Via the Oui-share group on Facebook : Michel Bauwens thank you!
28th September 2009
The Chinese shanzhai phenomenon was featured recently in posts by Andrew “Bunnie” Huang and Tom Igoe. To me it’s striking reminiscent of the flexible manufacturing networks of Emilia-Romagna and the Third Italy.
The literal meaning of shanzhai is “mountain fortress,” but it carries the connotation of a fortified area or stronghold outside the state’s control, or a place of refuge for bandits or rebels (much like the Cossack communities on the fringes of the Russian Empire, or Sherwood Forest). The 108 bandits of Song Jiang, one of the more notable shangzhai legends, also carry a flavor something like “Robin Hood meets Che Guevara,” according to Huang.
Although shanzhai firms are commonly dismissed in the West as knockoff artists, Huang writes, they remind him of Jobs and Wozniak or Hewlett and Packard back when they worked out of garages
And like the flexible manufacturing networks in the Third Italy, Huang says, the density and economic diversity of the environment in which shanzhai enterprises function promotes flow and adaptability.
In fact the description of a small factory/garage shop housed in the same building as workers’ housing and retail sounds exactly like similar enterprises in Bologna described by Charles Sabel and Michael Piore.
Another parallel with the Third Italy: the success of shanzhai enterprises results not only from their technical innovativeness, according to Vassar professor Yu Zhou, but from “how they form supply chains and how rapidly they react to new trends.”
The Third Italy was made possible by the first cheap microprocessors in the 1970s, which enabled the design of affordable CNC machine tools scaled to the small shop. Today’s micromanufacturing revolution is enabled by a further step in the same direction, with the cost of homebrew CNC tools scaled for the garage workshop rapidly falling into the triple digits.
One promising indication of how the new generation of small-scale technology will be integrated into flexible manufacturing, in the U.S., is the100kGarages project.
With increasingly scalable production technology, the boundaries between the kind of networked small-scale enterprises of Emilia-Romagna, and the kinds of super-small shops using $500 cutting/routing tables and RepRaps, are exceedingly permeable.
The shangzhai enterprises of China, and the 100,000 garages in the United States, both seem like excellent candidates for taking 1980s-style flexible manufacturing to the next level.
The comments under Huang’s post also contain quite a few gold nuggets. The presence of such a hardware mashup model in China, commenterTor Pettersen says, is “[y]et another example of how IP laws are stunting innovation.”
Huang and a number of other commenters also remark on the effect of zoning laws, licensing, and suchlike, on artificially increasing the capital outlays required to engage in small-scale production, and putting artificial floors under overhead costs.
Of course as mushrooming networks replicate themselves below the state’s radar, focus on local markets, and relocalize manufacturing on the foundations of repair and mass customization, such constraints on innovation are likely to become unenforceable. When there’s a Fab Lab in every large neighborhood, serving the local market, the corporate-state nexus may find itself being eaten alive by the equivalent of a hundred thousand pirahna. And with the old corporate dinosaurs trying to keep their supply chains from collapsing in the face of Peak Oil, and revenue-strapped governments reduced to providing the bare minimum public order functions, the corporate-state nexus may find itself, um, preoccupied elsewhere.
As I also commented at Huang’s post, the shanzhai model may be affected in China by considerable pressure to relocalization. As Peak Oil levies a prohibitive tariff on the “warehouses in container ships” economic model, we can probably expect China’s sweatshops and distributed manufacturers to reorient themselves to the domestic market and treat the old TNC headquarters as redundant nodes to be bypassed. At some point they’ll figure out that all the actual productive activity is outsourced to the distributed manufacturing network, and the corporation is just a bunch of useless eaters living off the rents from branding and IP. At that point, they may decide to just make the products themselves and ignore the patent and trademark “rights,” eliminate the brand name markup, and simultaneously cut prices and raise wages by several hundred percent.
This may be the answer to all the safety and quality problems currently afflicting Chinese goods imported into the U.S. Most of these problems result from all the game-theory implications of producing stuff for people who have no effective feedback mechanism or leverage. When you’re producing for your neighbors and they can take their business elsewhere and tell everyone else to do the same, reputational mechanisms are a lot more important.
Igoe also had some excellent comments on how the shanzhai model dovetails with the open hardware movement in the U.S.
The intersection of the open hardware and open manufacturing philosophies with the current model of flexible manufacturing networks will be enabled, Igoe argues, by the availability of
And the flexible manufacturing network, unlike the transnational corporate environment, is actively conducive to the sharing of knowledge and designs.