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Design Your Own Stuff! Cut Out the Middlemen and Design / Build Your Own Products

More than eleven years ago, in April of 2000, I authored an article for the national Tool & Machining Association describing what I believe manufacturing will look like in the future, stretching all of the way out to the year 2050. In one section describing the years between 2010 and 2030, I said: “Net-shape fabrication centers that take raw aluminum and part design data as inputs and yield completed component parts as output; and, subassembly centers that configure assembly tooling continuously and perform the assembly itself, based on assembly instructions, virtual part placement simulation that avoids interferences, and assure minimal deviation in every critical interface. Linking these components through a master process management system, the factory will become a set of ‘virtually’ managed physical processes linked in a network spanning each element from design through delivery.” It appears as though I got this one right.

In an article entitled “The Design Economy” from the January/February issue of Futurist Magazine, author Thomas Easton (a professor at Thomas College) quotes Cathy Lewis, CEO of Desktop Factory:

“In 20 years, we will be able to print [manufacture on a desktop] working objects using multiple materials such as plastics, wiring, and silicon. This is when we will be able to download the file for a new iPod and print it at home. I actually believe that the applications in the 20-year and even the 10-year horizon are those we haven’t thought of today. The sky really can be the limit.”

Ms. Lewis has solid ground for her optimism. Several companies have emerged that “print” products directly from a Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) system, including Desktop Factory (Ms. Lewis’ company) and Ponoko. In the case of Ponoko, customers today can upload designs for furniture, jewelry, etc. by computer. The Ponoko system uses these design files to power computer-controlled milling machines that cut the parts for the products out of plywood and plastic sheet. The parts are then shipped to the customer for assembly and use.

This is very similar to the Frame-CAD types of machines already in widespread use for metal building construction. These machines start with coils of metal (typically aluminum or galvanized steel) and one CAD-driven machine unrolls, cuts, punches, bends, an labels all of the components needed to assemble a complete building from the metal studs to the finished skins for sidewalls and roofs. All the customer has to do is assemble it in place on a concrete slab. I have watched several of these buildings go up recently, and it truly is something to behold. The entire set of components can be produced in hours, and assembled in a day for simple structures. I have seen these structures assembled in buildings large enough to be aircraft hangars.

Essentially, the 3-D Printing method utilizes a CAD drawing in the same manner that stereolithography systems have been used by manufacturers to create prototype designs for many years. In stereolithography, lasers are used to harden polymers into a desired shape that represents the designed component. But the result is a plastic model – not a usable product. In 3-D printing, any 3-dimensional object can be broken down into a series of 2-dimensional slices and produced using powders, liquid plastics, and pastes. A similar technique employed by Stratasys equipment called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) utilizes a heated chamber and moving extrusion heads that deploy thin streams of melted plastic to produce their finished pieces.

Easton says:

“One result will be a leveling effect on the world as a whole. The penetration of computers into the developing world has already had major economic impacts in the forms of outsourcing and offshoring, so developing-world designers of everything from art to kitchen appliances will be able to acquire CAD/CAM [Computer Aided Design / Computer Aided Manufacture] skills much more easily than factories. Once they have rendered their ideas in the form of CAD/CAM files, they will be able to upload them to design brokers such as Ponoko. If the designs appeal to customers, income will flow from to the developing world and local economies will be lifted.”

This model reminds me very much of the Zazzle company’s business model, which I have used to design my own T-Shirts, coffee mugs, and mouse-pads employing my own photography to create useful gift items for family members and friends. (This blog, in combination with a sister article I wrote entitled “Do You Want a 1,000 Year Life Span? “ is oddly reminiscent of a movie I saw years ago called “Weird Science”.)

As one of the guys who predicted all of these developments more than a decade ago, it’s gratifying to see my vision of the future coming into reality – and right on time. Even more gratifying is my satisfaction as a manufacturing guy to watch these developments materialize and advance the state of the art. Easton says: “Christmas shoppers in the year 2024 will buy printable files that download directly to a 3D printer or fabber in consumers’ homes.” Sounds like fun to me! What do you think?

Election 2012: Lessons to Learn from Turkey

For some time now, there has been a close ongoing dialog between President Obama and Turkey’s President Erdogan. Erdogan was just re-elected, and is closing in on a decade in power in that country. As President Obama spins up his re-election campaign, it would not be surprising to see him emulate many of the techniques used by his friend in Turkey.

