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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Twilight of Manufacturing

In yesterday’s blog I mentioned that couple who were traveling around the world using human power had been using second hand $100 bikes. They’ve been on them for thousands and thousands of miles with few problems.

However, it wasn’t just luck. One of the travelers, Zoe, has a background in Industrial design. She’s firmly convinced that a lot of older stuff was put together much better. There was a small weight penalty for going with older bikes, but they aren’t racing. It’s more important that the bikes hold together. The last thing you want is some major breakdown on a Peruvian back road in the middle of nowhere.

My auto mechanic is not a big fan of modern manufacturing techniques. One of his big complaints is the amount of cheap plastic built into cars these days. They use plastic on critical components that used to be metal. Even expensive cars use cheap plastic.

It’s not even good plastic. It’s possible to make good plastic parts that last. Like everything else, the good stuff cost more money. Instead they use junk that’s guaranteed to fail.

Marine stainless steel is something else that’s taken a huge tumble in quality. US made stainless from the 70s is much better than the junk coming out of India and China. People have been known to seek out junk boats just for the steel hardware to put on new boats.

Recently I was talking to a restaurant owner who uses a lot of induction stoves in his business. I happened to mention that my old cast iron works just fine. He told me that a lot of the new “cast iron” doesn’t have enough real iron in them to work right. The guy claimed that magnets won’t even stick to some of them.

So what’s going on here? Have we forgotten how to build stuff? The main issue appears to be money. Things are being manufactured as cheaply as possible. Personally, I’d rather have a few good things that last than piles of broken junk.



  1. No. We haven't forgotten how to build stuff. When we're allowed, we out build and out produce everyone, with a quality level so far above everyone else that 2nd place looks like it's 20 miles away.

    Problem is... Our manufacturing is controlled not by engineers or scientists or machinists or actual workers, our manufacturing is controlled by beancounters who have no understanding of what is going on and by MBAs who are more concerned with the HR policies and what their golf score and what their cutbacks will generate as a quarterly bonus.

    That. That right there. That is the problem. Why use a CNC milled chunk of high quality steel when you can MIM it? Why use carbon fiber and high quality resins and careful manufacturing processes (which tend to be man-hour heavy) when one can use recycled plastic trash which will work 90% of the time and cost 1/10th as much and can be made by prisoners in communist China or by cartel-controlled factories in Juarez?

    Just look at some of the boutique fire arms manufacturers who are doing gangbusters with high-quality materials and capable of producing at the same price point as the big guys like Colt or Remington, without the bullscat and poor quality of the big guys.

    You also see it in the motorcycle shops, the custom fishing gear manufacturers, the knife makers, etc.

    Anywhere that accountants and MBAs have sway will be destroyed. Accountants are okay as long as they only report, not control. MBAs? Shoot on sight. Shoot often. Hang the bodies as warnings to other MBAs that their existence will not be tolerated.

    Oh. Forgot Human Resources and how HR has destroyed the personnel of many companies. Used to be, Steel Workers were, well, John Wayne in "The Quiet Man." Now? Gotta accomodate everyone, even if everyone can't handle working around blazing steel and high heat while manhandling heavy objects. Sure, there's a place for a petite woman in welding and pipeline construction, but heavy weights, gotta have a man, a big man, a strong man.


    No Accountants controlling things.

    MBAs shot on sight.

    HR specialists put in barrels and buried along with other toxic waste.

    Then you'll have our American Made products come back, in spades.

    1. Thanks for the in-depth comment. Darn good points. The bean counters will be the death of us all.

  2. As to bicycles, well, you can still buy properly built bikes made lovingly by the old processes and with proper materials. Like the Wright Brothers used to make.

    Expect to pay in today's dollars what people paid for a Wright Bike back then.

    As to finding $100.00 bikes, yeah, find an old Schwinn from the 50's or 60's, or a Raleigh, or even an AMF or Sears. Big, clunky, heavy bikes. Spend about $250 rebuilding them with modern wheels, gear sets, seats, etc (a lot which can be bought second hand.)

    Just don't expect to find a $100.00 bike brand new that's worth it's weight as scrap.

    Problem is, everyone want's Walmart Prices at Premium handmade bike quality.

    You can have cheap, you can have good. Rarely can you have cheap and good. Normally it's an either/or situation.

    1. They bought their bikes in Holland, where everyone bikes. The parking lots are full of them. That makes for a huge market of decent used bikes. In the US we are flooded with big box store crap and have to look harder for good old stuff.

  3. Corporate profits win out over quality every time,unfortunately.

  4. old stuff, aka old stock. There is a market for that. Looking at old electronics in HAM RADIO and people love that stuff because I works and can be repaired. Built in obsolescence is a real thing.

    1. It's tough on those of us who hate to throw stuff out and like to fix things. A lot of new stuff just can't be fixed. Discovered that when a coffee roaster I bought failed early and the company would not return my e-mails. The darn thing could not even be disassembled to see what was wrong.

  5. it's all about the Benjamins, all about the Benjamins.

    1. The ugly downside of Capitalism.

    2. The ugly downside of modern 'we don't care about customers' capitalism.

      Old school 'we care about customers' capitalism is the reason there are whole 'Ford' or 'GM' families, well, until the unions killed Ford or GM..

      Now? Meh, it has 4 wheels, AC, it runs. Who made it? I dunno, let me look...

      See previous comments about Accountants running things and MBAs from Hell.

  6. Kindred souls brother.
    I rant about new stuff being crap all the time as you well know. I actively seek and acquire old machinery and tools for a good reason.