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November 05 2013

Podcast: the democratization of manufacturing

Manufacturing is hard, but it’s getting easier. In every stage of the manufacturing process–prototyping, small runs, large runs, marketing, fulfillment–cheap tools and service models have become available, dramatically decreasing the amount of capital required to start building something and the expense of revising and improving a product once it’s in production.

In this episode of the Radar podcast, we speak with Chris Anderson, CEO and co-founder of 3D Robotics; Nick Pinkston, a manufacturing expert who’s working to make building things easy for anyone; and Jie Qi, a student at the MIT Media Lab whose recent research has focused on the factories of Shenzhen.

Along the way we talk about the differences between Tesla’s auto plant and its previous incarnation as the NUMMI plant; the differences between on-shoring, re-shoring and near-shoring; and how the innovative energy of Kickstarter and the Maker movement can be brought to underprivileged populations.

Many of these topics will come up at Solid, O’Reilly’s new conference about the intersection of software and the physical world. Solid’s call for proposals open through December 9. We’re planning a series of Solid meet-ups, plant tours, and books about the collision of real and virtual; if you’ve got an idea for something the series should explore, please reach out!

Subscribe to the O’Reilly Radar Podcast through iTunesSoundCloud, or directly through our podcast’s RSS feed.

November 04 2013

Software, hardware, everywhere

Real and virtual are crashing together. On one side is hardware that acts like software: IP-addressable, controllable with JavaScript APIs, able to be stitched into loosely-coupled systems—the mashups of a new era. On the other is software that’s newly capable of dealing with the complex subtleties of the physical world—ingesting huge amounts of data, learning from it, and making decisions in real time.

The result is an entirely new medium that’s just beginning to emerge. We can see it in Ars Electronica Futurelab’s Spaxels, which use drones to render a three-dimensional pixel field; in Baxter, which layers emotive software onto an industrial robot so that anyone can operate it safely and efficiently; in OpenXC, which gives even hobbyist-level programmers access to the software in their cars; in SmartThings, which ties Web services to light switches.

The new medium is something broader than terms like “Internet of Things,” “Industrial Internet,” or “connected devices” suggest. It’s an entirely new discipline that’s being built by software developers, roboticists, manufacturers, hardware engineers, artists, and designers.

Ten years ago, building something as simple as a networked thermometer required some understanding of electrical engineering. Now it’s a Saturday-afternoon project for a beginner. It’s a shift we’ve already seen in programming, where procedural languages have become more powerful and communities have arisen to offer free help with programming problems. As the blending of hardware and software continues, the physical world will become democratized: the ranks of people who can address physical challenges from lots of different backgrounds will swell.

The outcome of all of this combining and broadening, I hope, will be a world that’s safer, cleaner, more efficient, and more accessible. It may also be a world that’s more intrusive, less private, and more vulnerable to ill-intentioned interference. That’s why it’s crucial that we develop a strong community from the new discipline.

Solid, which Joi Ito and I will present on May 21 and 22 next year, will bring members of the new discipline together to discuss this new medium at the blurred line between real and virtual. We’ll talk about design beyond the computer screen; software that understands and controls the physical world; new hardware tools that will become the building blocks of the connected world; frameworks for prototyping and manufacturing that make it possible for anyone to create physical devices; and anything else that touches both the concrete and abstract worlds.

Solid’s call for proposals is open to the public, as is the call for applications to the Solid Fellowships—a new program that comes with a stipend, a free pass to Solid, and help with travel expenses for students and independent innovators.

The business implications of the new discipline are just beginning to play out. Software companies are eyeing hardware as a way to extend their offerings into the physical world—think, for instance, of Google’s acquisition of Motorola and its work on a driverless car—and companies that build physical machines see software as a crucial component of their products. The physical world as a service, a business model that’s something like software as a service, promises to upend the way we buy and use machines, with huge implications for accessibility and efficiency. These types of service frameworks, along with new prototyping tools and open-source models, are making hardware design and manufacturing vastly easier.

A few interrelated concepts that I’ve been thinking about as we’ve sketched out the idea for Solid:

