Made in China

The following bit was originally posted to the listserv of the Chesapeake Area Metalworking Society (CAMS), a great group of metalworking enthusiasts in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area.  More info at
In response to this article describing a growing trend dubbed "backshoring", wherein American companies "bring home" production they had previously outsourced overseas, several listserv members took the opportunity to reaffirm their preference to buy American-made products.  This is an attitude I've anecdotally observed more often in metalworking circles than in others, although a confounding variable may be the average age of metalworkers.

I don't necessarily despair when I see "Made in China".

Maybe corporations aren't as evil or incompetent as they sometimes seem.  Maybe they're reacting to the market forces they observe (and that their shareholders demand they respond to).

The fact is that most buyers are motivated by one thing more than any other: price.  Apples to apples, Chinese production gets the job done cheaper than US production.  That's due to a wide range of potentially problematic policies (e.g. labor regulation and environmental protection), but it's the world we live in.

We've all been there.  There are times when a cheap-but-serviceable product is exactly what's needed.  It's a universal thing.  And Chinese quality is actually pretty good sometimes.

Then again, there's times when I want the very best, and that usually means a non-Chinese tool.  I don't care so much about where it was made as I do about its actual quality.  I'm buying the tool to use it, after all.

Manufacturing isn't where the big bucks are anymore.  The margins are small, the jobs aren't great (I've worked one), and the processes are resource-consumptive.  Not to say that we'd be well served to outsource everything, but the real money is in innovation, not production.  Manufacturing stuff is relatively easy, and the Chinese are good at it.  Good new ideas are harder.  The US has long had a competitive advantage in innovation--although the Chinese are trying their best to beat us.  That's more scary to me than outsourced manufacturing.

Besides, American manufacturing may not be what it once was, but it's not in danger of disappearing entirely.  There are plenty of manufacturing jobs that will never be outsourced--military manufacturing, for example.  Maintenance, too--it's hard for someone in China to repair my truck here in North Carolina.

I teach a Metals class to college students these days.  I tell them on the first day that we won't be focusing on the techniques used in factory production.  Peter Drucker wrote that he quickly learned how to tell a well-managed factory from a badly-managed one: A well-managed factory is boring.

Instead I focus on prototyping and the design-build process, which is a whole lot more fun and challenging.  I want my students to be able to make the things they dream up, not just what a blueprint says they should make.  Knowing how things are made makes them better innovators and designers.  Those are durable career skills, no matter where things are being made.

Cheers and "Flame suit on",


New Blog - Cleantech Virginia

So much of the recent content here has been about clean energy that I've set up a separate blog for that content. It's called Cleantech Virginia.  This blog here will continue to exist, but posting frequency will likely decline.  And unlike most cleantech blogs, CleantechVA will have technical content, although it won't always have the latest and greatest clean technologies.  For the latter, see EcoGeek and CleanTechnica, among others.

Why Does Building Performance Simulation Software Suck so Bad?

Back in February, I saw Autodesk CEO Carl Bass give a talk at Cleantech Forum San Francisco.  Full video of the talk is here.

Bass says computers have become so cheap and so powerful that they can be used in exciting new ways in the design process.  An hour of CPU time now costs about $.25.  Dollar for dollar, computers today are ten thousand times more powerful than they were ten years ago.  Design decisions once made by gut feeling or guesstimation can now be made by analyzing sophisticated 3-D models on cheap, ubiquitous desktop computers.  Mistakes can be made in bits (cheap, infinite), rather than in atoms (expensive, wasteful).

Bass' commitment to cleantech was impressive.  He rightly described cleantech as the biggest challenge of a generation.  And he re-announced their Clean Tech Partner program, whereby Autodesk gives away up to $150,000 in software to cleantech startups, with very few strings attached.  Paul Cousens runs the program, and is great to work with.

But I want to address one part of Bass' talk.  He says every building ever built has been a prototype (with a few exceptions like tract housing).  This makes building ripe for energy use analysis (especially since buildings are responsible for something like 60% of energy use).  And yet, he says, what if you ask an architect who's just finished designing a building: How would this building's energy use change if it were rotated by 20 degrees, or if the walls had a higher R-value?  Most architects would admit they should know the answer, but most don't.  Admittedly, these are complex questions, but Bass implies Autodesk software can help find the answers.

