Redefining Innovation: Bridging Design, Manufacturing, and the Human Spirit in ‘What Machines Can’t Do’

Jacob Ethan Flores
6 min readDec 22, 2023

An Aesthetic of Process is prescribed at the end of What Machines Can’t Do (Robert J. Thomas, 1994) for the sake of a new kind of innovation. A process that brings manufacturing engineers and workers into the fold of product ideation/testing/development. Throughout the case studies in the book (aerospace, aluminum, computers, auto), struggles over the type and meaning of work performed by different teams within the same company emerged. Specifically, the book highlights the efforts on the part of the manufacturing departments to redefine their roles from the ‘shop guys’ who fulfill the orders of product design and R&D, into ‘real engineers’ who add valuable insights and creative ideas that take shape on the shop floor.

In Chapter 3, Between Invention and Convention, Thomas frames the prevailing philosophies of design and manufacturing as a question:

If product developers and software engineers are the test pilots, the elite units, and the pioneers of the computer business, are those in manufacturing the ground mechanics, foot soldiers, and settlers?” (What Machines Can’t Do, p. 88)

With this mindset as an operating principle for most companies that measure success by units sold, manufacturing departments are tasked with two objectives: ensure the process runs smoothly (i.e. output consistent, production issues arising from design mis-steps resolved) and determine means by which to “lose heads”. These orders from corporate come down the chain and are socially enforced by the product design and R&D departments in virtually all of the cases Thomas explores in his book. In several of the companies, manufacturing exploited this pressure to lose heads when pitching their proposals for new production systems to corporate bosses. But ultimately, some of these systems created new roles for workers whose work became fully automated, while other companies utilized the freed-up workers for different roles where help was needed.

Considering that corporate bosses are looking to increase profit by either making ‘hit’ products or cutting costs, it seems paradoxical that the manufacturing departments would push for automative systems. So it’s worth explaining a few factors at play here. Thomas mentions, at several points throughout his study, that the friction between manufacturing engineers and product design engineers emerges due to the collective understanding of what constitutes “real engineering”. As one manufacturing engineer in the computer company puts it:

What gets you recognized around here is the whiz-bang product, not the process improvement. The [company] culture still values individual contribution. And your highest-ranked engineer is doing leading-edge technology […] They [product designers] think of us as the guy with a second-rate education and a greasy rag in his back pocket.” (What Machines Can’t Do p.101)

Thomas points to this “perceived inequality, built into the structure and culture of the organization” as incentive for the manufacturing engineers to innovate, sometimes hidden from the view of executives, so that they could obtain the same intellectual respect (and material opportunity) granted to their design counterparts. In the case of the computer company, where manufacturing engineers were working on makeshift experiments in surface mount technology (SMT) in secret, a movement was grown to build a process as product system. SMT was determined to be the technology with the right amount of “whiz-bang” to get at the hearts and pockets of executives. The project was considered a way of legitimizing the manufacturing department’s stature as an innovative arm of the company, a department with real creative talent.

The case studies and resulting theory of the book resonates with the rhetorical climate of today’s economic talk. While unemployment numbers are back to 2007 levels, manufacturing jobs are still leaving the United States. Trump has been on a bit of a tour recently, speaking personally to industrial executives in attempts to keep manufacturing jobs in the States. Concurrently, the Maker Movement is developing into a strong ecosystem of resource centers, products, curricula, and businesses. I think the Maker Movement has a greater shot at accomplishing the aims Thomas set in his book — a culture where Manufacturing is respected as craftsmanship and creativity, and where the glass ceiling of income and respect does not exist beneath those ceilings of Design or R&D.

Draftsmanship precedes craftsmanship, and between the hands and the head is the heart. To forsake sweat, to scoff at the act of production, and to ignore the creative capacity of those whose hands turn the gears of industry, is to forsake the enterprise of the human spirit. Severance of the head from the body will stop us in our tracks. When we don’t respect those who do the making, and we only respect those who do the thinking, our goods will be made without care and our ideas will be thought without experience. This is what’s fundamentally at stake.

By shifting to an economy of process, I think we’ll find a rhythm where we make for need instead of excess. I think we’ll find that our economy becomes one for people, not in spite of people. By focusing and worshipping the artifact, we run the risk of the sin of idolatry. And the sin of idolatry isn’t about paying respect where it’s due, the sin of idolatry is the sin of missing the point. Whereas the artifact stands alone — for your interpretation and personal use — the process of creation, in which the artifact is actually made, requires the presence of the creator. By being conscious of the presence of creators, we are inclined to pay respect to the humanity and energy that is poured into each and every thing that constitutes the systems of sustenance around us. To me, this is what is at stake. We have an opportunity born from the lessons of reflection like Thomas’ and born from movements that encourage us to cultivate curiosity. This opportunity can manifest itself as a distributed network of production, sustenance, craft, and meaning. Your identity will not have to fit into the few shapes allowed by current corporate structures which fundamentally seek to “lose heads” and increase value for shareholders. Your identity will, by necessity, require an adaptation and conjugal resonance with the needs of your body and your community. Make what moves you. Make what you need. But focus on the process and give it meaning. By giving all of our power to artifacts/products, we end up missing the point, which is to say that — there is no ultimate point. No product will provide ultimate service/meaning/enjoyment/sustenance. We will grow bored of every single product, we will come to need nutrition from other types of artifacts. What we need is an ever evolving process that encourages meditation and brings forth innovation. From these processes, and this meta-process of refining the way we think of and make things, we will develop artifacts. Stuff we need, stuff that we enjoy, stuff that makes us reflect, and stuff that represents where we are at with the problems that vex or threaten us.

Thomas sees political struggle when he researches the means by which technology evolves and is developed within an organization. He sees one type of worker struggle for respect (and equal compensation) against the hegemony that benefits other types of workers. The organizations under scrutiny in this book are all hierarchical and stacked with corporate executives at the top. And it’s because of this structure that the struggle between the creative departments emerges. “Who gets what and how much”. Whether it’s financial compensation or creative freedom, it is scarce and its distribution is determined by arbiters of the purse. Within creative organizations, struggle can take creative forms:

“The meaning of a new technology may […] be derived from the social context of its use; however the purpose of a new technology can be understood in terms of the objectives or ends that its proponents (or creators) seek to achieve by means of its use.” What Machines Can’t Do p.227

To me this struggle can make as much, if not a greater, impact outside the borders of a brand. By giving meaning to a technology, to the way it is used and what that use means, makers outside of corporations employ the power of symbol to invoke dignity in the act of creation. We’re at this point where we can create production networks and supply chains that are distributed and nodal. With makerspaces, tool libraries, coworking, and fabrication labs, the platform for open production has [nearly] matured. Now the refinement of the creative process comes next. And it’s this creative process that Thomas points to when he asks “What Can’t Machines Do?”



Jacob Ethan Flores

Poet, tech analyst, artist. Building bridges between design, technology, biology, and the commons.