  • APIs for the physical world. Abstraction, modularity, and loosely-coupled services—the characteristics that make the Web accessible and robust—are coming to the physical world. Open-source libraries for sensors and microcontrollers are bringing easy-to-use and easy-to-integrate software interfaces to everything from weather stations to cars. Networked machines are defining a new physical graph, much like the Web’s information graph. These models are starting to completely reorder our physical environment. It’s becoming easier to trade off functionalities between hardware and software; expect the proportion of intelligence residing in software to increase over time.
  • Manufacturing made frictionless. Amazon’s EC2 made it possible to start writing and selling software with practically no capital investment. New manufacturing-as-a-service frameworks bring the same approach to building things, making factory work fast and capital-light. Development costs are plunging, and it’s becoming easier to serve niches with specialized hardware that’s designed for a single purpose. The pace of innovation in hardware is increasing as the field becomes easier for entrepreneurs to work in and financing becomes available through new platforms like Kickstarter. Companies are emerging now that will become the Amazon Web Services of manufacturing.
  • Software intelligence in the physical world. Machine learning and data-driven optimization have revolutionized the way that companies work with the Web, but the kind of sophisticated knowledge that Amazon and Netflix have accumulated has been elusive in the offline world. Hardware lets software reach beyond the computer screen to bring those kinds of intelligence to the concrete world, gathering data through networked sensors and exerting real-time control in order to optimize complicated systems. Many of the machines around us could become more efficient simply through intelligent control: a furnace can save oil when software, knowing that homeowners are away, turns down the thermostat; a car can save gas when Google Maps, polling its users’ smartphones, discovers a traffic jam and suggests an alternative route—the promise of software intelligence that works above the level of a single machine. The Internet stack now reaches all the way down to the phone in your pocket, the watch on your wrist, and the thermostat on your wall.
  • Every company is a software company. Software is becoming an essential component of big machines for both the builders and the users of those machines. Any company that owns big capital machines needs to get as much out of them as possible by optimizing their operation with software, and any company that builds machines must improve and extend them with layers of software in order to be competitive. As a result, a software startup with promising technology might just as easily be bought by a big industrial company as by a Silicon Valley software firm. This has important organizational, cultural, and competency impact.
  • Complex systems democratized. The physical world is becoming accessible to innovators at every level of expertise. Just as it’s possible to build a Web page with only a few hours’ learning, it’s becoming easier for anyone to build things, whether electronic or not. The result: realms like the urban environment that used to be under centralized control by governments and big companies are now open to innovation from anyone. New economic models and communities will emerge in the physical world just as they’ve emerged online in the last twenty years.
  • The physical world as a service. Anything from an Uber car to a railroad locomotive can be sold as a service, provided that it’s adequately instrumented and dispatched by intelligent software. Good data from the physical world brings about efficient markets, makes cheating difficult, and improves quality of service. And it will revolutionize business models in every industry as service guarantees replace straightforward equipment sales. Instead of just selling electricity, a utility could sell heating and cooling—promising to keep a homeowner’s house at 70 degrees year round. That sales model could improve efficiency and quality of life, bringing about incentive for the utility to invest in more efficient equipment and letting it take advantage of economies of scale.
  • Design after the screen. Our interaction with software no longer needs to be mediated through a keyboard and screen. In the connected world, computers gather data through multiple inputs outside of human awareness and intuit our preferences. The software interface is now a dispersed collection of conventional computers, mobile phones, and embedded sensors, and it acts back onto the world through networked microcontrollers. Computing happens everywhere, and it’s aware of physical-world context.
  • Software replaces physical complexity. A home security system is no longer a closed network of motion sensors and door alarms; it’s software connected to generic sensors that decides when something is amiss. In 2009, Alon Halevy, Peter Norvig, and Fernando Pereira wrote that having lots and lots of data can be more valuable than having the most elegant model. In the connected world, having lots and lots of sensors attached to some clever software will start to win out over single-purpose systems.

These are some rough thoughts about an area that we’ll all spend the next few years trying to understand. This is an open discussion, and we welcome thoughts on it from anyone.

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June 26 2013

$20,000 and a trip to Shenzhen

Manufacturing is rapidly becoming more accessible to people whose expertise lies elsewhere. The change is most apparent at the small scale, where it’s become easy to order prototypes made on high-quality 3D printers and electronics in small batches from domestic factories. High-volume Chinese manufacturing has been tougher to get into.

A new incubator launching today, and led by our former O’Reilly colleague Brady Forrest, is aimed at lowering the barriers to getting physical goods manufactured fast and in high volumes. Highway1 will prepare nascent hardware companies to enter the accelerator pipeline of the Sino-Irish supply-chain giant PCH International. It offers portfolio companies up to $20,000 and a hardware crash-course that includes a trip to the factories of Shenzhen. Forrest says his curriculum will eventually be made public (minus the China junket, of course).

The successful companies that progress to PCH’s accelerator will have PCH as both an investor and supply-chain manager, essentially drawing from the same network that supplies some of Silicon Valley’s bestsellers.

Forrest put it to me this way: “There is no Amazon Web Services for hardware, but we’re the closest thing to it.”

June 14 2013

Radar podcast: the Internet of Things, PRISM, and defense technology that goes civilian

On this week’s podcast, Jim Stogdill, Roger Magoulas and I talk about things that have been on our minds lately: the NSA’s surveillance programs, what defense contractors will do with their technology as defense budgets dry up, and a Californian who isn’t doing what you think he’s doing with hydroponics.

The odd ad in The Economist that caught Jon's attention, from Dassault Systemes.The odd ad in The Economist that caught Jon's attention, from Dassault Systemes.

The odd ad in The Economist that caught Jon’s attention, from Dassault Systemes. Does this suggest that contractors, contemplating years of American and European austerity, are looking for ways to market defense technologies to the civilian world?

Because we’re friendly Web stewards, we provide links to the more obscure things that we talk about in our podcasts. Here they are.

If you enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe on iTunes, on SoundCloud, or directly through our podcast RSS feed.

May 09 2013

Where will software and hardware meet?

I’m a sucker for a good plant tour, and I had a really good one last week when Jim Stogdill and I visited K. Venkatesh Prasad at Ford Motor in Dearborn, Mich. I gave a seminar and we talked at length about Ford’s OpenXC program and its approach to building software platforms.

The highlight of the visit was seeing the scale of Ford’s operation, and particularly the scale of its research and development organization. Prasad’s building is a half-mile into Ford’s vast research and engineering campus. It’s an endless grid of wet labs like you’d see at a university: test tubes and robots all over the place; separate labs for adhesives, textiles, vibration dampening; machines for evaluating what’s in reach for different-sized people.

