I just read the The New York Times obituary of Stanford R. Ovshinski, a pioneer in battery and solar technology. His many inventions included hydrogen fuel cells, the nickel-metal battery (used extensively in hybrid cars) and amorphous semiconductors, which appear in thin film solar panels (like the ones in portable calculators) and flat panel displays. He had a long career in bringing his many inventions to industry and was for this characteristic often compared to Edison.
The end of the article in particular resonated with me on account of his humble beginnings and non-traditional path through an early start in manufacturing. Ovshinski’s father, a Lithuanian immigrant ran a scrap metal business. Through one of his father’s contacts, he landed an apprenticeship as a lathe operator while still in high school. With no college education, he later founded a business around a patent for a novel lathe design. That company was bought by another machine tool maker and Ovshinski was off to further inventions, innovations, and businesses.
The resonance comes from the birth of innovation on the shop floor and the critical nature of manufacturing to those “aha!” moments. I believe that practical, hands on experience generates new ideas and further, the ability to try out ideas on the shop floor refines good notions and winnows out the practical from the impractical.
As we watch immediate profitability of American firms increase via outsourcing of factory jobs to lower wage and regulation countries, unseen is the flight of the loci of inventions and innovations of the future. Young factory workers in China, India, Bangladesh, Mexico, etc. are just as bright and hard working as Americans. Those workers in formally-American factories see as many opportunities for improvements and innovations in a workday an American worker would. The problem for the USA these days is that there are far fewer Americans exposed to that valuable opportunity.
I certainly don’t begrudge anyone in any country the opportunity to work and think about innovating to commercial success, or a better world, or a better mousetrap. While we as a country decide that we value short term profit over domestic manufacturing, we shouldn’t be surprised when our commercial preeminence in world affairs is eclipsed by those who toiled in the factories that used to make things in the USA.