Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Reverse Engineering Industry for a Post-Peak World

I look at the simple lamp on my desk and realize that it has over thirty parts to it. Each of those parts had to be manufactured, hopefully to precise standards, and then brought together and assembled into that lamp. How many "industries" were involved in making that lamp from the extraction of the raw materials involved through to the magical appearance of that lamp on the shelf in the store in which I bought it? Literally dozens! And between each of those extraction/process/maufacture/assembly industry components there is the involvement of the global transportation/distribution industry. All to put a $20 lamp on my desk!

Every stage in the process of turning those raw materials into that twenty-dollar desk lamp involves the use of often-subsidized energy in some form. As we pass beyond global peak oil and the peak availability of other forms of exogenic energy, how does that twenty-dollar lamp end up on a shelf near me?

Under the current structure of globalization the different raw materials involved and the manufacture of the different parts that eventually are assembled into that lamp could have occured on every continent on the planet, in dozens of different
countries, could have involved literally thousands of different people. All to put a $20 lamp on my desk!

In a more general sense, as we begin to slide down the downslope of energy decline into that post-peak world how will manufacturing have to change in order for manufactured items to be available in all the markets in which they are available today? More importantly what manufactured items will be available? Will those items important to sustainable living in a post-peak world survive the collapse of globalized manufacturing? Where and how will they be made? What materials will they be made of? Where will those materials come from?

These are very important questions that are too easilly drowned out in the discussion/debate over fuel issues. Ultimately the fuel to run the family car is a non-issue. Once people come to grips with reality that we are moving into a new world devoid of the multitude of energy sources and choices we have today they will then find themselves staring into the face of the most important of all issues of energy decline: how they ensure long-term survivability for themselves, their children, their grandchildren and their grandchildren's grandchildren. Like it or not, the generations alive today have before them the task of determining the long-term survivability of our species in a post-peak and ultimately post-oil, post-energy world.

I am not one who believes that survival, other than for a very few, consists of rugged individual survivalism on an isolated homestead in the midst of the wilderness or in reverting to a hunter-gatherer existence. We are social beings. Long-term survivability after energy decline must center on community, whatever form that community might take. The survivability of communities well past peak-oil, however, is far more than a case of self-sufficiency. It is also a matter of self-reliance, of having within the community the full measure of skills needed for survivability, of being able to produce or locally acquire everything that that community needs to function.

In general, but not always, the prototype and initial manufacturing of a "new" product began in somebody's basement or garage, in a small workshop, in a barn or converted chicken coop. Each of the components of that new product had to be made by the original "manufacturer" (the meaning of which, by the way, is to make by hand), unless it was a stock item that could be adapted and incorporated into the
product. Only after that, when demand for the product developed or when an industrial manufacturer became involved, did integrated mechanized processes get developed to allow the production to become "efficient". But almost always the product and the manual processes to produce it existed before the industrial manufacturing processes were developed. The manual processes were engineered up into high-tech, high-energy mechanized manufacturing and assembly operations capable of turning out large volume replicas of that original hand-made product.

As our slide down the energy downslope accelerates those highly-complex, integrated manufacturing processes are going to have to be reverse-engineered into those discrete, manual processes from which they began. It will no longer be possible or practical or economically feasible to produce those products in one factory in the suburbs of Seoul or Shanghai and ship them to markets all over the world. As transportation energy becomes increasingly expensive and, ultimately, increasingly unavailable at any price, the manufacture of the items to be used in a particular market is going to have to be moved to or near to the market in which they will be used. The materials from which those items are made may have to vary from location to location, dictated by the local availability of raw materials (as goes oil so goes plastics). Planned obsolescence designed to facilitate the frequent introduction of new, slightly-altered models is going to have to give way to functional simplicity and durability; products are going to have to be made to last. The number of component parts in a product is going to have to be minimized and simplified by orders of magnitude.

Manufacturers are going to have to adapt to this new reality or perish. Size very definitely is no guarantee of survivability. When times get as rough as they are going to get it is the small and flexible that survive. In the great extinction the dinosaurs disappeared but small mammals lived on and gave rise to the great diversity of mammals on earth today.

Obviously very few of the manufactured items with which we surround ourselves today are going to have a place in the world that awaits us on the other side of the energy decline. Pretty soon we've got to start thinking seriously about what products will be needed and plan for their survival or re-introduction (so many items from the past that will be needed again have disappeared and exist only in museums and coffee-table books) during this transition period in which we currently find ourselves. All too soon the time for preparation and transition is going to give way to a new reality. We better be ready for it or it is going to get very ugly.


PeakEngineer said...

We appear to have very similar views and approaches to dealing with Peak Oil concerns -- I'm very impressed with your postings here. Exploring how to rebuild society in a sustainable manner is one of the greatest and most worthwhile challenges we face. Your books are definitely on my reading list now and I looking forward to reading more from you.

Anonymous said...

A related subject is which technology's are worth preserving past peak oil, so that scarce resources are allocated to continuing them. Neo-magnets for affordable wind generators come to mind. Some stockpiling of critical parts might be a good thing.

Richard Embleton said...

There is no question that this will be one of the most debateable aspects of post-peak adaptation. There is so much powerful vested interest in the present industrial paradigm. Every manufacturer of every product will argue that their product is an "essential" part of that post pea world. Even those few products that do fit that future will have a ested interest behind them that adamantly wants to retain control. I have talked to dispersing production closer to market and allowing the patent owner or trademark holder to maintain control and receive some form of royalties. I think, even if only as a transitional step, this is probably what will happen.

brian said...

Engineering has been one of the most exciting fields to enter for several decades now. Perhaps more than any other industry, field or time in history, during this time in computer hardware engineering there has been more advancement and evolution than ever before or anywhere else. Read this for more details.