Prasad explained that much of the R&D that goes into a car is conducted at suppliers–Ford might ask its steel supplier to come up with a lighter, stronger alloy, for instance–but Ford is responsible for integrative research: figuring out how to, say, bond its foam insulation onto that new alloy.

In our more fevered moments, we on the software side of things tend to foresee every problem being reduced to a generic software problem, solvable with brute-force computing and standard machinery. In that interpretation, a theoretical Google car operating system–one that would drive the car and provide Web-based services to passengers–could commoditize the mechanical aspects of the automobile. If you’re not driving, you don’t care much about how the car handles; you just want a comfortable seat, functional air conditioning, and Web connectivity for entertainment. A panel in the dashboard becomes the only substantive point of interaction between a car and its owner, and if every car is running Google’s software in that panel, then there’s not much left to distinguish different makes and models.

When’s the last time you heard much of a debate on Dell laptops versus HP? As long it’s running the software you want, and meets minimum criteria for performance and physical quality, there’s not much to distinguish laptop makers for the vast majority of users. The exception, perhaps, is Apple, which consumers do distinguish from other laptop makers for both its high-quality hardware and its unique software.

That’s how I start to think after a few days in Mountain View. A trip to Detroit pushes me in the other direction: the mechanical aspects of cars are enormously complex. Even incremental changes take vast re-engineering efforts. Changing the shape of a door sill to make a car easier to get into means changing a car’s aesthetics, its frame, the sheet metal that gets stamped to make it, the wires and sensors embedded in it, and the assembly process that puts it together. Everything from structural integrity to user experience needs to be carefully checked before a thousand replicates start driving out of Ford’s plants every day.

So, when it comes to value added, where will the balance between software and machines emerge? Software companies and industrial firms might both try to shift the balance by controlling the interfaces between software and machines: if OpenXC can demonstrate that it’s a better way to interact with Ford cars than any other interface, Ford will retain an advantage.

As physical things get networked and instrumented, software can make up a larger proportion of their value. I’m not sure exactly where that balance will arise, but I have a hard time believing in complete commoditization of the machines beneath the software.

See our free research report on the industrial internet for an overview of the ways that software and machines are coming together.

February 21 2013

Investigating the growth and influence of professional Makers

The growth of the Maker movement has been nothing if not amazing. We’ve had more than 100,000 people at Maker Faire in San Francisco, and more than 50,000 at the New York event, with mini-Maker Faires in many other cities. Arduino is almost a household word, along with Raspberry Pi. Now that O’Reilly has spun out Maker Media as an independent company, we look forward to the continued success of these events; they’re signs of an important cultural shift, a rejection of a prefabricated, shrink-and bubble-wrap economy that hasn’t served us well. The Make movement has proven that there are many people who want the joy of creating, whether it’s a crystal radio, a custom head for a Pez dispenser, or glowing e coli.

But the Maker movement is not just about hobbyists. We’ve seen a lot in print about the re-shoring of American manufacturing, the return of the manufacturing jobs that had been exported to China and the Far East over the past few decades. One of the questions we’re asking at O’Reilly is what the Maker movement has to do with the return of manufacturing. If the return of manufacturing just means lots of low-level industrial jobs, paying barely more than minimum wage and under near-slavery conditions, that doesn’t sound desirable. That also doesn’t sound possible, at least to me: whatever else one might say about the cost of doing business in the U.S., North America just doesn’t have the sheer concentrations of people needed to make a Foxconn.

Of course, many of the writers who’ve noted the return of manufacturing have also noted that it’s returning in a highly automated way: instead of people running around a warehouse, you’ll have Kiva robots doing the running. Instead of skilled machinists operating milling machines, you’ll have highly automated computer controlled machines with a small number of humans to test the parts and make sure they’re operating properly. This vision is more plausible — even likely — but while it promises continued employment for the engineers who make the robots, it certainly doesn’t solve any problems in the labor market.

But just as small business has long been the cornerstone of the U.S. economy, one wonders whether or not small manufacturing, driven by “professional Makers,” could be the foundation for the resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S. A number of innovations have made this shift conceivable. One of the most important is the ease with which makers can raise money to get a business started. Thanks to Kickstarter, initial funding for a small business is a lot easier than it used to be. Kickstarter isn’t alone; IndieGoGo, Selfstarter, and many others also enable Makers to raise money without running the venture capital gauntlet.

There’s also been an amazing drop in the cost of tooling. Not long ago, 3D printers, laser cutters, and computer-controlled milling machines were tools that enthusiasts could only dream about. Now you can get a 3D printer for a few hundred dollars, and a laser cutter for a couple of thousand. If you don’t want to own your own 3D printer, they’re starting to appear in storefronts and copy shops. Online fabrication services exist for everything from printed circuit boards to DNA. You design what you want online, click a button, and a few weeks later, a batch of PC boards, or 3D printed parts, or plasmids with custom DNA, arrive. This isn’t new, but it’s becoming easier all the time. Autodesk has apps for your iPad that let you design for a 3D printer; you can easily send the design to the copy shop or library for production.

In the 20th-century economy, one barrier to starting a new business was establishing a sales channel. That’s another problem that’s been solved recently. There are new outlets and sales channels that specialize in micro-manufacturing. Etsy is the most well known; Tindie is a newer entry that caters to electronics; and I believe we will see many more online marketplaces specializing in small manufacturers.

