Quotulatiousness

March 3, 2014

Decorative wooden boxes from a steam-powered box factory

Filed under: Business, History — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:14

Published on 19 Feb 2011

The Phillips Brothers all Steam Powered Box Factory, founded in 1897, is family owned and operated and listed in the National Register of Historic places. This mill is believed to be the last fully operational all steam powered mill in America.

www.phillipsbrothersmill.com

H/T to Roger Henry for the link.

February 10, 2014

The difference between money and wealth

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:37

At Ace of Spades HQ, Monty gives an introduction to Say’s Law:

Jean-Baptiste Say, an 18th-century economist and follower of Adam Smith, recognized one of the most fundamental laws in all economics: the entirely common-sense observation that consumption requires production. This axiom is called Say’s Law of Markets.

However, this axiom is often mis-stated as “production creates its own demand”. This is incorrect — production is necessary for consumption to take place, but production anticipates demand, it does not cause it. Production is speculative in this sense. The simple act of producing some good or service does not, in and of itself, create demand for that good or service. (This is true even for basic commodities.)

What Say’s Law really says is that production is the source of wealth. Market-driven production creates value and provides choice to consumers. Inventors and innovators bring new products to market, and as consumers are exposed to these new products, demand rises with the utility or desirability of these new products. New markets are opened by innovators who are able to tap into needs and wants that consumers didn’t even know they had until a new product or service is offered.

And he explains why money is not wealth:

So what is “wealth”, really? (I could write a whole book on the difference between “wealth” and “money”, but I’ll try to boil it down.) Wealth is options. Wealth is choice. Wealth is variety. Wealth is agency — being able to do what you want to do when you want to do it. Wealth is surfeit — having more than the essentials of life. It is comfort, leisure, ease — or at least the agency and option (those words again) to avail oneself of leisure. Simply put, wealth is stored value that can be drawn down in various ways, only some of which involve the exchange of money for goods and services. And how is wealth created? Through production, because production must necessarily precede consumption.

Money correlates with wealth because money is a medium of exchange and a store of value. Rich people have a lot of money because they are wealthy, not the other way around. Wealth allows us to buy a bigger house or better car or nicer furniture. It pays for a nice dinner for two at an upscale restaurant. Note well: wealth buys these things, not money per se. Consumption is the draw-down of wealth, not the simple expenditure of money.

Money is the oil in the machine of an economy, but money is not in and of itself wealth. If I am stranded on a desert island with a thousand gold coins, I am just as poor as if I were a homeless vagrant living in an alleyway somewhere, because I cannot exchange my gold for things I want or need. It does not give me options or variety or comfort. My gold facilitates neither production nor consumption absent a market mechanism that makes use of it.

February 5, 2014

Battlefield mobility for Canadian infantry in the Cold War

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:43

An interesting post by Frank Maas at the LCMSDS website looks at the story of the Canadian army’s attempts during the 1980s to get modern armoured vehicles for infantry support and battlefield mobility:

The Militia, the traditional mobilization base for the Canadian army, withered during the Cold War. Its ranks were flushed with Second World War veterans in the 1950s and there was money for new tanks and vehicles, but morale declined as the Militia’s role became civil defence in the late 1950s, and it languished in the 1960s and 1970s as defence budgets shrank. The Militia reached a nadir of 15,000 by the late 1970s, but ironically, there was a false dawn at the end of the Cold War. In the 1987 Defence White Paper, Challenge and Commitment, the Mulroney government announced that the strength of the Reserves would skyrocket to 90,000, and would complement Regular units and allow Canada to better meet commitments to NATO and continental defence. This increase in strength would be complemented by a package of improvements to bases and new equipment purchases. One of these was for a purchase of 200 armoured personnel carriers, and here the story begins.

Back then, Colonel Romeo Dallaire was head of the army’s department for assessing armoured vehicles. Dallaire was intent on purchasing the venerable and ubiquitous M113, which first entered service in the 1960s, and is one of the most numerous armoured vehicles in the world. (The Canadian army had purchased more than 900 in the 1960s, and fielded up-armoured M113s in Afghanistan). The original plan was to buy 200 M113s from the American manufacturer and have some components licence-built in Canada to fulfill requirements for Canadian content.

