Materials and manufacturing underpin civilization

From The Idea Factory:
To Baker, chemistry was the discipline that made a global communications network possible. He would often cite examples. By substituting the lead sheathing on telephone cables with a synthetic plastic created by Bell chemists, the Bell System saved “more than the total research budget of Bell Labs for the decade in which the innovation was worked out.” At one point Baker commissioned a study on the switch to plastic sheathing to satisfy his curiosity. The study concluded that the hangover saved the company about $2.5 Billion. It also determined that if phone engineers had continue to sheathe telephone cable with lead, “it would require 80% of the total lead produced in the US"

In the abstract, materials are just different ways of arranging atoms (and things with mass smaller than atoms). Manufacturing is our ability to directly rearrange those atoms. So this is a very broad statement.

Arguably many innovations fall under materials and manufacturing. To explicitly identify things that aren’t materials or manufacturing: farming (because we’re intermediating the atom rearrangement through organisms^1), communications and computing (manipulating information instead of atoms), energy production (manipulating energy not atoms), transportation (moving the atoms from one place to another place instead of how they’re arranged), medicine (keeping all the atoms in our bodies in good working order). ^2

It’s true that progress in each of these areas affects all the other areas. Increased farming capability enables cheaper food which enables more leisure which enables more science which unlocks other areas. More energy and different energy sources enable the production of fertilizers, new materials, and modes of manufacturing. Improved control systems enable reusable rockets and farm robots. Improved transportation enables specialization that pushes the frontier of other areas. However, I can’t get over the sense that the way that materials and manufacturing enable progress in other areas is different.

An aggressive assertion is that if you trace^3 bottleneck-removing constituent technologies^4 deep enough, the key breakthrough is always related to new materials or manufacturing. At the same time, there’s no ‘de novo’ innovation: it’s Phenomena-based cycles and We stand on the shoulders of too many giants to give them all credit all the way down — refined aluminum enables jet planes but cheap electricity enabled refined aluminum, etc.

So are materials and manufacturing processes actually special? Some things that feel distinct about materials and manufacturing: materials and manufacturing are abstracted from most people’s lives in a way that other areas are not; materials in particular (but also manufacturing to some extent) enable qualitative capability changes in ways that other areas do not; if you take an Baldwinian (ie. Drawing on the work of Carliss Baldwin) view of technological modularity^5 materials are almost always the lowest-level module and manufacturing is how those modules are assembled.

Materials and manufacturing are removed from most people’s^6 every day lives in a way that no other area is. We think about the energy grid every time we pay an electric bill or the power goes out; most people interact with some form of transportation every day, even if it is just hearing a car; we all carry around internet-connected electric brains; and even though farming feels the most analogous to manufacturing people think much more about how their food is made and where it comes from (organic! Grass fed! Local! No GMOs!) than about how their widget is manufactured. This abstraction has some potential downside: it has perhaps led to a situation where Smart people no longer do base-layer work and Manufacturing is important and often ignored.

Physical technologies are fundamentally limited by the materials they’re made of.^7 As a result, New materials can create discrete changes in technological constraints and enable previously unthought-of applications. For example, given a boat’s fixed power to weight ratio, water foils (basically underwater wings that lift a boat’s hull out of the water to drastically decrease drag and chop) need a certain strength-to-weight ratio. It’s not a cost thing, it’s a physics thing. The creation of carbon fiber gave us a material with the right strength to weight ratio. Similarly, new manufacturing techniques like 3D printing can allow us to create combinations of shapes and properties that were literally impossible before. New manufacturing paradigms can remove bottlenecks for other paradigms. Materials and manufacturing shift technologies from impossible to possible (as opposed to merely very difficult and expensive to cheap and easy). Perhaps another way of looking at this is that progress in materials and manufacturing can address bottlenecks imposed by physics in ways that other areas cannot.

Contrary to what I once thought, I don’t think you can break apart materials and manufacturing to say which is more “fundamental.” Manufacturing processes don’t do much unless they enable us to exploit a new material, but a new material is worthless unless we can manufacture it at a point in quality-price-capability space where it’s actually useful. Steel wasn’t particularly game changing beyond super-expensive swords before the Bessemer Process. The relationship between materials and manufacturing feels a bit like the relationship between discovery and invention, science and technology. You invent a manufacturing process — it has a purpose, it solves a problem. You discover a material — it doesn’t really solve a problem until it is turned into a product (even if that product is just the material itself?).

Examples and Possibilities


^1: Of course, it gets fuzzy when you use organisms as part of a manufacturing process . Manufacturing and farming lie on a continuum
^2: This list is roughly similar to Jason Crawford’s list in Charting Progress
^3: See arthurLogicInvention2005
^4: See from airplane design to drug design
^5: See baldwinModularityDesignComplex2006
^6: The temptation is to use the word ‘consumer’ here but I absolutely despise that term.
^7: And for now, all digital technologies manifest on physical substrates.

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