There’s more at stake in re-invigorating small manufacturing than just adding to the economy. Several years ago, I was in a meeting with Bunnie Huang, founder of Chumby, where he said that the United States had lost the engineering skills needed to do manufacturing. The engineers needed to do product development, to take a raw design and figure out how to produce it, no longer existed in the U.S., at least in sufficient numbers to support a manufacturing economy. As manufacturing had gone offshore, so had the people who knew how to do it. A product like the iPhone isn’t manufactured in China because it’s cheaper; it’s manufactured in China because that kind of manufacturing just can’t be done in the United States. Part of a reboot of American manufacturing means home-growing the product engineering and development smarts that we’ve lost over the years; and professional Making, Makers turning their ideas and passions into products, is necessary to re-develop the talent and experience that are in short supply.

If you’re a professional maker, we’d like to hear your story. What kind of a business are you running? Do you have, or foresee having, employees? What kind of an impact has your business had on your community? I’ve seen too many small towns going to ruin around an abandoned factory. The people with the skills are still there, but the jobs left years ago. Can the Maker movement make an appreciable change in local economies? And if small numbers of makers can contribute to a local economy, what can the entire movement do for the national economy?

We’re waiting for your answers.

October 29 2012

Listening for tired machinery

Software is making its way into places where it hasn’t usually been before, like the cutting surfaces of very fast, ultra-precise machine tools.

A high-speed milling machine can run at 42,000 RPM as it fabricates high-quality machine components within tolerances of a few microns. Excessive wear in that environment can lead to a failure that ruins an expensive part, but it’s difficult to use physical means to detect wear on cutting surfaces: human operators can’t see it and detailed microscopic inspections are costly. The result is that many operators simply replace parts on a pre-determined schedule — every two months, perhaps — that ends up being overly conservative.

The researchers’ milling machine, shown with sensors near the cutting device. (Source: X. Li, M.J. Er, H. Ge, O. P. Gan, S. Huang, L.Y. Zhai, S. Linn, Amin J. Torabi, “Adaptive Network Fuzzy Inference System and Support Vector Machine Learning for Tool Wear Estimation in High Speed Milling Processes,” Proceedings of the 38th Annual Conference of the IEEE Industrial Electronics Society, pp. 2809-2814, 2012.)

Enter software: in a paper delivered to the IEEE’s Industrial Electronics Society in Montreal last Thursday*, a group of researchers from Singapore propose a way to use low-cost sensors along with machine learning algorithms to accurately predict wear on machine parts — a technique that could cut costs for manufacturers by lengthening the lifespan of machine parts while avoiding failures.

The group’s demonstration is a promising illustration of the industrial Internet, which promises to bring more intelligence to machines by linking them to networks and integrating them with sophisticated software. Techniques from areas like machine learning, which can be computationally intensive, can thus be available in monitoring parts as small and common as cutting surfaces in milling machines.

“This is a simple optimization problem,” says Meng Joo Er, a professor at the Nanyang Technological University and an author of the paper. “But you’re talking about a very expensive piece of equipment working on a very expensive product. We have to be very careful.”

The cutting tool, enlarged under a microscope, after four cuts (Source: ibid.)

Er and his colleagues outfitted a high-speed computer-controlled milling machine with a handful of common sensors: accelerometers to measure vibrations, an acoustic emission sensor to measure stress waves and a dynamometer to measure cutting forces. The researchers then used data from these sensors along with measurements of wear taken through a microscope as a training set for two machine-learning algorithms (one ANFIS model and one SVM model). The researchers managed to predict wear at above 90% by the ANFIS method and 85% by the SVM method.

The same surface showing wear (Source: ibid.)

That’s accurate enough to find its way into application although, Er notes, industrial users will likely combine this sort of method with conventional fallbacks, and it will take longer to make its way into very-high-stakes fields like aviation. Computation time for running the trained model — now on the order of 25 seconds for the more accurate model and half a second for the less accurate — will also need to come down, and engineers will need to find ways to integrate these types of models into the industrial control systems that are ubiquitous in automated manufacturing.

Nevertheless, this is a good lens for peering into the future of connected machines: generate lots of data, let software swallow it up, and optimize away.

*Available for a fee from IEEE: X. Li, M.J. Er, H. Ge, O. P. Gan, S. Huang, L.Y. Zhai, S. Linn, Amin J. Torabi, “Adaptive Network Fuzzy Inference System and Support Vector Machine Learning for Tool Wear Estimation in High Speed Milling Processes,” Proceedings of the 38th Annual Conference of the IEEE Industrial Electronics Society, pp. 2809-2814, 2012.

This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

October 11 2012

Investigating the industrial Internet

Consumer networks have revolutionized the way companies understand and reach their customers, making possible intricate measurement and accurate prediction at every step of every transaction. The same revolution is underway in our infrastructure, where new generations of sensor-laden power plants, cars and medical devices will generate vast quantities of data that could bring about improvements in quality, reliability and cost. Big machines will enter the modern era of big data, where they’ll be subject to constant analysis and optimization.

We’ve teamed up with General Electric to explore the industrial Internet and convene a series of conversations that we hope will accelerate its development. GE’s strong presence in many industries has given it a great deal of insight into the ways that industrial data might be gathered, distributed and linked together.

Linking together big smart devices into a true industrial Internet presents enormous challenges: standards need to be developed with the full engagement of the technology industry. Software innovators will need to develop tools that can handle vast quantities of sensor data under tight security constraints, sharing information that can improve the performance of systems that have many operators — without leaking anything important to malicious groups.

