Who MAKES That?

Contemplating robots, cranes, boats, and sugar at Baltimore Dept of Public Works "Big Truck Day"

Contemplating where robots, cranes, boats, and sugar come from at Baltimore Dept of Public Works “Big Truck Day”… and trucks!  Photo: Z Lipman

In praise of manufacturing and supply chain stories

We’re not short on brilliant ideas. And we’re in a bit of a invention revival.  But we’re still seized with collective doubt that we have what it takes to meet the complex challenges of a chaotic and interdependent world.  Maybe we’re not telling enough of those stories.

A few weeks back the New York Times Magazine expanded their “Who Made That” column on inventors into a full issue.  When I saw the disassembled ATM on the opening spread, I thought for a moment it was going somewhere even more exciting… to “Who MAKES That”.

The people, innovative components, and complex supply chains that make our products possible are as fascinating as the products themselves.  They make our abstract policy and economic debates concrete, and they’re a window into how the world works today.

Foreign direct investment, cyber security, Alcoa’s stock price, and jobs in dozens of states are in your new car or pickup truck.  Business attraction in small-town Tennessee*, domestic solar manufacturing, and efforts to combat tropical deforestation are in your movie candy.  Relax as you slide into an MRI by thinking of the Affordable Care Act and the Strategic Helium Reserve.**

Part of Ford's more fuel efficient EcoBoost engine.  Photo: Z. LIpman

Engine block from Ford’s fuel efficient EcoBoost engine. Photo: Z Lipman

The supply chain stories that we think of first are the ones gone wrong, like the recent tragedy in Bangladesh. And continuing to daylight malfeasance is essential.  But looking deeper into the things all around us will show just as many examples of people and organizations demonstrating the creativity, collaboration, responsibility and good governance it takes to turn great ideas into progress in a complex world.

Don’t get me wrong, the Times’ “Who Made That” , Wired’s “Whats Inside” and similar columns are wonderful in their own right.   These columns showcase innovation and history, demystify science, inspire us and make thought provoking connections.  (Thanks to the latter, I learned that cordial cherries digest themselves inside the chocolate coating.  I love that.***) But they’re missing the supply chain that ties ‘whats inside’ together and gets the invention into our hands by the millions.

So lets tell all these stories. It’s time for more “Who MAKES That”.

Here are a few of my favorites that start down this path… 

— Who makes the new technologies in your car? And why? Check out the  videos  at DrivingGrowth.org .

— Read Christopher Joyce on how power gets to people in NYC – one small piece of an exciting product that could use a lot better storytelling: Electricity.

— We have heard a fair bit about the iPhone’s supply chain.  Add Bryan Gardiner’s “Glass Works” (on Corning and Gorilla Glass) and Mariana Mazzucato on government R&D to that picture.

What am I missing?

*Actually, its a small city; **One more, couldn’t resist; ***and in the interests of inspiring the next generation to collaborate through culture and chemistry, you might complain to Wired that the cordial cherry story is not available online!

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