Like Erdogan, Obama’s primary focus will likely be a direct appeal to the voters, because as P.T. Barnum once observed, “You will never go broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Obama has proven himself to be a devastatingly effective public speaker, especially when reading from a teleprompter, as long as words like “corpsman” aren’t in the mix. The formula from his 2008 presidential campaign worked so well for him that it is unlikely he would deviate from it very much in the next election cycle.

The second thing that Obama is almost certain to employ is the very effective election “machine” so capably wielded by his staff in 2008. Again, this is a technique that was deployed very effectively by Erdogan. A large percentage of the key players from the successful 2008 campaign are expected to return, including David Axelrod, who was in charge of Media in 2008, Jim Messina, who worked in the White House as Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations from 2009 until 2011, Matthew Barzun, the United States Ambassador to Sweden, to serve as finance chairman, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, who worked at the Democratic National Committee, Julianna Smoot, who was the 2008 finance director, and Ben LaBolt who will likely serve as national press secretary. Rahm Emanunel is also expected to play a role in the campaign, but with a more-than-full-time job as Mayor of Chicago, is more likely to be a designated hitter than part of the starting lineup in 2012. Other Democrat faithfuls filling out the team are likely to include: Rufus Gifford, Elizabeth Lowery, Jeremy Bird Marshall, Mitch Stewart, and Elizabeth Jarvis-Shean.

However, His friend Mr. Erdogan also represents an extremely powerful example of the very thing that could bring Obama down in this next election cycle. Erdogan constantly stressed economic recovery under his leadership, contrasting it with the crisis under his immediate predecessors. He was thus able to persuade many voters to choose to maintain stability by keeping him in power instead of risking a switch to its untried opponents.

Obama was successful with this ploy over the first 6 to 12 months of his tenure in the White House, but for the most part people are no longer accepting that excuse. 3 years into his term in office, the United States remains trapped in a malaise of 9+ percent unemployment, growing trade deficits, and a Federal debt that tripled – swelling to staggering levels as a direct result of Obama’s policies. He is out of runway in terms of his ability to blame the current economic disaster on the Bush Administration.

In addition, in spite of his promises to close the detention center at Guantanamo and bring American involvement in Middle East conflicts to a close, none of these promises have been kept. President Obama has committed to an extension and even an interim build-up of troop levels in Afghanistan. He has also been flirting with putting “boots on the ground” in Libya. He ordered the assassination of bin Laden in Pakistan, which made the US very unpopular in that country – although it was the right thing to do. These actions and other similar steps that reflect a more realistic world view, born of necessity, have alienated many of the far-left fringe players that worked so hard to rally support for Obama in 2008.

2012 should be a very interesting election year indeed. There is still a lot of ground to cover between now and election day, and anything could happen. But as we gear up for this next cycle, both sides should look at the example of Turkey’s President Erdogan to learn a few things about what works – for and against presidential candidates.

What do you think?

Macro Level ADD: The Shrinking Attention Span of the American Public Lesson #7 (of 7) from the Aftermath of 9/11

Immediately following the attacks on 9/11/2001, America enjoyed a level of international support that has not been experienced since World War II. I recall driving through Canada months afterward and passing huge billboards displaying the American flag, and the simple phrase: “United We Stand.” Everyone who did not stand fully behind America – whatever our response was going to be – at least would not stand against us. We had a unique opportunity to respond to terrorism and those who sponsored it with almost complete impunity throughout the world. I remember saying to my family members at the time the Afghanistan invasion was announced: “The United States had better go in there while we have the world’s support and clean out the entire snake’s nest – Syria, Iraq, Iran, the whole bunch of them. Just focusing on one of those terrorist sponsoring countries will be like playing whack-a-mole if we don’t – they will just keep coming back.” Looking back on it almost a decade later, I couldn’t have been more accurate. Now we no longer have the strong support of most other nations as we prosecute the war on terror, we have lost the support of many Americans. In fact, we have in many cases lost their attention.