The problem is, Autodesk's Sustainable Design tools wouldn't offer much help to the architect in question.

Revit is Autodesk's 3D building design software.  It's powerful and relatively easy to use.  To create a wall, you just click where the wall should go.  But Revit has no built-in abilities to analyze a building's performance.  Though you can select a material for the wall you just drew, the software doesn't know the thermal properties of that material.  You can place HVAC equipment, but the software doesn't know how efficient it is.

Thus, after a designer has painstakingly built a buidling model in Revit, she can't say anything about its energy performance.  It's just a bunch of lines and boxes on a screen.  More specifically, she can't answer Bass' question: How would this building's energy use change if it were rotated by 20 degrees?

To even begin to run an analysis, the designer would have to export to .gbxml, a green building-specific file format.  GBXML files contain some basic geometry data about the building model, but nothing about the materials the designer specified.  So using any analysis tool means re-entering information about every material used in the building: exterior walls, slab floors, foundations, windows, doors.

Autodesk acquired Ecotect in June 2008, but the software hasn't changed much since then.  It's an incredible piece of software, but its user interface is seriously lacking--a far cry from Revit and Inventor.  It's too powerful for most users, and it tries to do too many things.  Running an analysis means making too many minute decisions, like how many people will be in the building during which hours of the day.  And as far as I know, Ecotect has no way to include HVAC systems in its analysis, which limits it utility significantly.

Acquired around the same time, Green Building Studio is also interesting.  Setting the location of the building to be analyzed is done with a Google Maps interface.  GBS even uses the web to find average energy prices for the building's address--very Web 2.0.  But specifying materials and HVAC equipment in GBS is a pain; there's a set list of materials to choose from, so you're out of luck if you're planning to use a cutting-edge product like SeriousWindows.  Why not let us specify the U-value of our windows?  The pop-up menu listing the HVAC options is far too long, and doesn't include options like multiple separate HVAC systems.

This is especially frustrating because other Autodesk software can perform complex analyses with much less effort.  In Autodesk Inventor, simulation and analysis are baked right in--no need to export or switch programs.  I can build a model of a simple part, add some forces and restraints, and *poof*, I can see how much that part will deflect under load.  Need an animation of the part deflecting in slow-mo?  Two clicks and it's done.  Oh, and how about making Inventor optimize the part's thickness to ensure it's only as thick as it needs to be?  Yea, we've got that.  No engineering degree required.

I initially looked into this issue 6 months ago.  Unfortunately, little has changed since then.  I was hoping Revit 2011 would inherit the analysis capabilities of Ecotect, making building performance analysis an integral feature.  But it looks like that only happened for one feature, the sun path simulation tool.  Maybe Ecotect 2011 would finally be a mature, usable product?  Nope, sounds like Ecotect 2011 will be practically identical to 2010.  And Green Building Studio?  Just as klunky as when I used it last year.

What gives, Carl?  Why isn't this a priority, given the scope of the problem (buildings are responsible for over 50% of energy consumption) and your company's core competency in designing (generally) intuitive, powerful software?

Calling all open-access workshop enthusiasts (TechShop et al)

Dear Readers (all four of you),

I'm considering a graduate research project on an emerging class of shops.  In most cases, they sell access to shop space to the public.  They encourage collaborative innovation.  In the absence of shop classes in schools, they help fill the technical education gap.

So far I've found these:
3rd Ward in Brooklyn, NY (at the artistic end of the spectrum)
A2 MechShop in Ann Arbor, MI (not really open-access, more of a coworking facility)
Artifacture Labs (formerly Neighborhood Workshop) soon to open in Dallas, TX
Club Workshop in Denver
MakeIt Labs, possibly near Lowell, MA, but in a state of flux currently  
The MIT Hobby Shop in Boston (only open to MIT students)
Sparqs, formerly in Boston
TechShop, with locations in Menlo Park, CA; Durham, NC (re-opening soon); near Portland, OR (closed, moving); and in San Francisco this summer

TechShop and Club Workshop appear to be the closest to what I'm after, but they're all interesting

Are there others?

