21st century manufacturing

Ricardo Hausman has a nice column on the future of manufacturing in Scientific American. He writes: “More and more information is getting packed into less matter. As a consequence, more of the work goes into manipulating information rather than matter. Jobs move from the shop floor to the design floor. A Boeing 747 or an iPhone are made mostly out of fairly common materials that are worth at most just a few dollars a pound. However, they both go for over $1,000 per pound. The bulk of the value is in the information content, not the raw materials.”

One of the reasons I liked the article is the immodest fact that I prefigured these arguments in my first book, The Weightless World (pdf), published in 1996. The physical mass of the UK and the US economies hasn’t risen since around 1980, according to material flows accounts (and these do take account of trade). The paradoxical point about the dematerialisation of making things is amply underlined by some excellent recent books – [amazon_link id=”0349123780″ target=”_blank” ]Made in Britain[/amazon_link] by Evan Davis and [amazon_link id=”0300117779″ target=”_blank” ]The New Industrial Revolution[/amazon_link] by Peter Marsh spring to mind.

[amazon_image id=”1405509856″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Made in Britain[/amazon_image]

[amazon_image id=”0300117779″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The New Industrial Revolution: Consumers, Globalization and the End of Mass Production[/amazon_image]

Economic theory of the firm hasn’t caught up yet with changes in the structure of manufacturing, although it’s starting to get there with the task-based approach to modelling. Old-fashioned production functions must be on their way out.

Update: Coincidentally, just after writing this post, I read this 2011 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, Smaller (courtesy of The Electric Typewriter). It’s ostensibly about product improvement in diapers, but is really about the wide efficiencies of using less stuff.

3 thoughts on “21st century manufacturing

  1. “For years, because of Moore’s Law, we have considered the microchip the embodiment of the technological age. But if the diaper is also a perfect innovation, doesn’t it deserve a place beside the chip?” Thanks for the link to the New Yorker piece. Innovation studies often neglect the less glamorous sectors.

    Cars are somewhat a counterpoint not for the ‘more information/using less stuff’ hypothesis but the endproduct has not become more weightless:

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