When a country develops a strong manufacturing industry, its overall power and prosperity rises in lockstep. From the birth of the industrial revolution in England to China’s rise from an agricultural economy to the factory of the world, investing in manufacturing transforms national economies.
Mass production offers efficiencies that transform a given input of labor into a greater output of stuff - an undeniable driver of growth. However, the real catalyst is the complex knowledge and skills the industry creates. Researchers at Harvard’s Growth Lab have found that manufacturing knowledge is directly related to economic complexity, meaning that when countries produce increasingly complex products, workers produce more varied forms of knowledge which are in turn accumulated, transferred and preserved within the local economy. Even a relatively simple product, like a shirt, requires skilled workers who can handle procurement, production, marketing, distribution, and financing. The factory also requires roads, ports, airports, and stable power and water infrastructure to get those shirts out the door.
Developing this necessary combination of diverse knowledge and stable infrastructure opens space for adjacent economic activities, which is why countries see accelerated economic growth when manufacturing succeeds. It becomes easier to provision a film crew, or open an accounting firm with these pieces in place. So, whether you’re building out film sets, or fiddling with a subassembly, remember that sometimes the less we know individually, the more successful we are together.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~10% of opens) was a guide to understanding the Sanborn Map Company's historic fire insurance maps. On the Members' Slack last week, there was a real popular thread (h/t Skyler!) of photos of everyone's go-to engineering desk tools, from TEC Sharpies to deadblow hammers to SD cards preloaded with Raspbian; it really was quite fun. Also last week we also sent out The Prepared's 2021-Q3 report (highlights here) to Members and sponsors; thanks to *you* for helping us cross 12,000 subscribers!
Planning & Strategy.
- Solar Protocol is an experimental website, hosted across a global network of solar powered servers, advocating for less energy intensive computation and critiquing how energy intensive tasks are offloaded to the server side. The site’s hosting shifts throughout the day routing through whichever server is getting the most sunshine.
- Bear resistant food canisters protect hikers and their provisions from the prying paws of wildlife. However, one enterprising Adirondack black bear, nicknamed Yellow-Yellow, thwarted the designers at BearVault by mastering the mechanism. The company’s website eventually included a disclaimer against using the canisters in the region. Yellow-Yellow has since passed away, but rumors persist that she passed along her method to manipulate and open the canisters to other bears.
- Industry lobbyists were largely behind the push for the US government to adopt daylight savings time.
Making & Manufacturing.
- I love meandering through links on Aliexpress and marveling at the bizarre products. Honestly, I can’t match Electrek’s Awesomely weird Alibaba electric vehicle of the week, a column that features things ranging from useful (like this teeny pickup truck) to baffling and terrifying (like this eight passenger electric submarine). My personal favorite is this $2000 stretch limousine electric tricycle.
- This undulating nine segment RC plane is absolutely mesmerizing. The nine foamboard planes are connected wingtip to wingtip; the central segment receives instructions and relays slightly modified instructions to the eight other segments. See this behind the scenes video for details on the build and control system.
- I was surprised to learn that shipping container fabrication is not entirely automated and assembly requires extensive manual welding and grinding. Also, see this breakdown of all the necessary steps.
- Fox Silver, a fine metalwork shop in the UK, creates the F1 trophies through laborious bespoke handwork.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- I’ve always used the words flotsam and jetsam to describe random bits of debris, but both actually have precise definitions within maritime law. Flotsam refers to floating debris or cargo resulting from a wreck or accident, whereas jetsam refers to cargo that was intentionally discarded, or jettisoned, from a vessel. Maritime law also protects those who retrieve either flotsam or jetsam, meaning that it’s fair game to salvage containers that wash ashore.
- In 2018, San Francisco’s public works department decided to redesign all public garbage cans, seeking an aesthetic solution to public waste. The city is footing a bill of nearly half a million dollars to produce the prototypes, while estimates for manufacturing and deploying the cans citywide run between $6 and $16 million. The high costs have prompted questions about the fiscal responsibility of such a custom solution. The project was initiated by Mohammed Nuru, former Public Works director, who stepped down after being arrested on federal corruption charges (also see the JCDecaux scandal in 2021-09-06) and critics insist current politicians need to cancel the project and reverse Nuru’s legacy.
- Beautiful maps documenting reclaimed land in urban areas worldwide.
Distribution & Logistics.
- Secondhand clothing from the west is imported in bulk to Ghana where the garments are resold and shipped throughout Africa. The vibrant industry supports thousands of people, but about half of the imported textiles are unusable, leaving the city of Accra with 160 tonnes of waste to landfill every day.
- Alexis Madrigal talked through the implications of shipping bottlenecks in Southern California with journalists and port officials. Jennifer Smith, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal, really emphasized that personal consumption patterns, like buying local, don’t effect the larger system. Whatever changes rebalance the flow of goods will need to be large scale, and she predicts we’ll see more nearshoring than reshoring. In an attempt to ease the bottlenecks, the White House is working with key stakeholders to run Southern California port operations 24/7. Tangentially related: Alexis Madrigal’s Containers podcast, produced in 2017, is fascinating and holds up today.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- In 2017 McKinsey published a report on construction productivity, arguing that it's largely stagnant. This blog post critiques the report's claims, pointing out that productivity data measures many different things and lumps them all together, effectively flattening a nuanced industry into a single metric. Additionally, labor from subcontractors, who create efficiencies through prefabrication, is not included in the data.
- Wheelchairs and prostheses for Paralympic athletes are redesigned for the constraints of each sport.
- Humanized mice are modified to express human genes, allowing scientists to study complex immune responses. The catalogs for modified mice are entirely bizarre to a layperson like me. Mice are ordered by model, with features like “spontaneous mutant”.
- I am obsessed with the installation “This Is the Proof of Our Stupidity”, which is a vending machine that dispenses and destroys porcelain plates.
- Quicksand is actually real! It occurs when vibrations or an upward flow of liquids disrupts sandy soils, turning them into a fluid. A similar condition can occur on ships carrying solid bulk cargo when vibrations cause granular materials, like ore, to liquefy and shift freely throughout the hold. This phenomenon causes ships to list dangerously, and even sink.
- In 2019-03-04 I shared a photo from China’s loneliest subway station, Chongqing Subway line 6 Caojiawan Station. In the intervening years, the surrounding area has been quickly built up - a reminder that China’s so-called “ghost towns” are rarely vacant for long.