Digital Fabrication and the Transformation of Global Production?: Uneven Landscapes of Innovation

7 04 2017

That’s the title of our paper for the Academy of International Business UK&I conference. My co-author Jennifer Johns will be presenting it.

Abstract

This paper examines digital technologies with a focus on a particular type of digital fabrication space, the FabLab. Much existing research on these technologies predicts transformative impacts on international business through the adoption of digital technologies.  We aim to begin filling the gap in empirical examination of this issue, using qualitative interview data collected between 2014 and 2017 in the Manchester, Barcelona and London FabLabs. These sites of adoption of, and innovation in, digital technologies are lenses through which we can observe the interaction of actors in the evolution of digital technology.  We find that a significant challenge for international business is the highly uneven landscape of innovation in digital technologies.  Far from being uniform, development in digital technologies and their impact on international business and production networks are highly geographically specific.

 

Since a major theme of the year’s AIB UK&I conference is deglobalization, I should stress that our paper is agnostic on the question of whether digital fabrication technologies such as 3-D printers will actually contribute to deglobalization  by decentralizing manufacturing back towards the household and community levels  Instead, our paper’s focus is on how European entrepreneurs who work with digital fabrication technologies engage in sensemaking to understand our current era in economic-historical time. I would point out that even if the most radical version of the ‘substitution scenario’ comes to pass and most manufacturing reverts back to the community or household level, it would not mean that globalization itself had been reversed. Such a scenario would instead represent a change in the nature of global production networks from a system in which manufactured goods are moved long distances to one in which the data in the form of the designs for such goods are transmitted long distances and are then applied to raw materials, some of which are sourced locally. Such a scenario would be congruent with a trend that has been underway since approximately 2008: as a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute observed, globalization in the form of the circulation of physical goods has become proportionally less important, as global merchandize trade as percentage of world economic output has fallen, but the globalization of data flows has become ever more important.

 

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