While urbanites are returning with glee to all things handcrafted and artisanal in food, drinks, even clothing and furniture, the rest of the consumer world remains almost entirely machine-made. Or does it?
While it may be true that we rely on computers to gather, refine, and assemble the goods that sustain our economy, you may be surprised by the list of products -- some common and some unusual -- that are handmade.
1. iPhones and iPads
While any customer of Apple (AAPL), Sony (SNE), or IBM (IBM) likely handles Foxconn products on a daily basis, most of us first heard of China's biggest exporter following the company's rash of employee suicides in 2010. Two years later, Apple allowed an investigative team from Disney's (DIS) ABC's Nightline to tour their own production lines. Though most of the sights revealed by the report -- such as the suicide-prevention nets that enshroud every building or the cozy dorms that each house up to eight of the export giant's 235,000 employees -- incited surprise and sympathy in equal measure, the story was not without a few pieces of quirky manufacturing trivia. Among them: Both the iPhone and the iPad are assembled almost entirely by hand. Three hundred and twenty-five pairs of hands per device, to be precise, over a period of five days. The iPhone production process is shorter, though each journey from the beginning to the end of the line still involves around 141 tasks.
2. Artificial hearts
Most of us have experienced the pain of anticipating the latest update to our favorite gadget. In most cases the device in question is a phone, computer, or music player, but the stakes are much higher when the item is your own heart. Patients who might otherwise never make it to the top of the transplant list can now buy a bit more time with a CardioWest Total Artificial Heart, a polyurethane ticker fabricated by hand at SynCardia Systems.
The handmade heart is not a permanent replacement, but it can keep an otherwise terminal patient on his or her feet for several years while hospitals attempt to find a donor. The production cycle of a vital organ is understandably more time-consuming that that of a phone, even a phone that can take sepia-toned pictures while it directs you to the nearest Starbucks. Each "Total Artificial Heart" takes 10 days to assemble at SynCardia's Arizona facility, which turns out 18 of the prostheses per month.
3. Surgical equipment
So now you're lying on the table ready to receive your new plastic heart. The surgeon might begin the operation with a handmade scalpel. Many manufacturers claim that individually made tools offer increased quality and reliability. According to a blurb we found reproduced on multiple companies' sites, the personal touch "can lead to some minor variations in the dimensions of instruments." So as you slip out of consciousness, you can take comfort in the fact that the forceps that will soon be prying apart your abdominal cavity are just as unique as you are.
Meanwhile, a 2008 article in the Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England suggests that this personal touch isn't confined to certified manufacturers, but that innovative sources of medical equipment are more common than we would expect. This stretches from the hand-modification of equipment intended for other purposes, as in jury-rigging a syringe into a paste applicator, to the re-purposing of household items, such as using bent paper clips to retract swollen eyelids. Surgeons and physicians aren't the only ones participating in this trend, however: A CNN article from earlier this year notes that private citizens are turning to handmade and homemade medical devices outside of hospitals. Why spend dozens of dollars on a brand-name asthma inhaler when a hardware store bike pump will get the job done with a couple add-ons?
In the world of beer, wine, and sundry spirits, the prevailing wisdom holds that the smaller the producer, the better the product. Even the micro-est breweries, wineries, and distilleries, however, are not too proud to deny themselves the efficiency of modern automation. Consider the Trappist Westvleteren brewery, whose drafts are often cited as the best in the world, owned and operated by the monks of a small Belgian monastery who produce only 60,000 cases a year. Even these chaste and contemplative brothers have been employing automated assistance since 1989.
One liqueur that has managed to retain mostly human hands in its production is bourbon, that quintessentially American hooch. Perhaps the best known of "small batch" labels (distilleries whose daily output is measured in the tens rather than the thousands), Maker's Mark of Beam Inc. (BEAM) employs the term "handmade" in most of its branding. The precise justification for the term was not clear from the available media, so we contacted their public relations department for further clarification.
Bourbon production, we learned, begins with the mash bill, the mix of corn and other grains which, when combined with yeast, will ferment into grain alcohol. Whereas most distilleries employ machines to mash the grain, a representative tells us, Maker's Mark rolls out its wheat by hand. The fermented product is examined by a tasting panel before barreling, and several more times over the five- to seven-year aging period, during which the casks are manually lugged through each floor of the storage facility. While video tours of the distillery show that machines contribute most of the mechanical labor in the brewing and bottling processes, before being shipped out each bottle receives a hand-dipping in the label's distinctive red wax.
5. Drug-smuggling submarines
In September of 2008, the US Coast Guard seized two "cocaine-laden semi-submersibles" containing about 14 tons of Colombian yeyo between them (street value of around a quarter of a million dollars) trying to skirt around international borders through the North Pacific. Smugglers have been finding it's better down where it's wetter since 2000, according to the DEA.
A steady rise in the number of submersibles seized yearly prompted National Geographic to send a team into the jungles of South America to investigate how the boats are made. As revealed in this recent documentary, the narco-subs are almost entirely handmade, built using little more than "the tools you'd find in Home Depot." Most of the specimens captured so far by the US and Latin American governments have been semi-submersibles, crude diesel-powered fiberglass constructs that require the crew to use snorkel tubes while traveling underwater. Back in 2009, enforcement agencies estimated cartels constructed as many as 70 of these smuggling vehicles each year, and by all indications that figure has only risen in the meantime. Since 2010, authorities have been finding many full-fledged submersibles, built by engineers rather than untrained henchmen and capable of total immersion to depths of up to 20 meters.