Launching the industrial Internet will require big investment on the part of those who will operate each of its nodes, so in addition to looking at the concept’s technical aspects we’ll also explore its promise as a business revolution in ways that are both practical and already in use (like remote operation of mining equipment) and promising but largely conceptual (like mobile health and big data in diagnostics).

GE won’t be the only voice in this conversation: other companies have developed their own visions for the industrial Internet and we’ll be exploring those as well, looking for commonalities and engaging as many voices as we can from our neutral place in the technology industry.

The promise of the industrial Internet is that it will bring intelligence to industries that are hugely capital-intensive and create broad value that all of the industrial Internet’s participants will share. We’ll look for stories that illustrate that future.

September 20 2012

Four short links: 20 September 2012

  1. The Shape of the Internet Has Changed98 percent of internet traffic now consists of content that can be stored on servers. 45% of Internet traffic today is from CDNs, and a handful of them at that, which makes CDNs like Artur Bergman’s fastly super-important. (via Donald Clark)
  2. Be a Good Dictator (Rowan Simpson) — There is no shortage of advice online about how to be a good designer or a good software developer. But what about advice for those who aspire to be good product dictators? Guidance seems pretty thin on the ground. [...] Being a deep expert in just one area is not enough for good dictators. You need to be a polymath living at an intersection.
  3. Hardware is Dead7-inch tablet, Wi-Fi only with all the attributes of a good tablet. Capacitive touchscreen. Snappy processor. Front facing camera. 4GB of internal memory and an expandable memory slot. for USD75. At these levels there is almost no profit margin left in the hardware business. A $45 tablet is cheap enough to be an impulse purchase at the check-out line in Best Buy. A $45 price puts tablets within reach of a whole host of other activities not traditionally associated with computers. (via Steve Bowbrick)
  4. Car Transmissions and Syncromesh (YouTube) — cheesy old Chevy educational movie that does a great job of explaining how manual transmissions work. Such videos were the screencasts for the auto DIY folks. (via Nat Friedman)

July 24 2012

Four short links: 24 July 2012

  1. The Future of Big Data (Pew Internet) — A doubtful anonymous respondent observed, “Apparently this ‘Internet of Things’ idea is beginning to encourage yet another round of cow-eyed Utopian thinking. Big Data will yield some successes and a lot of failures, and most people will continue merely to muddle along, hoping not to be mugged too frequently by the well-intentioned (or not) entrepreneurs and bureaucrats who delight in trying to use this shiny new toy to fix the world.” Always easier to be negative than positive: if you’re wrong, nobody cares because the world is better; but if you’re right, you get to say “I told you so” as the world slides into chaos and ruin. Reminded of a politician in NZ who was said to have “predicted 8 of the last 4 recessions”. (via Jim Stogdill)
  2. Science in a Nutshell (Guardian) — it’s a book review, but Adam Rutherford nails the heart of science in just a few short paragraphs. (And I bought one of the books he was reviewing)
  3. Living with HTTPS — short rundown of the security considerations around HTTPS transported web pages.
  4. False Economy — it’s a political blog, but the interesting part is the table showing railway carriage mean-time-between-failures numbers for carriages bought in 1971, 1972, 1979, 1986, and 2011. Monotonically decreasing. In so many ways, they don’t make them like they used to.

June 26 2012

Four short links: 26 June 2012

  1. SnapItHD -- camera captures full 360-degree panorama and users select and zoom regions afterward. (via Idealog)
  2. Iago (GitHub) -- Twitter's load-generation tool.
  3. AutoCAD Worm Stealing Blueprints -- lovely, malware that targets inventions. The worm, known as ACAD/Medre.A, is spreading through infected AutoCAD templates and is sending tens of thousands of stolen documents to email addresses in China. This one has soured, but give the field time ... anything that can be stolen digitally, will be. (via Slashdot)
  4. Designing For and Against the Manufactured Normalcy Field (Greg Borenstein) -- Tim said this was one of his favourite sessions at this year's Foo Camp: breaking the artificial normality than we try to cast over new experiences so as to make them safe and comfortable.

March 15 2012

Foxconn and Ford, Emerson and Jobs

This post originally appeared on The Question Concerning Technology. It's republished with permission.

To borrow a line from Chuck Berry, it goes to show you never can tell.

I embarked this week on a bit of historical research, thinking I might find some connections between the factory workers of the digital era and those of the industrial era. Along the way I found myself confronting deep questions about the relationship between technology and spirit.

As most people know, there's been a raft of publicity lately about the conditions that prevail in the mega-factories of Foxconn, the Taiwan-based company that produces many of the digital devices we love so well. Even as Foxconn was denying that its workers are mistreated, the company announced it was raising their salaries by as much as 25 percent, its third announced pay increase in the past two years. Overtime hours are also being reduced.

No doubt these adjustments are aimed in part at repairing some of the damage to Foxconn's public image, and to the public images of its clients, notably Apple Computer. A dozen or so employee suicides in rapid succession tend to attract critical scrutiny.

That's not the whole story, however. Several reports also point out that Foxconn is at pains to stabilize the high rates of employee turnover in its factories, turnover that suggests the company may not always be able to depend on the vast, pliant pool of migrant labor that's fueled its explosive growth so far.

All this struck me as having some interesting parallels with the evolution of labor policies in the factories of an earlier breakthrough technology, the automobile.

