Compete with Manufacturing?

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Handmade vs Manufactured

“You can’t compete” is what they’ve always told me.  Craftsmen’s work is more expensive, but why?  Craftsmen can’t compete, or we refuse to?

Two things to consider: the business, and the product.

Business

Big corporations thrive in our economy today.  As complicated as the business world is, I think we can still look at a corporation and have some idea what they are supposed to do: setup departments, balancing budgets and sales, follow the rules or try to change them. 

A small business (1-2 people) is of a different sort.  These small business craftsmen can make small choices that will significantly affect their time, overhead cost and product prices.  Looking at business operations, I think it might be possible (but not easy!) to be competitive, but it is a hard choice to live with.

Products

Manufacturing is a system designed to create products with the lowest possible cost.  A “good enough” attitude is used, sacrificing high-quality for a lower price.  Better quality is an unnecessary increase in manufacturing cost.

Furniture is a great example.  Ikea sells low-cost furniture using particle board and printed acrylic paint (the “wood grain” is printed on).  Any respectable craftsmen would consider this build quality to be reckless, insulting to the old teachers who taught our craft if we were to build like this!  This is where most craftsmen would refuse to compete with low-cost products.  “Can’t” has nothing to do with it.

Moving up the levels of quality, it is hard to draw a line.  Designers in a company do what they are told, get paid, and go home.  Responsibility falls away onto a “team” or the “company”.  But, the stand-alone craftsman is forced to stand behind the product: representating both ability and integrity is applied to the work for all to judge.

What Now?

It’s not often a customer approaches the craftsman asking: “can you make weaker joints?” or “can you incorporate some particle board?” for the sake of reducing the cost.

Unfortunately, we, the craftsmen, are forced to build with quality and real materials.  We typically have to work extra hours to keep the business alive, and increase prices so we can call it a business in the first place.  But is that so unfortunate?  Otherwise, manufactured products are the future of our culture and creativity.

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