At the same time, however, Canada’s only manufacturer of armoured vehicles, Diesel Division General Motors (DDGM), in London Ontario, was nearly out of work. It was approaching completion of a United States Marine Corps order for 758 vehicles, and although some sales to Saudi Arabia were on the horizon for the early 1990s, the company was facing a year with empty production lines. Some salesmen and engineers at DDGM began to think they could scoop up the contract for two hundred APCs by substituting their vehicle, the Piranha Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV), and bridge the gap between the contracts.

Comparing the interiors of the LAV-25 (left) and M113 (right)

Comparing the interiors of the LAV-25 (left) and M113 (right)

There were some significant differences between the Piranha LAV and the M113 that would complicate DDGM’s plan. First, the LAV was wheeled, and the M113 was tracked. Wheeled vehicles were easier to maintain, but tracked vehicles had better off-road mobility. Second, the sides of the LAV’s troop compartment sloped sharply inward, which improved ballistic protection, but reduced internal space. Finally, the LAV had doors at the back for soldiers to deploy from, while the M113 had a ramp which made it much easier for soldiers to run out of the back of the vehicle. DDGM’s engineers could not do much about putting tracks on the LAV-25, although a wheeled vehicle would be better-suited for service with the Reserves because it would be cheaper to operate and soldiers could drive it on roads. (There are prohibitions against driving tracked vehicles on roads). DDGM could reconfigure its vehicle to look more like a M113 from the back to convince the army to accept the LAV-25 as a substitute, but this would require a significant reconfiguration of the vehicle.

Back in the late 1970s, my militia unit got some familiarization training with the then-new Grizzly AVGP, which was based on an earlier model than the LAV. While it was neat to be given the chance to try working with (and in) new equipment, we found that getting in and out of the back of the vehicle was awkward and much slower than we (well, actually our NCOs) had hoped. Practicing a dismount with a full infantry section on board was … less than tactically brilliant. The small doors tended to snag any of our equipment as we squeezed through, so you had to move more slowly to get through successfully.

Here’s a look at the rear of the Cougar AVGP from the same vehicle family as the Grizzly:

A right rear view of a Canadian army Cougar wheeled fire support vehicle that is being used as an observation post by soldiers standing watch during the combined U.S./Canadian NATO Exercise Rendezvous '83. Location: Camp Wainright, AB

A right rear view of a Canadian army Cougar wheeled fire support vehicle that is being used as an observation post by soldiers standing watch during the combined U.S./Canadian NATO Exercise Rendezvous ’83. Location: Camp Wainright, AB

November 29, 2013

Australian railway’s Chinese-made locomotives falsely certified as asbestos-free

Filed under: Business, China, Railways — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:15

A growing concern for companies that deal with Chinese businesses is when safety is compromised and (as in this case) required safety certifications are falsified:

Railway workers have been exposed to potentially hazardous asbestos after the deadly dust was found in locomotives brought in from China.

The breach of a 10-year ban on the import of products containing the carcinogenic fibre is not the first incident of its kind.

Unions are now demanding tougher policing of Chinese imports, describing the current asbestos-free certificates as a farce.

Last year freight carrier SCT imported 10 locomotives made by China Southern Rail (CSR) to tow iron ore bound for China to port.

To comply with the decade-old Australian ban on asbestos imports, they were certified asbestos-free. However, this was not the case.

National secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union Bob Nanva says maintenance workers raised concerns about the dust.

“We had our maintenance workers repairing a number of diesel engines,” he said.

“They identified a lot of white dust among those engines and asked the question as to whether or not that dust was safe.”

The workers’ concerns were justified. White asbestos — or chrysotile — was found throughout the locomotives, in insulation around the exhaust and muffler system, around coolant pipes and in the brake exhaust section near the roof of the driver’s cabin.

[...]

This is not the first time China has broken the Australian ban on asbestos.

Last year more than 25,000 Chinese-made Great Wall, Chery and Geely cars were recalled after asbestos was discovered in their engine gaskets and brakes.

In decades to come experts expect hundreds of thousands of Chinese casualties from asbestos.

A 1980s film by Szechuan University smuggled out from China shows the tragic story of China’s own Wittenoom — at Dayao, in the province of Yunnan — where asbestos exposures had led to the fatal cancer — mesothelioma.

Back in Australia, it was the same type of blue asbestos, from the Wittenoom mine, that lined Melbourne’s blue Harris trains, potentially poisoning passengers when the walls were broken.

