Thirty years ago, I was working as a magazine editor in a small Minneapolis-based trade publishing company, and at the time we had no desktop publishing capability; we typed our copy and sent it to a local printer, who would typeset it and then deliver it to us in his battered green pickup. Sometimes he’d drop off a pizza at the same time. We liked him. But when mistakes happened or changes were needed, we either had to type the copy up again and resend it to him, or our keyliners would have to cut up unused typeset words and articles and glue them down (yes, kind of like ransom notes).
Desktop publishing brought with it speed, economy, flexibility and increased quality, at least in that mistakes could be fixed at any stage prior to publication. And anyone can be a publisher now, at least online—without a gateway for accuracy, accountability or readability. It’s up to the readers now, if there are any, to provide those filters. The established publishing industry isn’t currently winning this challenge.
After reading through Connie Huffa’s business column in this issue (“Ready for the new digital future?”), I started doing some reading on Industry 4.0, Industry 5.0, macro to micro manufacturing, from manufacturing to mass manufacturing to mass customization to mass personalization. What do all these promised global electronic connections, centering around customer demands, likes and needs, have to do with making one-of-a-kind products for one customer at a time? Can our industry capitalize on the advantages of smart manufacturing but still retain the strengths of handmade craftsmanship for some products and markets?
An article in Small Business Trends entitled “Why Handmade Matters” called it “the new American manufacturing,” but I think that may be too sanguine. There will always be consumers that will buy based on price, whether through preference or necessity. If mass customization can raise quality standards for customers in general, it’s no doubt well-suited to a lot of products. (Like cars, for example; I plan to order one that matches my eyes—but will I be able to find a manufacturer that will put rhinestones around the dashboard clock?) There will also always be consumers who prefer handmade quality. The question isn’t necessarily whether there’s a market for one-of-a-kind products—it’s whether we’re doing a good enough job educating customers on making the best choices. Good business skills make for smart manufacturing.
The hardest work comes before the manufacturing begins.