In 1913 Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line at his Highland Park factory in Michigan, revolutionizing the process of mass production. The following year he revolutionized his company's relationship with its workers by introducing the Five Dollar Day, a pay rate that more than doubled the average employee's salary. He also cut back the standard shift from nine to eight hours.

There were strings attached, including requirements that Ford's standards of cleanliness and sobriety be met at home as well as at work. Nonetheless, for the legions of mostly immigrant workers who besieged the employment office at Highland Park, the Five Dollar Day redefined what it meant to earn a living wage.

Like the pay raises at Foxconn, the Five Dollar Day was aimed at reducing unacceptable rates of employee turnover. The profits Ford was realizing with his production efficiencies were being eaten up by the cost of replacing 370 per cent of his workforce a year. Workers hadn't yet grown accustomed to the grinding routine of the assembly line; absenteeism was also rampant. The Five Dollar Day effectively encouraged employees to show up, and to stick around.

Whether by luck or by design, the Five Dollar Day also established one of the foundational principles of modern consumerism: Pay employees enough so that they can afford to buy the products they produce. This, too, is part of what's happening in China. Foxconn employees want to own iPads and iPhones as well as make them. Economists and environmentalists are having fun contemplating the implications of a shift in individual buying power in China today analogous to that unleashed in America in 1914.

This was pretty much what I expected to find when I started looking into the history of the Five Dollar Day. What I didn't expect to find was that Henry Ford's institution of that policy may have been inspired, at least in part, by the Sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

It's an irony of history that a man who loved nature as much as Henry Ford would have so much to do with its destruction. According to biographer Robert Lacey, Ford was a great admirer of the naturalist John Burroughs. He gave Burroughs a Model T in hopes of persuading him that cars, by providing people with means to escape the pestilent cities, would promote rather than undermine the cause of conservation. Burroughs presumably was unconvinced, but he did manage to infuse Ford with his passion for Emerson.

Lacey says the Five Dollar Day reflects in particular the ideas expressed in Emerson's essay, "Compensation." Ford often gave copies to friends, and a close associate said it "comes nearer to stating his creed than anything else." It's not hard to see why, given that Ford was a billionaire who believed in reincarnation, and who sometimes said he belonged with "the Buddhist crowd."

"Compensation" distinctly demonstrates the degree to which Emerson's transcendentalism resonates with Eastern religions. "The true doctrine of omnipresence," he says in one passage,

"is that God reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb. The value of the universe contrives to throw itself into every point. If the good is there, so is the evil; if the affinity, so the repulsion; if the force, so the limitation."

In another passage he adds, "The soul is.

"Under all this running sea of circumstance, whose waters ebb and flow with perfect balance, lies the aboriginal abyss of real Being. Essence, or God, is not a relation or a part, but the whole. Being is the vast affirmative, excluding negation, self-balanced, and swallowing up all relations, parts and times within itself."

As we used to say in the '60s, far out.

We know that Steve Jobs was well acquainted with the principles of Zen Buddhism and Hindu mysticism. With the works of Emerson, probably not so much. There's no mention of Emerson in Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs, or in several other books on the history of Apple I've read. Jobs wasn't known as a reader (neither was Ford), and I'd guess that "Compensation" would have tried his patience. It's as abstruse and as silly in spots as Emerson's other essays, and as wordy. Still, one imagines that if Jobs had read it, he would have recognized its affirmation of some of the cosmic truths he held dear.

Basically "Compensation" is a meditation on what in Eastern terms would be called karma and the interplay between the yin and the yang. The gist of the message is that no one, in the end, gets away with anything. "A perfect equity," Emerson says, "adjusts its balance in all parts of life ...

"Our action is overmastered and characterized above our will by the law of nature. We aim at a petty end quite aside from the public good, but our act arranges itself by irresistible magnetism in line with the poles of the world."

The subject of work is directly addressed sporadically, but those mentions are telling. "Human labor," Emerson says, "through all its forms,

"from the sharpening of a stake to the construction of a city or an epic, is one immense illustration of the perfect compensation of the universe. The absolute balance of Give and Take, the doctrine that every thing has its price – and if that price is not paid, not that thing but something else is obtained, and that it is impossible to get anything without its price – is not less sublime in the columns of a leger than in the budgets of states, in the laws of light and darkness, in all the action and reaction of nature."

Robert Lacey cites this passage as suggestive of Ford's realization that he wasn't enjoying the advantages he could have enjoyed from his assembly line because he wasn't paying heed to the absolute balance of Give and Take. He wasn't paying the price.

This isn't to say that reading Emerson suddenly turned Ford into some gooey-eyed idealist. Many scholars argue that the Five Dollar Day was less about sharing the wealth than it was about gaining control of an unruly workforce. Ford himself described the policy as "one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made," but he also insisted he'd rather make 15,000 families happy than to make 20 or 30 millionaires.

In any event, the Five Dollar Day accomplished its mission, and helped ignite the engine of consumerism that defines, as much as anything, the American character to this day. In that sense Steve Jobs most assuredly carried Ford's legacy into the 21st century.

It's impossible to say how Jobs would have responded to the controversies regarding Foxconn that continued to escalate after his death. In a June, 2011 interview, two months before he stepped down as Apple's CEO, Jobs said he was deeply troubled by Foxconn's employee suicides, but insisted that Apple was doing "one of the best jobs in our industry and maybe in any industry" of monitoring the working conditions in its supply chain. Even if that's true, Apple's critics argue that doing "one of the best jobs in our industry" doesn't necessarily mean the company is doing enough.