So dangerous were the trains they were sealed in plastic and buried in quicksand at a quarry in Clayton.

Blue asbestos, which is more likely to cause the cancer mesothelioma, is now banned in both countries — but China is now the world’s largest user of white asbestos, which Perth’s asbestos expert Professor Bill Musk warns still causes cancer.

H/T to Craig Zeni for the link.

November 7, 2013

Children and the early industrial revolution

Filed under: Britain, Business, History, Law — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:35

Wendy McElroy talks about the plight of poor children in the early days of the industrial revolution in Britain:

Parish workhouses existed in Britain long before the Industrial Revolution. In 1601, the Poor Relief Act paved the way for parish officials to collect property taxes to provide for the “deserving poor.” In 1723, the Workhouse Test Act was passed to prevent false claims of poverty. Any able-bodied person who wished to receive poor relief was expected to enter a workhouse; its harsh conditions would presumably act as a deterrent. About the same time as the Industrial Revolution (circa 1760-1840), attitudes toward the poor underwent their own revolution. The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) not only bled Britain of money; they also created a flood of injured and unemployable men who returned from battle. Those men had families who were plunged into poverty. Between 1795 and 1815 the tab for Britain’s poor relief quadrupled. Meanwhile, the cost of mere subsistence soared because of political machinations such as the Corn Laws, a series of trade laws that artificially preserved the high price of grains produced by British agriculture. Many people could not afford a slice of bread.

But sympathy for the poor was in short supply. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb’s definitive book The Idea of Poverty chronicles the shift in attitude toward the poor during that period; it turned from compassion to condemnation. An 1832 government report basically divided the poor into two categories: the lazy who sucked up other people’s money and the industrious working poor who were self-supporting. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 instructed parishes to establish “Poor Law Unions” with each union administering a workhouse that continued to act as a deterrent by ‘virtue’ of its miserable conditions. Correctly or not, statesman Benjamin Disraeli called the act an announcement that “poverty is a crime.”

Pauper children were virtually imprisoned in workhouses. And nearly every parish in Britain had a “stockpile” of abandoned workhouse children who were virtually sold to factories. Unlike parents, bureaucrats did not view poor children as loved or otherwise valuable human beings. They were interchangeable units whose presence was a glut on the market because there would always be another poor child born tomorrow. Private businessmen who shook hands with government did not have clean fingers, either. Factory owners could not force free-labor children to take dangerous, wretched jobs but workhouse children had no choice and so they experienced the deepest horrors of child labor. The horror was not because of the free market or capitalism; those forces, along with the family, were among the protectors of children. Child laborers were victims of government, bureaucracy and businessmen who used the law unscrupulously.

August 26, 2013

A small note from the hand tool trade

Filed under: Business, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:02

In a discussion of the plight of Sears in the major appliance market, Coyote Blog mentions an earlier Sears mis-step in a different market:

Oddly, I witnessed a similar Sears private label fracas when I worked for Emerson Electric over a decade ago. For years and years, Emerson (not the folks who make the cheap radios and TVs) manufactured many of the Sears Craftsman hand tools and power tools. Sears got tough one year, and negotiated a better deal of some sort with someone else, and an entire division of Emerson saw its sales basically going to zero. So Emerson bought a bunch of orange paint and plastic, went to Home Depot, and cut a deal for a private label tool line at Home Depot (Emerson separately owns the Rigid tool company, so a lot of the items were branded Rigid). Emerson ended up in potentially better shape (I did not stay long enough to see how it turned out), partnered with a growing rather than a declining franchise.

August 22, 2013

QotD: Politicians and the world of real jobs

Filed under: Business, Humour, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Whenever I hear a politician or pundit talk about a modern economy like they understand it well enough to run it, I want to burst out laughing, or cry, or both. If you can’t even keep pictures of your dick off the Intertunnel during an election cycle, I imagine being Emperor of the Economic and Social Universe is probably well above your abilities. Politicians have to take tours of factories because to them, everything and everybody in a factory might as well be alchemy performed by men from Jupiter.

“Sippican Cottage”, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin” Sippican Cottage, 2013-08-21.

