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To Innovate We Must Make

December 20, 2011

All around America there is frustration about a lack of innovation. Could the secret lie in rejuvenating manufacturing?

Manufacturing at Local Motors

One of my favorite quotations is from Thomas Edison, who said the “value of the idea lies in the using of it.” I never understood it as deeply as a student, but now running a car company in America today, I see the brilliance of Edison’s simple aphorism shining through.

Innovation—the art of coming up with something that, moments before, was not there—is a mercurial process. Just look around today at the country’s fastest-growing companies, you see a new kind of CIO springing up. Not the “information”-warden-type CIO, but rather, a Chief “Innovation” Officer. It’s a sign that corporations and governments are wringing their hands and sharpening their focus, all on the hunt for new ideas.

But to those who have run labs and shops before, they know that perhaps there is more to this hunt than wizardry. In fact, innovation may be as simple as knuckling down with an idea and making something over and over until it comes out right.

Edison himself is known to have said that he never made a discovery, but rather that his inventions were the product of experimentation and elimination. In the creation of electric light he said, “I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed 3,000 different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently likely to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory.” As it turns out, the very light you are reading this article by can be attributed to a man who tried thousands of ways to make it—only to find one that worked.

So what’s the big deal? Is it any great revelation that you need to make in order to innovate? Why don’t we just all break out our paper and glue sticks and get down to innovating?

Actually, it is a big deal, because when making consists of TIG welding in a controlled environment with required specification for structural durability and repeatable process, suddenly we realize that real skill is required. And that is the big deal in America today.

The fact is, we are facing a skilled-labor shortage in America. The Department of Labor says that there are 4 million fewer people working in skilled-labor positions today than there were 20 years ago. That is meaningful when the entire construction industry in America boasts fewer than 8 million jobs total. And what is worse, fewer than one in 10 kids who are age 15 in the United States dream of having a highly skilled manufacturing job by the time they are 30.

The bottom line is that we do not “make ’em like we used to.” Literally. We don’t make the stuff and we don’t make the people who make the stuff—and until we do, we are going to have a crisis of innovation on a national scale.

John B. Rogers

John B. “Jay” Rogers, Jr. is co-founder and CEO of Local Motors, a new American car company that is changing the way cars are designed, built, and sold. Rogers is a family man, former Marine, HBS graduate, automotive enthusiast and a champion of open innovation.

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From → Business, Innovation

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