There's not much evidence, in Isaacson's biography at least, that during his lifetime Jobs spent a lot of time thinking about the people who assembled his products. There's endless talk about purity of design and the seamless integration of hardware and software, but no substantive discussion of workers, factories, or China. Foxconn isn't mentioned at all. I think it's fair to conclude that Jobs was far more focused on what it feels like to use the iPod, the iPad, and the Mac than he was in what it feels like to make them. His talent lay in empathizing with his customers, not with his factory workers.

It would be unfair to expect Jobs to have been all things to all people. Like everyone else, he had his strengths and his weaknesses. Still, it's regrettable that a man who believed so strongly in the holistic integrity of Apple's products, inside and out, seems to have paid relatively little attention to the human beings who literally bring those products into the world.

In his better moments Jobs had to have realized, if he allowed himself to think about it, that there's an inherent karmic imbalance in the production of Apple's products. The devices he shepherded so carefully to market promise to open paths of individual freedom and creativity. That's why he believed they made the world a better place, and that's why we love them. The revelations about the working conditions at Foxconn remind us that individual freedom and creativity are not the values that prevail on the assembly line.

As consumers, most of us give far less thought to what it's like to work on the line than Steve Jobs probably did. Our disinterest ignores Emerson's absolute law of Give and Take. "Treat men as pawns and ninepins and you shall suffer as well as they," he said. "If you leave out their heart, you shall lose your own."

Associated photo on home and category pages: Old Five Dollar Bill - 1934 by Kevin Krejci, on Flickr


August 26 2011

Four short links: 26 August 2011

  1. 911 Footage -- the Internet Archive has published a great collection of video from Sep 11 2001. A tremendous boon to researchers.
  2. Why Are Finland's Schools Successful? (Smithsonian Magazine) -- not sure if why they're successful is ever definitively anointed, but the article is fascinating reading.
  3. deck.js -- Javascript presentation library.
  4. Why Amazon Can't Make a Kindle in the USA (Forbes) -- the progressive hollowing of manufacturing, driven by short-term gains, leading to long-term losses of industries and the corresponding areas to innovate. This is part of a series, and it's well worth reading the whole series. (via Pinboard)

September 13 2010

Four short links: 13 September 2010

  1. Open Source Community Types (Simon Phipps) -- draws a distinction between extenders and deployers to take away the "who do you mean?" confusion that comes with the term "community".
  2. Sparklines -- Tufte's coverage of sparkline graphs in Beautiful Evidence. (via Hacker News)
  3. Why NoSQL Matters (Heroku blog) -- a very nice precis of the use cases for various NoSQL systems. Frequently-written, rarely read statistical data (for example, a web hit counter) should use an in-memory key/value store like Redis, or an update-in-place document store like MongoDB. I'm sure there are as many opinions as there are people, but I'd welcome a "if you want to do X, look at Y" guide to the NoSQL space. If you know of such a beast, please leave pointers in the comments. Thanks!
  4. The Man Who Makes Your iPhone (BusinessWeek) -- a fascinating survey of Foxconn's CEO, history, operations, culture, and plans. This line resonated for me: "I never think I am successful," he says. "If I am successful, then I should be retired. If I am not retired, then that means I should still be working hard, keeping the company running."

July 06 2010

The manufacturing future

Harold Meyerson writes about China and Germany's ability to ride through the current economic conditions in a relatively good position:

What sets them apart from the world's other major powers, purely and simply, is manufacturing. Their predominantly industrial economies meet their own needs and those of other nations, and have made them flourish while others flounder.

At Foo Camp 2010, I caught up with Liam Casey of PCH International, an Irishman living in China who runs a supply-chain business, helping mostly American tech companies manufacture things in China. Casey offers his insight into why China has become the place to make things. China has the infrastructure, the expertise and the labor force to be the world's leader in manufacturing.

Casey's view is that manufacturing has become a commodity; fewer large companies own their own factories. In a sense, they rent rather than own, and the cheapest places to rent are those in China. As China begins to create web interfaces to its manufacturing capacity, the rest of the world will find it even easier to make things in China.

As John Keefe writes, we may find it surprising that the U.S. is still the leader in making things: "The U.S. still manufactures more stuff than anyone else -- $1.7 trillion in manufacturing value added in 2009, compared to $1.3 trillion from China." But he points out that the lead won't last for long and China may surpass the U.S. by 2013.

I want to know what we can learn from China. Can the U.S. become more competitive as a maker of things? What will happen to our manufacturing base in cities like Detroit? (I'm organizing Maker Faire Detroit, July 31-Aug 1.)

Here's video from my conversation with Casey:

Harold Meyerson holds up Germany as an example of a country that successfully competes against China by producing high quality products with a skilled workforce. Most Americans assume, Meyerson says, that we can't compete "against cheap Chinese labor" yet Germany manages to do so with a unionized workforce that receives better pay than American workers. He also notes that when we lose manufacturing, we're not just losing blue collar jobs; we're also losing science and engineering jobs.

A few weeks ago, I was at Ford Motor Company's R&D facility. When we think of the auto industry, we think of assembly line workers. What amazed me at Ford was the number of advanced research labs, filled with scientists developing and testing new processes and new materials. In a sustainability lab, a team of five women scientists are refining a process for making the foam for seat cushions from a biodegradable material derived from soybeans. Manufacturing involves a lot more than assembly; it creates the need for investing in research and development.