July 27, 2013

Jiangsu might as well be the Chinese name for Detroit

Filed under: China, Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:02

The South China Morning Post on the economic troubles of the provincial, municipal and local authorities in Jiangsu:

The nightmare scenario for China’s leaders as they try to wean the country off a diet of easy credit and breakneck expansion is a local government buckling under the weight of its own debt. Few provinces fit that bill quite like Jiangsu, home to China’s most indebted local government.

Hefty borrowings through banks, investment trusts and the bond market by Jiangsu’s provincial, city and county governments have saddled the province north of Shanghai with debt far higher than its peers, public records show.

Many of the province’s mainstay industries, including shipbuilding and the manufacturer of solar panels, are drowning in overcapacity. Profits are dwindling, and the government’s tax growth is braking hard.

[...]

Little public information is available on the total debt of Chinese local governments. Indeed, earlier this month China’s Vice-Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said Beijing did not know the precise level of their debts either.

But from what ratings agencies and think-tanks can piece together, Jiangsu may be the standout debt risk among China’s 31 provinces.

Looking at bank loan books, they can see that China’s eastern provinces including Jiangsu have the highest concentration of government debt. Jiangsu then looms large because of its reliance on costlier and alternative forms of financing, which they said suggested that cheaper bank loans and land sales are not giving the authorities the funding they need.

The risk that Jiangsu might pose to the Chinese economy in a crisis is clear. On its own, the province would be a top 20 global economy with GDP greater than G20 member Turkey. Its 79 million population tops that of most European countries.

July 17, 2013

Matchbox cars at 60

Filed under: Britain, Business — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:08

While my childhood toys revolved more around Airfix 1/72nd scale soldiers and Lego blocks (to provide the necessary terrain for the soldiers to fight over), I had a modest collection of Matchbox cars. After reading this article, I realize that if I’d only had the foresight to keep them in their original packaging and never actually playing with them I’d have the core of an expensive collection on my hands (I’d also have completely missed the whole notion of “fun”, but that’s a separate issue):

The concept of these tiny die-cast models was the response of a father, Jack Odell, to a rule at his daughter’s school stating that pupils were only allowed to bring in toys that would fit inside a matchbox. Odell, a school dropout who later joined the Royal Army Service Corps, was by this time working for a die-casting company, Lesney Products (itself set up by two British ex-servicemen, Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith in 1947). Working out of a bombed-out Tottenham pub called The Rifleman, Lesney spent the early Fifties moving away from producing small products for industrial use towards making die-cast toys. Believing this direction to be a lost cause, Rodney Smith quit the company in 1951, leaving it in the hands of Leslie Smith and Odell, who was by then a partner.

A year later Odell had his brainwave, creating a scaled-down version of an existing Lesney toy, the model road roller, packaging it in a matchbox and sending it with his daughter to school. It was an instant hit: with his little toys, Odell was on to something big.

[...]

Matchbox, along with Corgi and Dinky, turned Britain into the dominant force in die-cast models. In the Sixties, Lesney would become the fourth largest toy company in Europe, with 14 factories in and around London producing more than 250,000 models a week. By the end of the decade Matchbox was the biggest-selling brand of small die-cast models in the world.

To date, there have been more than 12,000 individual model lines, and total production exceeds three billion. If placed bumper-to-bumper they would circle the Earth more than six times — assuming they could be prized from the possessive fingers of their owners.

H/T to Blazing Cat Fur for the link.

June 19, 2013

Even the Chinese statistics office couldn’t accept these numbers

Filed under: Bureaucracy, China, Economics, Government — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:57

In the Wall Street Journal‘s ChinaRealtime section, an amusing story about a local Chinese government whose official statistics were so unrealistic that the central statistics office called them out on it:

It’s typically advisable not to accept Chinese economic data at face value – as even the country’s own premier will tell you. Figures on everything from inflation and industrial output to energy consumption and international trade often don’t seem to gel with observation and sometimes struggle to stack up when compared with other indicators.

How the figures are massaged and by whom is as much a secret as the real data itself. But in an unusual move, the National Bureau of Statistics – clearly frustrated with the lies, damn lies – has recently outed a local government it says was involved in a particularly egregious case of number fudging, providing rare insight into just how we’re being deceived.

According to a statement on the statistics bureau’s website dated June 14 (in Chinese), the economic development and technology information bureau of Henglan, a town in southern China’s Guangdong province, massively overstated the gross industrial output of large firms in the area.

[. . .]