Immediately following the tragic shootings in Arizona that claimed the lives of several innocent people and left Congresswoman Gifford was severely injured, the outrage was wall-to-wall on every media outlet, and even in the social media venues. In my blog posting entitled “A Contrarian View of the Arizona Shootings” from January 2011, I said: “So in light of the terrible tragedy that is the Arizona shootings, here is another avenue of thought related to the context of this event: How many Americans have been lost to murderous insurgents in Iraq since the beginning of the conflict there? Without googling it, can you estimate that number within – say – 1,000? Any idea how many civilians have been killed? Again, you don’t have to be exact here; can you estimate within 1,000 people? According to a front-page story in USA Today January 12, 2011, “Insurgents in Iraq killed more than 21,000 civilians and wounded another 68,000 people with homemade bombs over the past five years, according to newly released data from the Pentagon. The highest number of casualties came in 2007, coinciding with the worst sectarian violence and the surge in U.S. Military forces to quell it. In that year, 7,295 people died – nearly 20 a day – from improvised explosive devices, says the Pentagon. Another 21,970 Iraqis were wounded.” Later in the article, a U.S. Official is quoted when he said: “The enemy put civilians purposely at great risk by its tactics and actions. Because we don’t know them, and we don’t have their faces and their personal stories broadcast into our homes all day and all night for days afterward, and because they are usually not respected court judges, congressional representatives, or beautiful little girls, somehow we don’t feel those losses so deeply. We aren’t moved by them to set our flags at half mast or hold an official moment of silence at the White House, or even mention many of their names on a national news broadcast. And while the men and women whose lives are sacrificed in the line of duty – whether that duty is on the battlefield in Afghanistan or on a police patrol in some major U.S. city – are people you don’t know through a media blitz, they are every bit as important. Every bit as deserving of our pity, our grief, and our prayers.”

The fact is that America’s attention span has been diminishing for decades. The last two decades have been incredible in this respect. The 1996 disaster aboard a TWA Boeing 747 was rapidly replaced by a news story abut unrest in Burundi (I’m still not sure where Burundi is), which was almost immediately supplanted by the bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta. And so it goes. Earthquakes, tsunamis, invasions, and disasters that wreak havoc on entire nations fail to hold the attention of our citizenry longer that the next “big thing” on the news in 9 out of ten cases.

One of the phrases popularized by Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (now Mayor of Chicago) while he was working in the White House was “never let a good disaster go to waste.” This mercenary political method exploits any unique opportunities to push the least popular parts of a political agenda past a distracted electorate. The looming disaster of a financial crisis enabled the Obama Administration to pass a $787 billion stimulus bill. Front Page Magazine reported that: “Beneath the public radar and buried within the bill’s 1,073 pages, the “stimulus” allocated inter alia $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half a billion dollars for people interested in researching “global warming,” even at least $18 million for the website that reports how the “stimulus” funds are allocated. Overturning a prime achievement of the Clinton Administration, the “stimulus” restored key elements of the welfare practices that America had abandoned. Over time, the “stimulus” has trickled down to fund $233,825 for explaining voting patterns in Africa and $363,760 for two jobs “develop[ing] ‘real life’ stories that underscore job and infrastructure related to the Stimulus Bill research findings.” (

While this practice is despicable, it is certainly easy to see how it came about. America’s attention span, driven at least in part by the 24 hour news cycle and the sea of information washing over us through the internet, wi-fi, the “mainstream” media and cable channels, demands constant stimulation. We are unable (or perhaps unwilling) to focus on any problem – regardless of its magnitude – for very long. An extremely poignant description of this problem as it applies to 9/11 was recorded by Chip Bok at the Akron Beacon Journal and picked up by BBC (at “The world didn’t change on September 11, 2001. Things had already changed. The World Trade Center was bombed in 1993 by Islamic fanatics. Six people died and more than 1,000 were injured. A US military barracks in Saudi Arabia was bombed in 1996, killing 19 US troops. Al Quaeda killed 257 when it blew up the US embassies n Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. And 17 soldiers died when the USS Cole was hit by al-Qaeda suicide bombers in Yemen in 2000. But because Americans have short attention spans, we were surprised that crazy people wanted to kill us on 9/11/2001.”

So what lesson should we learn from all these things about the nature and efficacy of America’s actions looking back across the post-9/11 decade?

First of all, America did not fully exploit the incredibly rare – perhaps even unique – opportunity to make a broad sweep of those nations that are known sponsors of terrorism. We had the chance to pursue terrorists and terrorist training camps and close down Madrassas where known indoctrination of terrorists was occurring and continues to occur, spewing fresh terrorists every day. We did not, and the result is that the terrorists have simply relocated in many cases from the theaters of focused kinetic activity, and new terrorists join their ranks continuously.

Secondly, America did not fully consider and account for the diminishing internal support associated with the incredible shrinking attention span of our citizens in its courses of action. President Bush’s statements about being a patient man when asked about America’s inability to bring Osama bin Laden to justice sent the wrong message to the American people. It seems to me that the subconscious response of Americans may have been “Well if the President doesn’t feel it’s important, I guess I shouldn’t either.” Big mistake all around.