Meyerson believes that one secret to Germany's success is that their financial system is designed to support manufacturing businesses. "Its financial sector serves the larger economy, not just itself," he writes.

I recently read Andrew Ross Sorkin's "Too Big To Fail." One of the great ironies in the book is to hear executives from Lehman Brothers justify a government bailout because it will save jobs in the financial sector. These are the banks that made deals that were good for themselves but which eliminated jobs and moved some industries out of America.

Meyerson writes:

So even as Germany and China have been busily building, and selling us, high-speed trains, photovoltaic cells and lithium-ion batteries, we've spent the past decade, at the direction of our CEOs and bankers, shuttering 50,000 factories and springing credit-default swaps on an unsuspecting world.

The tech industry as well has served its own interests in eliminating jobs either through automation or by sending them overseas. Sometimes the justification that is given is that the tech industry is creating high-value jobs to replace low-value jobs. Yet, should we be asking how can technology create jobs?

Andy Grove, former CEO and Chairman of Intel, in a recent Bloomberg article, asks "what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work -- and masses of unemployed?"

Grove calls for "rebuilding our industrial commons":

Long term, we need a job-centric economic theory -- and job-centric political leadership -- to guide our plans and actions. In the meantime, consider some basic thoughts from a onetime factory guy.

Silicon Valley is a community with a strong tradition of engineering, and engineers are a peculiar breed. They are eager to solve whatever problems they encounter. If profit margins are the problem, we go to work on margins, with exquisite focus. Each company, ruggedly individualistic, does its best to expand efficiently and improve its own profitability. However, our pursuit of our individual businesses, which often involves transferring manufacturing and a great deal of engineering out of the country, has hindered our ability to bring innovations to scale at home. Without scaling, we don't just lose jobs -- we lose our hold on new technologies. Losing the ability to scale will ultimately damage our capacity to innovate.

Grove makes a pretty good argument for not thinking of manufacturing as a thing of the past, but rather a vital part of re-building for the future.

March 19 2010

Four short links: 19 March 2010

  1. Tsung -- GPLed multi-protocol (HTTP, PostgreSQL, MySQL, WebDAV, SOAP, XMPP) load tester written in Erlang.
  2. Myth of China's Manufacturing Prowess -- The latest data shows [...] that the United States is still the largest manufacturer in the world. In 2008, U.S. manufacturing output was $1.8 trillion, compared to $1.4 trillion in China (UN data. China’s data do not separate manufacturing from mining and utilities. So the actual Chinese manufacturing number should be much smaller). Also contains pointers to an interesting discussion of lack of opportunities for college grads in China.
  3. OpenSSO and the Value of Open Source -- Oracle are removing all open source downloads and wiki mentions, leaving only the enterprise OpenSSO product on their web site. A Norwegian company has stepped in and will continue the open source project. This is essentially a fork, but for the forces of good. (via normnz on Twitter)
  4. The Internet of Things -- 5m video on sensor networks, etc. (via imran on Twitter)

March 03 2010

Four short links: 3 March 2010

  1. Top 25 Most Dangerous Programming Errors (MITRE) -- I could play bingo with this on some of the programs I wrote when I was learning to code. Now, of course, I am perfect. *cough*cough*
  2. RepRap Printing in Clay -- interesting because of the high price of the plastic that fab units typically use. Other groups are working on this--see, for example, recycled glass, sugar, and maltodextrin.
  3. Artificial Flight and Other Myths -- amusing parody of anti-AI arguments.
  4. Snake Oil Supplements -- visualisation of the scientific evidence for various food supplements. What interested me is that it's automatically generated from data in this Google Doc.

November 23 2009

Four short links: 23 November 2009

  1. Top E-Tailers Profiting From Scams -- Vertrue, Webloyalty, and Affinion generated more than $1.4 billion by "misleading" Web shoppers, said members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. [...] The government says the investigation shows that [the companies] "trick" consumers into entering their e-mail address just before they complete purchases at sites such as Orbitz,,, 1-800 Flowers, Continental Airlines, Fandango, and A Web ad, which many consumers say appears to be from the retailer, offers them cash back or coupon if they key in their e-mail address.
  2. Image Swirl (Google Labs) -- interesting image search result navigator. It's fun to play with, trying to figure out why particular sets of images are grouped together.
  3. Create Crisis (Dan Meyer) -- great call to arms for educators. It's still astonishing to me how few "learning xyz" books follow this advice. Would-be authors, take note! If there were ever an easy way to make your computer book stand out for being better than the rest, this is it!
  4. Typographic Character Coasters -- the single best argument for laser cutters evar. Send the patterns to Ponoko if you don't have a laser cutter handy.

November 18 2009

Four short links: 18 November 2009

  1. Memento: Time Travel for the Web -- clever versioning hack that uses HTTP's content negotiation to negotiate about the date!
  2. Ordnance Survey Maps to Go Online -- The prime minister said that by April he hoped a consultation would be completed on the free provision of Ordnance Survey maps down to a scale of 1:10,000, (not the scale of a typical Landranger map set at 1:25,000). The online maps would be free to all, including commercial users who, previously, had to acquire expensive and restrictive licences at £5,000 per usage, a fee many entrepreneurs felt was too high. No word yet on license. (more details here)
  3. Mapsicle -- open source Javascript library to create mashups and application on Google Streetview, from NZ developers Project X. It has been released by Google as part of the Maps Utility library.
  4. Freedom of Creation Shop -- online store for 3D-printed objects. (via Makezine).

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