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Is our environment manufacturer-friendly?

Some months ago I introduced my flywheel metaphor, which I probably stole from someone but I have no idea who.

Human economy is a money-go-round: I pay a hairdresser to cut my hair; they pay a dentist to whiten their teeth; The dentist pays a motor mechanic to replace his spark plugs, change his oil, and adjust his brakes; the motor mechanic buys my book.

Like a flywheel, the money-go-round suffers from friction. Without a little push every now and then it would gradually slow down and eventually stop. Those little pushes come from innovation. To paraphrase economist & historian Deidre McCloskey: What we make with our hands, our brains and our machines, pushes that flywheel around. Just a little. Just enough to overcome friction and to make it spin ever so gradually faster. The way I read paleo-anthropology, per-capita economic growth has been going on for more than two million years. It's showing no sign of slowing down, which is just as well because economic growth will help people afford carbon-neutral energy, and solve lots of other problems that seem difficult right now.

Here's the thing:

Manufacturing and market-led innovation are minority activities. I'm getting to know quite a few of the Wellington region's wealth creators, the entrepreneurs, engineers, and technologists who spin that flywheel faster. My wife Diana knows most of the ones I have not yet met, because she sells them tools and equipment. Occasionally when we go to Queensgate we bump into a manufacturing technologist. Only occasionally. And never more than one. This true pretty-much all over the world. Manufacturing technologists represent a tiny part of the total population.

Most people don't know that manufacturing accelerates the money-go-round. Without innovation, they wouldn't even be able to imagine technology. They would not know about clothes, or bacon, or soap, or shoes, or a warm dry cave with roaring fire to keep away Mr. Smilodon, the sabre-toothed cat from down the river.

It's OK, most of the time, to take technology for granted. It's OK to take it for granted that our children will be richer than we were, and new innovations will overcome environmental problems, and so on. That's OK, most of the time. In fact you can pretty-much guarantee that government bureaucrats will behave as if innovation happened yesterday, and now we can get everything organised and make stop those scruffy technologists messing things up with their new technology and different ways of doing things and ideas we don't have words for yet.

The trouble comes when we start believing the bureaucrats. I saw a worrying example of that last week. One of our leading manufacturers giving a presentation to a group of non-technical business-people said: "Of course, we out-source our manufacturing." The presenter's tone of voice suggested manufacturing was a low-level activity that should be treated like mushrooms. It wasn't the first time I've heard a manufacturer say they outsource their manufacturing, and I fear it probably won't be the last. That does not make it OK.

Actually that particular company outsources assembly, testing and distribution. As far as their customers are concerned they are the manufacturer. They do the market and technical research. They design the products, including both software and hardware. They own the IP. They do the marketing and sales. Their name is on the most of the products. And even when they put someone else's name on their product, that someone else expects them to behave like any responsible manufacture. Like, say, Toyota, Boeing, or Smith & Wesson.

I guess we should not be surprised if our community doesn't embrace manufacturing, when we have manufacturers who talk about "manufacturing" as if it is beneath them to actually make something. Even though their own livelihood comes from making something. This corrosive attitude has been rubbing off for a couple of decades.

Technology Valley must make sure that the wider community understands where the wealth comes from. Manufacturing technologists represent a tiny, almost invisible minority of the overall community. They think we are weird because we understand math and physics and we know the meaning of 42.


They need us. We make their money go further. Our role is to help drive up the value of the New Zealand dollar. Globally, manufacturing drives per-capita economic growth. If we make a fair contribution, we boost the value of the New Zealand dollar.

We, in the Hutt Valley and the Kapiti district, should be able to overcome this corrosive anti-manufacturing sentiment. Our communities have been built on manufacturing. We have plenty of growing manufacturers who are world leaders in their fields. We need to get the bureaucrats to stop pretending we don't do what we do and recognise that per-capita economic growth is driven by manufacturing. And nothing else. Manufacturing is the means by which technologists put innovative products in the hands of people who want them. I wrote that before. Because it's true. Manufacturing is innovation.

Technology Valley absolutely must get that message across to the wider community.


Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Parametric Modelling Consultant who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your requirements: hello {a}

Is our environment manufacturer-friendly?

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