Possible research questions:
Why have previous iterations of this concept failed?
What are key success factors and best practices in this small, emerging industry?
What facility design features contribute most to the innovation process, the user experience, and the bottom line?
Where should these facilities be located?
What architectural features should be considered, e.g. lighting, electrical, ventilation?

What do you think of this as a research idea?



On the Brdigeport vertical milling machine

The following is excerpted from a draft of a report for grad school.  Much of it is drawn from barely-remembered snippets of shop lore I heard or saw somewhere along the way.  Any corrections would be welcomed wholeheartedly.


The Bridgeport milling machine is an interesting case in the history of technology.  The design was settled upon in the late 1930s and hasn't changed a great deal since.  Virtually every vertical milling machine made since has been an interpretation of the Bridgeport design.  The term "Bridgeport" is often used to mean vertical milling machines generally, a la "Kleenex".  Other types of machine tools, e.g. lathes and drill presses, are significantly more diverse; there are larger differences between manufacturers and over time.  Welding machines are far more diverse.  But vertical milling machines are all, at heart, Bridgeports.

Though the Bridgeport design was popular in the 30s, its history is deeply intertwined with the World War II production effort.  Adaptable precision production of precision parts was needed, especially for aircraft manufacture.  Today, computer-controlled machining would have been an obvious choice, but automated manufacturing was barely in its infancy at the time.  The solution was to buy Bridgeport mills, one for each machining operation, such as milling a slot.  The part would be moved down the line from one machine to the next, one operation per machine.  When time came for a new run of parts, the machines could be set up anew in fairly short order.  This strategy worked well, but required the manufacture of thousands of machines.

After the war, these machines flooded the used market.  Many have been re-sold over and over.  Milling machines generally, and well-made examples especially, are highly durable.  Many of the milling machines I've used up and down the east coast have been WWII-era machines.  Some are in remarkably good condition, especially for industrial equipment older than my parents.

The Bridgeport mill is an appropriate technology, an essential tool for the small metal shop.  Yet these machines were created to make killing machines.  Such has been the case with machine tools since their earliest days.  As L.T.C. Rolt wrote in discussing machine tools of the 1700s, "It is precisely because armament production has always been so uninhibited that the industry has contributed so much to the general progress of technology.  Though we have not yet acquired the wisdom to convert one into the other, by producing better swords we certainly learn how to make better ploughshares."


Rolt, L.T.C. (1965), A Short History of Machine Tools, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: MIT Press

"Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that much U.S. plant capacity to this day, and even some of the machine
tools in use, originated in this period [1941-5]."

Carlsson, Bo, The development and use of machine tools in historical perspective, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Volume 5, Issue 1, March 1984, Pages 91-114

Bike Shop Etiquette

The first rule is, never go behind the service counter without an invitation.

The second rule is, never go behind the service counter without an invitation.

A 6-pack of half-decent beer on a slow afternoon goes a long way towards making connections at the shop, and in the community generally.  These people know the other bike people in this area, and they'll make introductions under the right circumstances.

Winter is the best time to get bike work done at a shop.  In February, yours might be the only bike all afternoon.  Come March, your bike is one of hundreds.

What else?

Linkdump, Snowpocalpyse Edition

- I'm sorry I missed this piece from the NYT back in June: Despite Recession, High Demand for Skilled Labor.  They profiled the welder pictured here:
Huh, can't afford real TIG gloves with your fancy new job?  Anyway, looks like multi-pass TIG on some serious pipe, maybe Schedule 80?

- "Is there anything left for America to manufacture?" asks this Grist article, "given that we have clearly lost our manufacturing mojo to places like Japan for innovation (compare Toyota’s Prius to GM’s Hummer) and China for cost (what product in Walmart is not made in China?)?"
The answer, asserts the author, is to manufacture cleantech.  He cites a couple examples of cleantech conversions--companies that refocused their efforts from making, say, boats, to, say, portable renewable powerplants.

