Archive for March 2013

A conversation about Quality in Manufacturing, and American Made

My correspondence with friend and fellow compatriot of the motorcycle society seemed interesting enough to warrant a blogpost. Forgive any appearance of self-indulgence this might conjure up, that is not the intent. Rather, I hope to shed some light on a difficult issue we have been grappling with. In a society built around disposability, what is Quality and how do we sell it?

This was written in response to Quality is Back In Demand, and the work that These Men Are Professionals are doing to produce Quality and Unique wares.

Pags,

It’s with great sincerity that I write to you about my deepset connection to the words “American Made”. It’s difficult to even type it without the appearance of a lump in my throat, and a feeling of great ability rising to meet great expectations – early dawn over an unexplored horizon.

My first real experience with the concept of Quality in Manufacturing came from a Maglite flashlight I received as a birthday gift at a young and impressionable age I now fail to recall the exact date of. The box proudly displayed the American flag in the bottom right corner, capped with ‘Made in the United States of America’. It had a sense of dignified confidence about itself – there was no explanation of why this sentence had any significance, yet its presence was anything but frivolous. I was too young to understand why the emblem mattered, but my Grandfather, whom I deeply respect and admire, pointed it out to me and said “Everything made in America will last you forever. This is the yardstick by which quality is measured.” Grandpa did not use such language lightly, and the sleek black metal flashlight’s weight in my hand cemented the imagery he conjured of Serious Men making Serious Tools for Serious Jobs. A Fraternity I suddenly wanted to be part of.

I still have that flashlight, many years later, even though it’s no longer as bright and efficient as the new LED ones (of which I own several), but every scratch tells a story – the time I dropped it on the pavement while camping, trying to replace the lightbulb and having to crawl around feeling for the screw cap in the dark – and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

In the times since then, I’ve grown to see that (unfortunately?) not all American Manufacturing is the pinnacle of quality and perfection. There’s plenty of subpar, even terrible manufacturing happening right here in the US, and not just in the last three decades of rising pressures from China and a growing disposable-minded society. The American invention of the paperback novel, as an example, goes back to the 1950s, and was centered around extremely cheaply printed books for mass circulation, where pages start falling out after only a couple of reads. Who cares, it was 99 cents! If you want quality paper printing, talk to the Japanese!

But I digress, let’s get to the real conversation – not about dreams of days gone past, where perhaps the naivety of youth and sepia tones of time distorts our recollections in a overly fond direction. Let’s talk about today.

Any lofty conversation about manufacturing Quality Products is in danger of quickly become either very preachy (“You need to stop buying trash and start buying quality”, stop telling me how to live my life), very insincere (“buy now and we give you a free 30 day money-back guarantee!”, too many late night ads), or very whiney (“the past was so much better yadda yadda yadda”). Each of these alienates people, while the real message is one of inclusion and hope.

When it comes to your blog post, since you asked about it, I think you’re doing a good job treading the fine line between those, although I do caution you to be careful! Write with inclusion in mind. Take us all along on the journey and keep sharing your excitement for it. Those that differ from you are not enemies, they’re potential customers and disciples waiting to be converted.

A couple of observations around selling Quality: Amazon (or any other big online store) gives me absolutely nothing to distinguish between the quality of different products. Price should not be the only representation of Quality, but when I buy books off the internet, I have no idea that the $20 hardcover has heavy, bright paper and perfect margins while the $12 paperback is printed on what couldn’t even serve as toilet rolls. All I see is two identical front covers and a $8 price difference.

Selling Quality online thus demands that you do not put it into direct comparison with the equivalent low-quality product, or at least not initially. If you want to sell the Greatest Hoodie Ever, you create a environment for it where it can stand on its own. Like American Giant with their Hoodie.

You’re already doing this, which I applaud, but I wanted to point it out anyway.

This conversation can be one of Rejecting Others’ Reality and Substituting Your Own, but it can also be one of Building on the Shoulders of Giants. The international supply chain gives us the machines we’re typing this on, at a price we can afford, while keeping up with the incredible scaling that transistors have undergone over the last 4 decades. Maybe we took it too far (quite likely we did!), but let’s consider what we have to build on top of now!

This is a long rambling email, which I apologize for – I’m overworked, underslept and stressed – but I’m excited by what you’re doing and wanted to let you know I believe in this, or at least my take on it.