The statistics bureau doesn’t say why Henglan inflated its industrial output numbers. But indications that a local economy is sagging could reflect poorly on the prospects for promotion of local officials, and China’s southern provinces have been particularly hard hit by the global slowdown in demand for the country’s exports. Factories have closed, moving inland and overseas in search of cheaper labor, denting local government revenues.

“When governments are looking to burnish their track record, that can put the local statistics departments in a very awkward situation,” said a commentary piece that ran Tuesday in the Economic Daily (in Chinese), a newspaper under the control of the State Council, China’s cabinet. The article said that one of the biggest obstacles to ensuring accurate data is that the agencies responsible for crunching the numbers aren’t independent from local authorities. Moreover, it argues that penalties for producing fake data were too mild to act as a deterrent.

May 15, 2013

Google UK marks the 150th birthday of Frank Hornby

Filed under: Britain, Business, History, Railways — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:09

If you go to https://www.google.co.uk/ today, you’ll see the Google doodle has a distinct toy train motif:

Google UK doodle for Frank Hornby

At The Independent, Matilda Battersby tells the story:

The search engine Google is celebrating the 150th birthday of visionary toy maker Frank Hornby, whose model railways, Meccano sets and Dinky toys are still being played with by children today.

Born in Liverpool on 15 May 1863, Hornby was behind three of the most popular toy lines of the 20th century despite having no formal engineering training.

[. . .]

Meccano’s turnover for the 1910 financial year was £12,000. His son Roland joined the business, and when the operation began exporting to Europe, he opened Meccano France Ltd in Paris. Two offices in Germany soon followed.

Having dabbled in politics in later life, Hornby died of a heart condition and diabetes in Maghull, near Liverpool, on 21 September 1936. Two years previously he had set up Dinky Toys to manufacture miniature model cars and trucks.

In 1938 his son Roland launched the Hornby Dublo model railway system — a posthumous honour to his father.

Enthusiasts around the world still collect Hornby train sets, Dinky Toys and Meccano models. The modern business also make Scalextric cars and Airfix kits.

H/T to Roger Henry for the link.

April 2, 2013

Revisiting the revisionist view of the “Satanic mills” of the British industrial revolution

Filed under: Britain, Economics, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:55

Rather in keeping with the sentiments expressed in today’s Quote of the Day post, Emma Griffin explains why the workers generally thought of the industrial revolution as a very good thing indeed:

Writers and academics often show an interesting ambivalence about industrialization. Today, they regard it as a blessing, the single-most-effective way to lift people out of poverty. But in thinking about Britain’s Industrial Revolution, they have tended to reach the opposite conclusion: The rise of the factory, they argue, caused the end of more “natural” working hours, introduced more exploitative employment patterns and dehumanized the experience of labor. It robbed workers of their autonomy and dignity.

Yet if we turn to the writing of laborers themselves, we find that they didn’t share the historians’ gloomy assessment. Starting in the early 19th century, working people in Britain began to write autobiographies and memoirs in ever greater numbers. Men (and occasionally women) who worked in factories and mines, as shoemakers and carpenters, and on the land, penned their stories, and inevitably touched on the large part of their life devoted to labor. In the process, they produced a remarkable account of the Industrial Revolution from the perspective of those who felt its effects firsthand — one that looks very different from the standard historical narrative.

[. . .]

Higher levels of employment also helped change the balance of power between master and laborer. So long as jobs remained scarce, workers, by necessity, obeyed their employers. The price of dissent or disobedience was unemployment. With more jobs, such subservience became less and less necessary. In the booming new industrial towns, workers could, and did, walk out on employers over relatively minor matters, confident that finding more work wouldn’t be difficult. One autobiographer left his position simply because he “grew sick” of the work; another because he didn’t want to “beg pardon” after a falling out with his master; another objected to wasting his precious Sunday mornings at his master’s religious services; and another quit when his master refused to let him take his tea breaks off the premises. All working relationships are defined by a disparity in power between master and servant. But that inequality is rendered more palatable if we’re well remunerated for our services and can leave at will.

The way in which working people described the upheavals of this period provides us with a powerful reminder of the transformative effect of industrialization and of its capacity to improve living standards, even for the poor. Generations of historians have dwelled on the loss of old working patterns and presumed that the introduction of more intensive ones was detrimental to workers’ welfare. But these developments weren’t viewed in such a sinister light at the time. Industrialization promised full employment, and for those used to scraping together a living from the land, this was very good news indeed.