The upshot is that in these situations America’s actions must be stronger, fully inclusive of enemy forces regardless of their location, and swift (both in initiation and in completion) in order to be effective. They must also be kept front-and-center in the news cycle for as long as they are ongoing. Allowing our armed forces to be in harm’s way without deeming it important enough to keep in the main stream of media coverage – whether the American people are weary of it or not – is unacceptable. Shorten the conflict or keep it front and center; but one way or another, America has to be “all-in” when we go to war. When the average American citizen on the street can’t say within a thousand how many American lives have been lost in an ongoing conflict, we have lost our way as a nation.

What do you think?

We Are Not Good at Nation Building Lesson #6 (of 7) from the Aftermath of 9/11

The United States has had mixed success with nation building over the last 120 years. Our best successes in this area followed WWII. However, it is becoming clear by our performance in recent decades we have largely lost the lessons learned from those experiences. The aftermath of 9/11/2001 has presented us with new and substantive challenges in this area, and it seems clear that we are still struggling.

In a recent interview with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the matter of nation-building was raised. In an episode of “Uncommon Knowledge”, Mr. Rumsfeld stated plainly that the United States military is not good at nation-building, and is not intended to perform that mission. However, the US military is often and increasingly drawn into that activity. Especially in cases where a lingering insurgency follows substantive military conflict, the people with “boots on the ground” in the areas where rebuilding is needed are military personnel. In addition, programs such as the Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP) provide recovery oriented funding to the military to perform at least some of these activities. In Afghanistan, CERP projects run the gamut from digging wells to building multimillion dollar roads. Military contracting officers and staff on the ground in the regional commands have managed hundreds of these projects at a time, and I know from personal experience that they do a tremendous job with extremely limited experience and training. But the cost is high, and as is so often the case with government activities on this scale, it is often unwieldy and difficult to coordinate.

The objectives of nation building, when conducted by the United States of America, are generally expressed as:

  1. Rebuilding a nation’s economy to pre-conflict levels or higher.
  2. Transforming a nation’s political structure to one form or another of democracy

In a recent study published by the RAND Corporation, four outcomes were described as relevant measures of effectiveness in nation-building:

  • Post-conflict combat fatalities among US forces,
  • Time until elections following cessation of the conflict,
  • The timing and percentage of return by refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), and
  • Growth in per capita gross domestic product (GDP)


A number of factors impact each of these outcomes. For example, post-conflict fatalities are lower when there are more US troops on the ground for a longer period of time after the major conflict has ended. It’s usually at least 2 years to rebuild civil police forces in these situations, and so the remaining US military forces are generally required to fill what would otherwise be a vacuum of law and order until that happens. To quote the RAND study: “While staying longer does not guarantee success, leaving early ensures failure.” Election timing is counter-intuitive; local elections need to occur first, and national elections cannot occur too quickly, or they will not be widely accepted. Yet we all have a desire in these situations to get elections held, a new government in place, and an exit made from the theater of previous conflict. External and internal financial assistance is directly related to elements such as how quickly refugees can return to their former homes, and how quickly the country can regain its former GDP performance levels. In fact, according to RAND research, external assistance in these cases often requires a contribution of 20% to 45% of the conflict nation’s annual GDP each year for the first two years following the conflict.

Other factors are also important. For example, more economically developed and technologically advanced countries are more easily and quickly restored in nation-building than less advanced countries (Germany and Japan vs. Somalia, Haiti, and Afghanistan). Homogeneity is another important element; countries that speak a single language and are more homogeneous in other respects are more readily rebuilt since they tend to move in a single progressive direction more readily. More tribal populations that are less prone to be loyal to a single centralized governmental authority are more challenging. Finally, the centralization of command (or lack thereof) in the victorious military force is a factor. When the burden of the cost in lives and treasure is spread over multiple allied nations, that fractious structure is usually carried forward and reflected in the organization of resources devoted to nation-building. This usually results in a less well coordinated and less effectively planned nation-building process that requires longer to achieve success. In it’s conclusion, the Rand report notes that “There is no quick route to nation building. Five years seems the minimum required to enforce an enduring transition to democracy.”

