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BRINGING INNOVATION TO MARKET

Restarting American Manufacturing

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I've been taking flack in the comments for saying that Andy Grove's indictment of startups isn't going to help the U.S. create the next wave of great jobs. Here's one from Matthew: "Start-ups have started a manufacturing renaissance--in China."

For those who are bearish on the future of American manufacturing, I recommend this section from Amy Barrett and and Adam Bluestein's excellent cover story on how to create a new start-up economy:

Founded by Jim Newton four years ago as a kind of playground in which do-it-yourself geeks and hobbyists could mess around with cool machine tools, TechShop has become a de facto incubator for an astounding array of start-ups. Cash-strapped inventors have used the shop's lathes, laser cutters, welding equipment, 3-D printers, and shop tools to make prototypes for projects that include green computer-cooling and drip-irrigation systems, technical scuba gear, and low-cost infant warmers for developing countries. "Previously, the funding needed for serious tools was an enormous impediment to innovation," says TechShop's CEO, Mark Hatch, a former Kinko's executive. "Advances in computer-aided manufacturing software and an 80 percent drop in the price of machine tools over the past two decades have completely changed the economics of starting up in the hardware space."

Amy and Adam argue that the U.S. should be investing more in shared workshops like TechShop, which operates like a health club, charging members $100 a month for access to high tech tools like laser cutters and 3D printers. The idea is that by giving regular people access to tools formerly accessible only to technicians in corporate research labs, we'll give birth to lots of new start-ups that make things--and, quite possibly, a new manufacturing sector. There are plans to put TechShops in economically depressed cities like Detroit.

Now, people will inevitably complain that TechShop members, even the ones who have started little companies, are hobbyists, not entrepreneurs. (Gizmodo made this point in a takedown of Chris Anderson's essay that proclaimed a new industrial revolution.) But let's remember that today's hobbyists are often tomorrow's company builders. As Tim O'Reilly points out, it was the Homebrew Computer Club (hobbyists!) that helped create the first wave of computer companies and that open source software started out as a hobby before it became a business.

It makes sense to try to protect American jobs. But let's not abandon the next generation of job creators in the process.

(Thanks for all the comments--even the prickly ones. Keep em coming!)




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