For the New Economic Reality: A Shifting Emphasis to Local Production

A Woodworking Economic Perspective

showAWFS It was just a few weeks ago that we returned from the AWFS Woodworking Trade Show in Las Vegas. I had been looking forward to the show as an opportunity to get a pulse on what is happening with ShopBotters, woodworkers, and the economy. Let me first note that the show was actually pretty good for selling ShopBots, and I believe that most of the attendees and exhibitors who participated were positive and felt that the show was worthwhile for them personally — people were definitely trying to put a good spin on things. But as an indicator of market conditions, AWFS was scary. “Official” attendance was 50% of what it was at the last AWFS, and keep in mind that attendance was already low back then at the beginning of the housing slump. The show aisles were empty much of the time, and the number of exhibitors was also way down — many companies were unable to invest in participating or have already closed their doors. It was not business as usual. (click here for AWFS show story on ShopBot ATC)

Sure … as economist now argue, even if the show was bleak, there have been a few sprouts of economic hope out there. It’s said that things may be bottoming out, and maybe we can exhale a bit. But the crash of last fall has left thick scars on everyone. Jobs disappeared everywhere and salaries were reduced — not just the big financial companies or car companies, but at all kinds of businesses. It happened at businesses that seemed solid, and where individuals had invested years in their careers, millions of jobs have been lost (total unemployment is now estimated at almost 30 million). Companies large and small. ShopBot has not been immune, and that was painful. But at some point there is simply not enough work to support the earlier levels of employment. Now the expectation is that even though recovery has been declared to have started, 10% unemployment will last for years. That’s a lot of people out of work in a country that likes to work. And it means there is a persisting large group that has limited cash to contribute to the economy and recovery.

Given that virtually every adult in America has lost 30-40% of their savings or worth overnight including homes that have universally decreased in value, how could there not be penetrating and lasting damage? I’m optimistic that we’ll be seeing some new things happening and that there will be a few blossoms soon from our enterprising spirit and incredible capacity to rise to a challenge. But we are not looking at a brisk, business cycle recovery with broad and predictable resurgence. As much as multinational big business is hoping for a smooth recovery back to normalcy, much has changed. Most everyone has been irrevocably affected by these events. Business will be different. And, that may not be an entirely bad thing.

Recovery to Normalcy?

Both the government and big business are ready to move on and declare that life is returning to normal — and we all hope it happens. The stock market is rising and showing a suck-it-up-and-get-on-with-it spirit. The spirit is good; and we do need to be upbeat. But it is a mistake to assume the world will ever be the same for this cohort of participants in the grand American story. Our sense of personal and economic security has been permanently undermined. We have a new understanding of the fragility of jobs and careers, and retirement planning has a different meaning. Having a terrorist threat of level of orange a few years back made for great headlines and politicking – but the uncontrollable and unexpected assault on each of our economic well being and personal security has become the profound wake-up call at the end of this decade.

You can already start to see the effect in our attitudes. There’s talk everywhere about a new appreciation of what we value and about fewer frills, less bullshit, and more substance. I keep hearing and reading stories of people who having been forced to cut back, have re-organized to a simpler life, down-scaled — and are liking it. Maybe it’s all about putting a good face on things, but there seems to be a sincerity in this savoring of living within a new set of limitations.

A context of environmental concern and energy challenge reinforces the new frugality. Respecting the environment with reduced consumption and transportation; carrying out production closer to where it is needed using local materials, resources, and labor; and the evolving of new and varied energy sources all fit with greater attention to value, lifestyle choices, attention to community. The expanding interest in gardening, food growing, urban homesteading, farmers markets and local restaurants — the locavore movement — are clear examples of a new appreciation of the quality and advantages of community sources and local production.

And if the economy itself were not enough to refocus our attention, it seems that everything we hear about products from afar is bad. TV and internet news reports toys contaminated with Lead, electrical device that catch fire, or some other thing in our homes that is unsafe in some other way. In our free-spending days of cheap consumer goods we have increasingly lost touch with where the stuff we buy is coming from, how it was made, and how it works. Perhaps it is time to bring some of that lost manufacturing back to our own communities.

Changed Values and the Maker Movement

The interesting thing about the shifting attitudes towards our purchases and possessions is that the emerging new frugality is not producing as much an obsession with things cheap, as with an attention to real value. Is an item something that is needed? How does it fit with environmental concerns? Is it personally enjoyed and appreciated? Is it valuable enough to invest in? Should I pay a little more for something more durable or efficient? Will something provide more time for enjoyment? What is it that gives something value? And, by way of example, those people that are talking about moving to smaller houses and enjoying them, also speak about what they have done to the house to make it comfortable and attractive — how they have improved the qualities of what the experience to provide themselves value. There simply seems to be more attention to what brings meaning to our stuff and experiences.

