in the states could result in people in the states jumping at the opportunity to be exploited factory robots too.

Considering how much energy Americans on Metafilter devote to nostalgia for the 'good old days' of the 1950s to 1970s when many people did jump at that opportunity, I think that time was in the past rather than in the future.
posted by atrazine at 1:29 AM on December 1, 2011


I thank you all for your thoughts and ideas. I plused the dreamers because I'm a dreamer, but I'm also a skeptic of myself and my dreamy dreamness and value the ideas of those more practical realists who are more often grounded in fact.

But when did a belief that something couldn't be done ever make it happen? Perhaps when commitment to trying to make things better combines with realism, the actual possibilities can unfold. We must make things better. We must not think that nothing can be done. We must do something. I'm absolutely certain that I don't know what that is, but I really want to. While I want to continue to try to understand politics and vote and all, I don't want to wait around for the government to fix it, I want to network with a series of local manufacturors who produce the essential items to live and try to create a base from the ground up. Damn, I must have had too many anarchopunk friends back in the day. LOL

I will continue looking for a way to do something and attempt to understand practical matters that don't make sense in my brain. (What is economy? How economy formed?) : )

Again, thanks all.
posted by xarnop at 9:43 AM on December 1, 2011


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