Definite Optimist Roundup #8
Industrial Society, Robots, and Building in America
Here’s the best of what we’ve read, watched, and listened to since our last roundup.
Manufacturing & Public Opinion
I was pleasantly surprised with the response to my article on manufacturing talent and public opinion. If you’re interested in the current state of the US manufacturing industry amidst trends toward re-shoring & re-invigorating the industry, it’s worth a read:
On Investing In American Infrastructure and Production
I have a habit of throwing shade at consulting firms in past posts, but this from McKinsey is actually useful. They do a good job of breaking down how the CHIPS Act, Inflation Reduction Act, and Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill will impact American industry. Say what you will about where this money is coming from, but this kind of direct investment into American infrastructure and production capacity is a positive thing.
But will we spend the money effectively?
This post from Palladium provides a lot of insight into the sclerotic nature of American infrastructure projects, and contrasts the America of the early-mid 20th century with the America of today. It pairs well with this piece on the failures and excesses the of New York subway development.
Some people argue that we are living in a “post-industrial” world. I see many people taking this at face value, but what is often unexplored is whether or not transitioning to a post industrial society is good or even possible if we want to continue to have high standards of living in the West.
There is lots of talk today about how we are living in an information economy. We’re in the ‘digital age.’ But what’s often missed is that the industrial age underpins our digital age. Even if many of us do not see it (especially those of us working remotely or in “laptop jobs”), much of our society is coasting upon the industrial achievements of the 19th and 20th century. The furnace in your home, the food you eat, and the car you drive are all the products of industrial innovation and capacity. If we lost our ability to build these things, then our information economy would cease to be relevant. It’s hard to deploy an NFT contract if you don’t have computers - which require a global, wildly complex supply chain that is very much embedded in the physical world. This piece from Samo Burja makes the argument that industrialization is of extreme importance. Societies that allow their industrial base to decay do so at their own peril.
There are people working to rebuild American industrial capacity though. One such effort that attracted a lot of noise in 2022 was Hadrian, who is focused on high precision manufacturing for aerospace and defense. There are quite a few good writeups on Hadrian, but I found this recent one from Contrary Research to be insightful on the financial/market analysis side of things (a more general, narrative writeup is this one from Packy McCormick). It’s worth a read:
Industrial Automation & Its Impacts
Nick Pinkston wrote a very thoughtful response to my manufacturing talent article, as he’s someone with a lot of knowledge about the industry. I’ll be writing a follow up post that explores both the impact of industrial policy & general economic forces that shaped the global distribution of manufacturing competency.
If you want a great set of insights into Nick’s work and his thoughts on the future of the manufacturing, then this 3 part series on Manufacturing Happy Hour is an A+ listen:
I’ve been going down the rabbit hole of industrial automation and robotics lately as well, and found this older post from Robin DeChant on how software and automation is reshaping the modern factory. This article had some updates made to it in Jan ‘23, but I wonder if Robin would change anything else based on how the industry has evolved over the last 5 years. It seems to me that IoT was overhyped, and that we collectively underestimated the risks of connecting so much important equipment to the cloud.
This piece on '“where are all the robots?” is a good one as well. However, I disagree with the premise that service robots are the gold standard here. I actually think that advanced industrial robots are a higher leverage thing to work on.
Let’s go to Samo Burja for some additional thoughts on this. For one, he actually views service robots themselves as a consumption expense, and I tend to agree:
Samo’s Newsletter, The Bismarck Brief, also put out a great piece of analysis China’s bet on industrial robotics as a way to circumvent the impacts of their impending demographic collapse. China is investing heavily in industrial robotics as a way to prop up their country’s industrial base, while nations like Japan invest in service robots as a way to boost morale. Burja seems to believe that China is making a superior strategic choice.
If investment in industrial automation and robotics is successful, then there’s a chance that much more production in the physical world is truly “eaten” by software. However, by connecting all of our physical production to the internet via advanced software and IoT applications, we are opening the global economy up to tail risks in cyber warfare.
The scope and potential danger of cyber attacks is still under-appreciated. When you connect heavy industrial machinery and critical production processes to the internet, you are placing them onto the infinite front of cyber war. I wrote about this earlier this month to try to highlight some of the risks here, and explore what we can do about them. I took a great deal of inspiration here from Josh Steinman’s talk at NatCon, and also my own work in some adversarial software environments:
That’s all from me this week! Thanks for reading, and be on the lookout for another post from me in the first week of February.
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