April 7 2013
Shashank Samala, BSILR '13
During winter break, with the generosity of ILR International Programs, I had the wonderful opportunity to conduct primary research for my honors thesis in China. In relation to my research on finding mechanisms that can quicken the diffusion of innovation, I was there to closely observe the rise of small-scale manufacturing, which is considered by many academics as the third industrial revolution. I interviewed top-level executives at supply chain solution providers like PCH International to investigate the kind of flexibility mechanisms manufacturers and government agencies had in place to cope with that change.
Mass production, low-cost labor, and unprecedented economies of scale from aggregating enough demand from all over the world have so far dictated China’s prosperity, and will undoubtedly continue to in the near future. I found out, however, that these advantages might even be obsolete in the long-term. Although the incomprehensible speed and scale with which everything from materials to labor to packaging can be assembled in massive volumes on the fly, I learned that the rise of digital fabrication posed serious threats. 3D printers offer small-scale manufacturing closer to point of purchase or consumption, reducing distribution and shipping costs, and offering infinite customization, unlike mass production.
The above insights added a unique dimension to my thesis. I was able to argue that the current dynamics around design and manufacturing processes play a significant role in quickening diffusion of innovation. I concluded that when the process of innovation becomes faster, a “long-tail” of technological possibilities subsequently arises. My ILR education so far offered me the flexibility to pursue my personal interest in finding ways to use technology to solve difficult problems - by taking classes outside of ILR. This international experience allowed me to continue that interest by gaining deep insights into something integral to technology development: design and manufacturing process.
Aside from my research, I noticed a couple other important developments. One, at PCH, almost all of its top talent including engineers came from Ireland (the Founder’s country of origin) and North America. The head of HR said its incredibly challenging to find the right people locally, but that it is becoming easier. Moreover, entrepreneurship doesn’t seem to be encouraged as it should be due to the authoritative and paternalistic societal ideals.
During this trip, the locals I had met helped me learn the nuances in local food and culture that made Shenzhen distinct from other parts of China. Although most of my days were spent working, I had a chance to visit the beautiful scenery in Yangshuo and witness the epic Hong Kong skyline. In addition, a friend took me to weekend Zen meditation sessions with a Tibetan guru. The highlights of the trip were the interactions with the locals and they definitely made me more self-aware of my belief system and learn to appreciate that of other cultures. I’m incredibly grateful for the international experience grant for making my trip possible.