- Matthew Yglesias responds to the Grist piece by pointing out: "[T]he image of an ailing US manufacturing sector stuck in long-term decline is just wrong. America’s industrial output has been on a steadily upward trajectory since 1970, just like it was before 1970"

My thoughts:
Innovation > price competition.  Other countries can beat the US on price any day of the week, and that's not changing anytime soon, especially with health care remaining a drain on labor costs.  Success for US businesses isn't about making more things; it's about making things better, and making better things, i.e. cleantech.
See also Yes, the U.S. Does Still Manufacture Things via the SF Chronicle

- Miller, whom you know for their bright blue welding machines, has an Industrial Welding blogThe comments are more interesting than the posts themselves.  There's dozens of stories from the front lines of the welding shortage (or lack thereof, depending on whom you ask).  This helped solidify in my mind what might be the best explanation for the wildly diverse experiences with the availability of welding jobs: The welding shortage is a national phenomenon, but not a universal one.  As Tip O'Neill (didn't) put it, all job statistics is local.  Who cares about the national trends if my friends and I can't find work?
Earlier, I even saw a couple companies responding in the comments by practically begging welders to come work for them.  They're out there, but they're not everywhere.

- Fast Company says Pew says the "clean energy economy " stimulates job growth.  They include a Pew chart showing the hot states for clean energy:

Of note: Despite the huge increases in installed wind capacity in recent years in plains states like Texas, Iowa, and Illinois, none are front runners.

What Obama Could Have Stated

Grist has a smart critique of Obama's missteps in the State of the Union.  The tone and content is reminiscent of a critique I wrote of an Obama speech back in September.

Spring plans

This spring I'm interning for Steve Ward, welding teacher at Watauga High School in Boone, NC. 
Besides high school classes, Steve also teaches a nighttime adult welding class through Caldwell Community College.  The shop has been Steve's baby for 15 years.  There's 35 welding machines ranging from shop-made engine-driven portables to state-of-the art Miller Dynasty TIG machines.  Also a dozen machine tools and plenty of support tooling.   Steve likes to buy American and loves high-end tools.  He's got a great collection.

This summer WHS will be transitioning to a new facility, and that means moving the welding shop across town.  Part of my internship is to begin laying out the shop and planning the move.

North Carolina has 20 high schools with welding programs.  WHS is likely the only one that incorporates machining into the welding curriculum.  Steve is one of only two NC high school welding teachers with an advanced degree.

Photos from the first of our several visits to local high school and college shops are here


In other news, I'll be flying out to San Francisco in late February to volunteer at Cleantech Forum.  I'm excited to see Elon Musk of Tesla Motors give the keynote.  Steward Brand (creator of The Whole Earth Catalog and overall badass) will also speak.

Recently read, currently reading, soon to read

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, by Daniel Pink, in which a career advice book a la "What Color is Your Parachute" is interpreted via manga as a 20-minute read.  How long until every other genre is converted into Japanese comics?  Seriously, let me know--this is awesome.

Eco Barons, which is at its best when it's about people who made it big, cashed out, and bought up land for conservation, almost obsessively.  The guy who helped start the super-80s clothing brand Esprit now owns a good chunk of Patagonia and plans to turn it into a Chilean national park.  A good read, if occasionally preachy or wordy.  I probably won't finish it for a while.  Seems like only half of the people profiled are/were businesspeople, the most interesting group.

Green to Gold, which is inspiring in showing how large corporations are seeing conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy as competitive benefits rather than liabilities.  I just hope the remainder focuses on smaller businesses than BP, Sony, Dupont, and Dow.
Fun fact from the book: The proportion of venture funding invested in cleantech (US and Canada) went from <1% in 1999 to 9% in 2005.
Twenty-five cents of every VC dollar invested in 2009 went to cleantech (though this includes other regions, notably Europe and Israel, where cleantech is an even bigger deal).
2009 cleantech venture funding increased $1.5 billion over 2007.  You remember '07.  It was that year before the financial collapse.

Free Agent Nation, by Daniel Pink (again) which will hopefully be as good as this.  This guy was Al Gore's speechwriter?  Only Al Gore could make this guy's writing sound dull.  Zing?

Getting Green Done is a 2009 book by a ski resort sustainability director who used to install home insulation for a living.
Hmm...American dream...hard work...saving the Earth.  It's kinda like Captain Planet wrote a book.  Plus there's skiing.


Just a little green hair dye and a bath in blueberry juice and we've got ourselves a live-action remake.
Plus there's blueberries.