So when considering the lessons that America should learn from our tragedy on 9/11/2001 and the events flowing from that terrible day, we need to think about our successes and failures with nation building. Our most successful efforts in this arena were Germany and Japan, where a uniformed military was completely defeated and forced to surrender; where there was a mature economy and technology based with skilled and educated citizenry; where America has a commanding presence of military on the ground allowing little continuing resistance, and where we poured a great deal of external investment into helping that nation’s economy recover. When the United States counts the cost of entering a conflict, we should decide at the outset whether we intend to rebuild the nation when the conflict is behind us with a realistic view of the time and treasure that will be required. At that point, the United States should already have determined that all other courses have failed, and the conflict is unavoidable. But what we can do differently as a nation is modify our capabilities (such as post-conflict election support, etc.) and financial structure (reducing spending in other areas to redirect funding in preparation for covering up to 45% of the opposing country’s GDP for multiple years, etc.) to enable us to absorb the incredible financial and mental impact. We should also strategize immediately about how we will manage our relationships with both allies and the countries adjacent to the enemy’s country during and after the conflict. It seems, based on recent history, that some of these lessons were lost entirely, and others were not fully learned.

What do you think?

There’s No Place Like Home: So Protect It! Lesson #5 (of 7) from the Aftermath of 9/11

In the aftermath of 9/11, perhaps the most obvious lesson was that the United States was inadequately protected against attacks on our homeland. After the dust settled a bit on the shocking results, a task force was formed among members of the US Council on Foreign Relations to review America’s preparedness, and what might be done to improve it. The leader of the task force, Senator Warren Rudman, oversaw the publication of the final report from the task force in 2003, entitled: “EMERGENCY RESPONDERS: DRASTICALLY UNDERFUNDED, DANGEROUSLY UNPREPARED”, said: “Estimated combined federal, state, and local expenditures …. would need to be as much as tripled over the next five years to address this unmet need.” In 2003, we were spending about $30 billion on homeland security. ( Looking at the Homeland Security budget, and what has actually happened since that time, it seems clear that we are still dramatically underfunded in some key categories.

Certainly, initial years of Department of Homeland Security do not seem to reflect a well-planned and well-run growth structure. In a report entitled “What Has Homeland Security Cost?” published in Current Issues in Economics by the Federal Reserve Bank (, Authors Hobijn and Sager state: “An analysis of public and private expenditures on homeland security shows that overall spending rose by $34 billion between 2001 and 2005—a clear increase but one that represents a gain of only 1?4 of 1 percent as a share of U.S. GDP.” They also observed: “To put these figures in a historical context, we turn to estimates from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that shed light on homeland security spending in the years before and after 2001. According to the GAO estimates reported in Hobijn (2002), federal homeland security spending made up about 0.1 percent of GDP in the 1996-2001 period. This share increased to 0.35 percent in 2002 and has remained relatively stable since.” Keep in mind that the CFR report, indicating that spending for Emergency Response and other elements of Homeland Security needed to grow by as much as 300% by their estimates to do things as straight-forward as:

  • Extend the emergency-911 system nationally to foster effective emergency data collection and accurate local dispatch
  • Foster interoperable communications systems for emergency responders across the country so that those on the front lines can communicate with each other while at the scene of an attack
  • Provide protective gear and WMD remediation equipment to firefighters

These changes are not rocket science, and should have been among the first steps undertaken. Aside from the fact that it simply took too long to do the simple things, our Government is still underfunding some of those areas that are most critical to our national security, arguably because they are those areas with the greatest political sensitivity.

A more egregious example is the budgetary allocation to US Customs & Border Protection, US Immigration & Customs Enforcement, and the US Coast Guard. To understand what I mean, consider the following chart, produced by the Heritage Foundation, reflects the Homeland Security Budget from 2009 – 2011:

The responsibilities of the United States Coast Guard since 9/11 have only expanded, and run the gamut from drug interdiction and counterterrorism to environmental cleanup and border security. While many other countries are significantly ramping their coastal protection services, the Coast Guard has been short on resources for many years. Congress eventually cut most of the $950 billion budget request for Coast Guard modernization in FY 2007. Given that the Coast Guard was already underfunded for much of the previous decade, further reductions in personnel, equipment, or operations reflect poor decision making on the part of our leaders. The Coast Guard needs a tremendous financial commitment in order to keep up with its rapidly expanding mission base, and this takes us in the wrong direction.

While there are many other examples, the bottom line here is that homeland security was always underfunded. On September 11, 2001 the impact was felt acutely, but we have felt it a number of times. Hurricane Katrina was another such example of an understaffed and inadequately equipped government structure responded with too little coordination and too little effect, and responded far too late. There are many places that Federal, State, and local government spending could be reduced without impairing vital services, and certainly without impacting national security. Failing to dramatically increase Homeland Security funding – and more importantly capability – as Senator Rudman outlined causes me to conclude that this is another critical lesson that America has not learned well in the aftermath of 9/11.

What do you think?

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