Somewhere near Bengbu
Riding the Rails
If we have not witnessed the peak of mass production in China already, we will soon.
It is not just that costs are rising and production is moving elsewhere: the entire mass production model may well have jumped the shark. The growing costs of energy and commodities, as well as the coming end to the ability of enterprise to externalize the social costs of production will make mass production look increasingly wasteful.
We are leaving the age of “make enough so that everyone has what they want,” and coming into the age of “make just enough of the right stuff.”
Mass is Over…
With due respect to Henry Ford, we are witnessing the birth of a long-term trend away from mass production and toward an industrial model that manufactures a product only when a customer wants it, how she wants it, and where she wants to use it.
This will undermine the consumer model predicated on planned obsolescence, overproduction, and disposable components, and will ultimately destroy economies of scale as the means to lower costs and profit. That means moving the production closer and closer to the customer, and the growth of mass customization. That, in turn, spells the end of our reliance on mass production, and that will turn every shopping mall into a factory floor.
None of this should come as much of a surprise. Mass customization has been a meme of futurists for over a decade, and technologies like print-on-demand and 3D printing are but the harbingers of a new industrial revolution that will turn the point-of-sale into not only the point of production, but, increasingly, the point of design as well.
…So are China’s Days as the World’s Factory
But the implications for China are potentially immense. It suggest that, for most Chinese manufacturers, automation will only delay the inevitable. After all, who needs a factory in China manufacturing blue jeans when you can get yours custom sewed based on your measurements and preference right at the store? Or have your phone assembled for you at a local factory, shipped to you, then upgraded rather than changed when the time comes?
What applies to finished product applies to components as well. Fabric can be woven in custom lots as and when needed – it is not hard to visualize a Home Depot-sized warehouse store filled with machines that will knit, weave, and dye on demand, or a ballroom-sized microchip fab that turns out programmable or application-specific chips in tiny lots.
The future of Chinese manufacturing, then, lies not in producing consumer products for the world, but in producing consumer products for itself, and, I expect, building the machines that make local, personal production possible.
China’s Microfacturing Future
This will not happen right away: China’s mass-production manufacturers still have a long runway ahead as the world retools. It is also likely that the economies of mass production will continue to be essential for low-cost products for sale to developing nations.
But for producers catering to the developed world and the global upper- and middle-classes, that runway is not as long as some would wish. Our best guess: a decade at the outside, but likely less.
Watching this evolve will be fascinating. China, Europe, and the US will be scrambling for the lead as the world’s factory moves in next to the cash register, and it’s anyone’s horse race.