I’m not suggesting that we are about to see a tidal wave of change or that everyone will stop buying mass produced items from Walmart, but there is certainly a shift in the appreciation of items and the nature of our yearning. Maybe we don’t need a negative trade balance for manufactured items of $500billion. Since only 9% of Americans work in manufacturing, a slight change of emphasis to more local production work would benefit the economy as well as individuals. There’s a range of items that are customized, modified, or personalized that people care about: items that have an aesthetic or craftsmanship that shows through; items that are sensitive or thoughtful; items that acknowledge the precarious environmental situation; items that are fun to acquire or produce real fulfillment; and, items that one has been involved in producing. There will always be a place for the cheap mass produced products imported from countries with lower labor costs, but there does seem to be a shift in asking what’s best to be mass produced and what may be more appropriately manufactured for an individual or at a local or regional level, and even what one might want to be involved in making oneself.

shop_class This new attitude about stuff in our lives and and how it is made is reflected in a new book. Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft celebrates the value, enjoyment, and intellectual satisfaction of manual work. Crawford reports on his frustrations and lack of fulfillment as a white collar worker and contrasts it with some of the pleasures he has derived as a motorcycle mechanic. The book is a kind of antidote to what Crawford worries is a world and educational system too focused on valuing white collar service careers, while also creating fear of digging-in, taking apart, and puttering with things. Crawford’s questioning of whether we shouldn’t bring ‘shop class’ back is not an isolated phenomena.

The Maker Movement, represented most publicly by Make Magazine and associated Maker Faires, is a new kind of 21st century do-it-yourselfing that moves beyond home improvement and renovation to all sorts of technology hacking, technological puttering, and inspired creativity. Not everyone is a tinkerer, nor is it necessary that everyone gets involved in making their own stuff. But the Maker movement and today’s thriving and internet-fostered craft community reflect the growing enthusiasm for an understanding and involvement in the production of things, and shows the scale of people interested in creating rather than just consuming. It’s not a withdrawal, anti-technology, or anti-science thinking but is about embracing new understandings and new ways of doing things by being involved in them — though it has got a bit of ‘attitude’ and may be a different kind of involvement and technology utilization than imagined by advertisers and major corporations.

ReMake from Make:18 Click here for Dale Dougherty’s list of “ReMake” ideas …

ShopBotters Innovate by Making Stuff:


A couple of weeks ago in a Sunday NY Times, Thomas Friedman wrote extolling invention and innovation as the way out of our “Great Recession”. His article is one of many I’ve read in the last month or two, emphasizing the importance of innovation as the key to a new economy. The general argument is that tough times are an opportunity to work smarter and more creatively and lots of examples are given of the many innovations and new businesses that have emerged from periods of financial challenge. New companies and new gizmos are great. But the most salient innovation opportunity emerging in this recession could lie in the new attitudes about products and production couple with new technological capabilities of making new kinds of distributed and localized production more practical.

It is into this climate of economic shift, raised-value consciousness, and shifting attitudes about products and production that the CNC community resource is evolving and innovating. For those interested in making things, in getting things made or customized, in having work done nearby or in the local community, the new technology of digital fabrication provides a way to make almost anything. The thousands of ShopBots distributed in workshops across the country offer up a broadly capable form of digital fabrication that can help anyone make almost anything they would like for their home or business needs. Our 100kGarages website is designed to give the world access to these workshops. is a new resource that we’ve created with a New Zealand company, Ponoko, in order to bring together those wanting to get stuff made, we refer to these people as the “Makers”, with those ShopBotters interested and able to provide the capabilities of digital fabrication; the “Fabbers”.

A New Opportunity / A Big Experiment ?

100kGarages is part experiment, part work in progress. We’ve just gotten the first level of functionality up and running and we’re working with Ponoko on many additional enhancements to its systems. It’s a way for ordinary people to get things made — from an energy prototype to bedroom headboard — and, it’s a way for ShopBotters to get work and bring production back into local communities. And, as of now, the first version of the site is up and running. “Makers” can find “Fabbers” on a map and contact a workshop near them, or Makers can post their projects on a “Job Board” to allow Fabbers to bid on the work.

garages There are many questions yet to be answered about how it will work. And it is very easy to imagine all sorts of problems that may arise — from how we deal with differences in the local availability of materials, for instance, or how pricing will be fairly done.  We aren’t sure exactly how it will all evolve. There is plenty of room for innovation. Click for full discussion of the 100kGarage concept.

For our part, we and Ponoko are working on additional features and resources for the site. But the growth and success of 100kGarages will depend on the involvement and participation of the community, both the ShopBot fabbers and the makers who come to the site to use it. The guidance and direction of the sites evolution will be based on open participation and feedback. How well it all works in the end will really depend on whether working together we are able to fashion it into a vehicle that serves the needs of the Maker and Fabber community and is effective in bringing production and manufacturing back to communities and small workshops.

We’ve had to make a number of arbitrary decisions to get things going, but nothing is cast in stone and we’re anxious to start learning from experience. The initial form and features of 100kGarages is a direct response to hundreds of conversations with ShopBotters, mostly at Camp ShopBots and ShopBot trainings over the last few years, as well as the continuing Talk ShopBot Forum dialogue on the economy and business in our shops. We see it all as part of the larger theme of bringing new values to our lives, reinforcing the importance of the environment, demonstrating the practical value of distributed manufacturing, creating a partial shift of work and production back to our local communities (“locafab”), and to a degree emphasizing the ‘Shop Class at Soulcraft’ theme of being more “hands on” in working with and understanding the objects we live with, as Dale Dougherty of Make Magazine describes it, “ReMake: America” (see above).

100kGarages is not going to be every ShopBotters cup of tea. In the beginning, an approach that is so customer-centric will be a challenge just to get operational. But do take a look at the website and what it implies about new ways of doing business. If it has appeal, jump in and help us all start evolving it into something that becomes an integral part of the new economy and our way of working.


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