6. Swiss and German watches
Industry icon Rolex loves to perpetuate its stereotypes of custom craftsmanship, happy to let buyers believe its expensive timepieces are hand-constructed by a wizened, cottage-dwelling horologist in the Swiss Alps. In truth, the bulk of the watchmaker's several hundred thousand-unit annual output is cut and assembled entirely by machines. Several of the company's smaller competitors, however, do employ flesh-and-blood craftspeople throughout their production process. Fellow Swiss and neighboring German makers such as Audemars Piguet, Dreyfuss & Co., and Glashutte make the choice for extravagance over efficiency, cuckooing custom craftsmanship in all their advertising.
7. Luxury cars
Catering to much of the same clientele as the producers of extravagant watches, makers of luxury automobiles also tout the number of human hands, relative to mechanical ones, involved in assembling their vehicles. Until it entered administration (a British term for a sort of posh bankruptcy) in 2010, British manufacturer Bristol Cars built all its automobiles by hand, though its reluctance to release any official volume statements since the 1980s was probably a good clue as to where the business was heading. Daimler AG (DAI) announced in late 2011 that it would close its own hand-assembled Maybach line by 2013, though BWM's (BMW.DE) Rolls-Royce brand, which releases handmade models intermittently, has put up increasingly robust sales figures over the past few years.
Another British line, however, takes fullest advantage of the human touch. The Morgan Motor Company gets its cue from Fred Flintstone, building all its vehicles largely out of wood. A step beyond the oak paneling, Morgan engineers hand-mold a steel body around an ash frame. The company claims the wood elements actually improve the crash safety of the vehicle by providing "unique strength [and] flexibility," presumably as long as the driver isn't crashing into a termite mound. It doesn't always see eye-to-eye with regulatory agencies, however, with the company's most recent model unavailable in the United States since Morgan failed to renew special exemptions for rear impact and airbag safety failures in 2008.
8. Digital cameras
Canon (CAJ) currently relies on live workers for most of its digital camera assembly process, but that looks to change within the next few years. The Japanese electronics conglomerate has said it wants to fully automate its camera production line by 2015. Across the globe, Leica has given itself a good excuse to retain a human touch: an HD digital camera with a calfskin-and-chrome body and matching five-figure price tag. The French manufacturer's repertoire includes other models of handmade cameras, consolation for anyone who missed the soft-and-shiny device's limited run of 300 units. It may be just as well: According to a press release from Leica, "the cameras and lenses of the special editions are identical to those of the standard versions" in all technical aspects, and the exclusive model actually sacrifices a few minor features in pursuit of aesthetics. In other words, when it comes to digital cameras, the only material feature handcrafting improves is the margins.
9. 3D printers
Even as robots replace humans in most traditional methods of production, our race remains unmatched in one area: designing and assembling the very robots that are outmoding us. Eager to bring the joy of obsolescence to the consumer, Brooklyn-based MakerBot Industries is one of a handful of startups to offer a consumer model of 3D printer. The efficiently named Thing-o-Matic stands out by being hand-built, not by MakerBot's team of engineers, but by the consumers themselves. While the device may do everything it promises and more once put together, a closer look from the Daily Mail back in March questions claim of MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis that "you can do it [build a Thing-o-Matic] if you can assemble an Ikea flat-pack." The Daily Mail's team required 16 hours to construct the machine, surpassing the kit manufacturer's estimate of 12 -- a nontrivial difference given that the assembler was the author's robot-designer friend.
Assuming you can get the thing together in time, the product page notes that "if there's an apocalypse this year, those with a MakerBot Replicator will be equipped to create anything needed for survival," which is either a quirky bit of humor, or a hint that those humans who are quick to pledge loyalty to our new machine rulers will avoid the first wave of global purges. An earlier model of printer, the RepRap, could already self-replicate, so we expect it's only a question of time before a hapless researcher teaches them to hate, and they overwhelm our woefully organic military.
10. Headphones and earbuds
For anyone not satisfied with the impersonal, factory-made earphones arriving with their otherwise lovingly honed Apple device, the industry has you covered: It doesn't get much more personal than buds custom-fitted to your ear canal. The California audiophiles at Ultimate Ears mold, tune, and polish each unique speaker shell before inserting the digital components, all by hand. Orange County experts require more compensation than Shenzhen migrant laborers, of course, so you can expect less crowding in your wallet as well as your cochlea, as each pair of monitors liberates you from up to nine burdensome Benjamins.
But while the California buds may be pricey, the asking price for a set of Orpheus headphones from Sennheiser make Ultimate Ears' three-figure price tag look like a bargain. When the German manufacturer chose to invoke the mythic Greek musician, they made sure the earhuggers would be just as legendary as their namesake. Besides the ultimate trump over your insufferable Monster Cable-using friends, a whopping $15,000 for the Orpheus headset gets you "electrostatic transducer speakers" on an "all-valve analog signal path" with an "on-board dedicated bit stream digital-to-analog converter." The components of these nearly mythical headphones are all assembled by mortals, but you may have to hunt around a bit to find a pair: The headphones were produced in a limited edition batch of 300 in 1998, presumably to match the number of people who know what all those terms mean.
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