The Small Batch Platform

When I first started getting interested in Artificial Intelligence, back in high school, I remember a conversation with one of my more sensible friends regarding the future of work.  I asserted that one day machines will do most of the work, or at least the boring parts, leaving us humans to do what we’re best at.  “And what is that?” my friend asked.  At the time, all I could think of was “art,” and then I added occupations that deal with people.

Nowadays, I’d expand art to include all creativity.  Not everyone is artistic, but everyone is creative in their own way.  I might take the people aspect off the list because if we’ve learned anything in the past twenty years, it is that customers would rather transact with a machine than wait in a queue to deal with a real human, except in exceptional circumstances.  Exceptional circumstances call for creativity.  See the first point.

In previous posts, I had been calling these people artisans.  If the chief function of people in the increasingly mechanized world is to inject creativity, this moniker makes sense to me.  However, when Chris Anderson posted his Wired article he introduced the term “Small Batch”, and I’ve decided I will not try to swim upstream.  Small Batch it is, but I stand by my assertion that one day the most important capability of humans will be their creativity, and everyone will be an artisan.

Small Batch manufacturing takes advantage of a suite of emerging and established technologies and capabilities that make it possible to cost effectively produce sophisticated products in batches as small as one.  In the tradition of Thomas Friedman, who described his flat world platform, I’m going to call this the small batch platform.   Here is my straw-person list of the small batch platform:

  1. Mechanized Fabrication.  Laser cutters, RP machines and pick and place robots can all create sophisticated shapes and devices in very small runs.  On the flip side, laser cutters and RP machines are less useful for high volume products.
  2. Network of Trust.  A couple of the service bureaus, like Shapeways and Ponoko provide ways for markets to connect with makers.  I have no idea if these communities are really working.  From the look of the Shapeways forum, which is an open forum, it seems that at least some people get the help they need.  However, there does not appear to be any way for a newcomer to one of these networks to know what kind of service they can expect.  We need a rating system similar to eBay where an artisan can be rated on their service and quality.
  3. Micro Supply Chain.  Sophisticated products call for many disparate parts.  Some, the artisan might create themselves – that’s the value they bring – while others will be inventoried in small batches or produced in custom runs.  An artisan will need a way to look after their custom, specialized and mass-produced components in order to respond quickly to a request for product.  While we’re at it, the reverse is true: we should want a way for small batch manufacturers to look after the end of life for their products.  I don’t know if this exists today; there are a couple of relatively inexpensive online ERPs, but I don’t know if they down to this level.
  4. Online Market.  Etsy, a marketplace for handcrafts  is certainly a step in the right direction, as are ebay stores.  Both of these offer small batch manufacturers a route to market their creative genius without a huge investment in eCommerce.

What else would be required to take small batch manufacturing mainstream?

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