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New Industrial Revolution: Can Manufacturing Learn a Lesson From Farm-to-Table?

Andrew Anagnost

There’s a lot of talk about manufacturing’s “New Industrial Revolution.”

But the way we interpret “industrial”—and its definition moving forward—is going to change dramatically. Fewer smokestacks, more 3D printers, more choices.

When industries turned to machines and away from the hands of artisans during the first industrial revolution, the manufacturing of goods became quantity and speed over quality and care. Products lost the potential for personalization, replaced by a one-size-fits-all approach.

Corporate mantras over the past century went something like this: Lower the labor and material costs, increase profits, drive further consumption, ignore the environment. Customers veered toward the disposable for the constant “new-and-improved” version, many times just to keep up with the Joneses.

But the world is changing, and a cultural shift is happening, too. Customers will pay more for better quality and a product that lasts. They expect a certain amount of customization as well. They don’t want the same thing as the Joneses, but their own improved, personalized version. Consumers also know—and feel increasingly guilty—about the waste of materials and low-wage workers on production lines.

They are actually becoming community-minded and product “locavores” again.

This scenario has played out to a T with the popular consumer trend of buying and supporting locally grown food. Can a farm-to-table mentality also translate to manufacturing and maintain the efficiency of automation? Is “know your farmer” transitioning into “know your product manufacturer,” even if it’s on a newly defined local and global scale? Are mass-produced, unsustainable products getting a “Frankenfood” type of reputation now?

The answer to all of it: You bet.

“Really, It’s All About Me.” Mass production isn’t ever going to completely disappear. But customization and personalization will rule the new consumer dogma.

Normal produces 3D-printed ear buds to fit just for you—all made in the company’s “factory” of 3D printers in Manhattan. Or startup Feetz will soon individually 3D print shoes shaped precisely to your feet dimensions for that Cinderella-type perfect fit. In fact, Feetz even purports a “‘farm-to-table’ style of micro-manufacturing generating local jobs.”

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Beach Feetz, a customizable 3D-printed sandal. Courtesy Feetz.

For product designers and manufacturers, the software to create these types of new products will be innately connected with access to talent and the means of production and distribution. It used to cost millions of dollars for huge corporations to set up and run a scenario like Normal or Feetz. Now it’s gone local again. The software and its purpose will help you take advantage of this ecosystem.

Uh, Where Did This Product Come From? Customers are also demanding “responsible manufacturing.” Right now the sentiment is primarily reserved for the more affluent geographies, but it is happening.

For example, Foxconn became synonymous with labor abuses, and corporations are on high alert for similar situations. Apple is incredibly transparent with its supplier responsibility and accountability with an in-depth website and annual reports.

Overseas manufacturing as the cheapest go-to solution is losing its sheen. Consumers are concerned about the materials used, where they are sourced, the cost to ship products, and the toll on the environment. Manufacturers actually also share these same concerns about offshore manufacturing, and are shifting to local production for other pragmatic bottom-line reasons. It makes much more economic sense to meet consumers’ new customization demands with factories that can turn it around in days rather than months to travel by ship.

Another factor is that our world is getting smaller. Apple products proudly boast “Designed by Apple in California,” but it’s also “Assembled in China.” That’s about to flip. Maybe it’s “Designed in Thailand…or England…or Brazil. Made in USA.”

Both of these scenarios in the future could be equally possible. Designed in one place; made in the other. The assumption that making and manufacturing would increasingly move offshore is reversing. It’s all coming back. And the software of the future has to be made to accommodate these disruptions.

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Where’s the Money? For manufacturers to find the new competitive advantage, it will depend on social and environmental responsibility, and ultimately how to stand out with customization and added services for business viability.

The world is swinging away from “built-in obsolescence.” The culture is returning to buying preferences where consumers are willing to pay more if it lasts because “I think it will be better for me and better for the world.”

Manufacturers are—and must—change their mindset. If you put it in a thought bubble, it would say, “How do I customize that product more for that individual? How do I build it to last? And how do I make money on it if it’s going to last for 20 years instead of two years? I have to make money on it by making it better. I simply have to make it better.”

The definition of “better” could be more quality materials or software downloads to your Internet-connected dishwasher or car to improve it with new features. The days of buying a whole new model for the latest upgrade will be over.

And while these consumers may seem pretty finicky now, this new industrial revolution is ultimately a positive shift for our culture as a whole. Taking a cue from the local food movement, even manufacturers can create a factory-to-table approach to both the new consumer demands and defining “industrial” in the future.

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