QotD: In praise of cheap, gimcrack, run-of-the-mill manufacturing

Filed under: Britain, History, Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

For the first time ever, labourers were able to purchase cheap goods for themselves. The first factories focused on mass production of cheap goods for the poor. Shoes, for example, were produced for the proletariat — the rich bought made-to-measure shoes. This was different from France, where the government’s mercantilist product standards, designed to uphold quality, ensured that nothing was produced for the poor at all. In France, mercantilism continued to be state policy for much longer than in England. This is the reason why industrialisation took fifty more years to arrive on France’s shores.

J.P. Floru, Heavens on Earth: How To Create Mass Prosperity, quoted by Brian Micklethwait at Samizdata, 2013-03-29.

March 30, 2013

All those manufacturing jobs are never coming back

Filed under: Britain, Business, China, Economics, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:37

Tim Worstall explains why this is at the Adam Smith Institute blog:

I’m always rather puzzled by those who shout that we’ve got to bring manufacturing back to the UK. Apparently this will solve all our problems over what to do with dim Northern lads or something. Once they’re all hammering out whippet flanges then we just won’t have a problem with unemployment ever again. The problem with this idea is that modern manufacturing simply doesn’t provide many jobs. And if it were to provide mass employment it would be very badly paid employment too:

    Americans working to produce traded goods and services earn, roughly, according to their productivity. If low-skill workers in America aren’t much more productive in manufacture of traded goods and services than low-skill workers in China, then they can’t earn much more than workers in China while being employed in manufacture of traded goods and services. They can earn a rich-world wage in production of non-traded goods and services, like sandwiches and haircuts, so long as there is sufficient local demand. In other words, the only way to get less-skilled Americans a good wage in a manufacturing industry is to significantly raise their skill and productivity level. If that can’t be accomplished, they can only hope to find good wages in non-traded industries. At least, that is, until wages of less-skilled workers across the developing world come much closer to converging with those in America.

Of course, that’s all about America but the same logic pertains here as well. Chinese manufacturing wages are around $6,000 a year at present. Meaning that if we had mass employment in manufacturing, as they do, then wages would need to be around that level. Or, alternatively, UK based manufacturing would have to be much more productive to support higher wages. And “more productive” is the same as saying “uses less labour”. Thus you can have few well paid jobs (in the Rolls Royces etc of this world) or you can have many badly paid jobs (Shenzen). It isn’t actually possible to mix and match between the two.

March 19, 2013

Sifting through the 3D printing hype

Filed under: Economics, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:06

At The Register, Professor James Woudhuysen looks at the gap between the breathless hype about 3D printing and the current and near-term technological, political, and legal limitations:

3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, is a subject that pumps out enthusiasts faster than any real-life 3D printer can churn out products.

In conventional machining, computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CADCAM) combine to make products or parts of products by cutting away at, drilling and otherwise manhandling materials. With 3D printing, CADCAM works with product scanners, other bits of IT and special plastics and metals to build products up, whether through the squirts of an inkjet-like device or the sintering of metal powder by lasers or electron beams.

Rather in the same way, America’s somewhat self-conscious Maker Movement — several thousand DIY fans out to revive manufacturing through the web and from the privacy of their own garages — promotes 3D printing with layer upon layer of hype.

It’s true that 3D printing has its good points. Without having to engage in expensive retooling, a 3D printer can easily be reprogrammed to make variations on a basic product — good for dental crowns, for example. 3D printing can also make intricate products with designs that cannot be emulated by conventional, “subtractive” techniques.

[. . .]

Despite all this, those who blithely proclaim that 3D printing brings a revolution to manufacturing make a mistake. 3D printing does not represent a pervasive, durable and penetrating transformation of the dynamics and status of manufacturing. Nor, as The Economist newspaper has proposed, is its emergence akin to the birth of the printing press (1450), the steam engine (1750) or the transistor (1950). There is much to celebrate about 3D printing, and even its too-fervent advocates at least represent a reasonable desire to produce new kinds of things in new kinds of ways. Yet what characterises 3D printing is how, as with other powerful technologies today, it need only barely arrive on the world economic stage for zealots to overrate it, and for others to turn it into an object of fear.

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