10 principles for sane automobile manufacturing

A new, low-impact model for manufacturing using a dematerialized approach


The current approach for manufacturing automobiles is expensive, wasteful, and energy-intensive; it hurts our environment as well as our economy. When it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to start a car factory, innovation becomes nearly impossible. As we triple the number of cars on the road in the next 30 to 40 years, the conventional approach will not be sustainable.

Dematerialization — reducing the material and energy required to build cars — is the only effective way to reduce the environmental and social damage stemming from automobiles. Dematerialization will lead to:

  • Far fewer emissions from both manufacturing and operation
  • Much lower material and energy inputs in manufacturing
  • Dramatically better gas mileage
  • Lower wear on roads
  • Fewer fatalities from car accidents

By focusing on dematerialization, my company Divergent Microfactories was able to build a car with only a third of the total health and environmental damage of an 85 kWh all-electric car. The objective: drive that impact down to a quarter or less.

Manufacturing can and must be approached far more sensibly. As such, we propose Ten Principles for Sane Manufacturing to guide every company that makes physical things:

  1. Treat making as an art. Innovate as much in how you make things as in what you make. Engineer the process, not just the product.
  2. Use innovation in manufacturing to amplify human creativity rather than to commoditize. Maximize human capital, not efficiency.
  3. Maximize manufacturing innovation through democratization. Provide affordable tools to many small teams.
  4. Enable small teams to design solutions that are relevant to their local communities. The best creation is local creation.
  5. Leave ideology behind: experiment, measure, improve, be open to criticism and outside ideas.
  6. Use a scientific approach to improve several key ratios:
  • Resilience, adaptability, and innovation are all inversely proportional to capital cost. Innovation in manufacturing should focus relentlessly on making outstanding products with the least capital input.
  • Greenness is proportional to power density (power-to-weight comparison) and to the ratio of carbon to hydrogen.
  • Minimize a product’s impact over its entire lifecycle. That is, minimize the economic and environmental costs not only from using a product, but also from making and disposing of a product.
  • Design products and processes to minimize materials and energy input. Something that is lightweight should use less material and energy, and will be able to use a smaller power source, yet get the same performance, due to the power-to-weight ratio (power density).
  • Design products for maximum resilience and anti-fragility. All products should be durable, re-usable, or able to be reabsorbed into the ecosystem — not consumable. Avoid landfill products. Follow cradle-to-cradle principles.
  • Apply Occam’s razor to every aspect of the process and product. As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
  • Following these 10 principles can guide every company that makes physical things, and bring manufacturing closer to a low-impact model that reduces material and energy when building cars — and everything else.

    This post is a collaboration between O’Reilly and Divergent Microfactories. See our statement of editorial independence.

    Cropped public domain image on article and category pages via Pixabay.

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