These are the times of Wonka Manufacture

Indulge me on my creative outpouring… operations research with obtuse language of dissemination is invoking a renewed desire to escape the clutches of an often bizarre academic world and as such research is often highly theoretical in nature, a referral to fiction would surely not be less relevant to my research?

Perhaps I won’t include this in my PhD but for the moment let’s talk about some making narratives, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to be specific. This narrative gives insight into the nature of making processes and economic structures of the respective time period. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory published in the 1960s talks of mass manufacture, albeit in a rather wonderful context and to draw out narratives of relevance to mass and on-demand production is entertaining, to me, at least.

Access, knowledge and development

Charlie spent much time staring at the mysterious chocolate factory from behind its locked gates, inhaling it’s fragrant aroma, hungering for it’s secrets. This disconnect and inaccessability presented capitalist hierarchical structures for what we understand them to be, and resonates quite strongly with current economic situations. With on-demand manufacture it is often (poorly) stated that more and more of us have the keys to the factory, that we are democratising access to the means of production, that all Charlie-esq figures have a chance to hold the keys to their own factory. The realities of this are of course somewhat misunderstood – but in many respects we do democratise access to manufacture were individuals can participate using desktop printers, community fabrication centres and small start-ups are able to take a speedy route to market that they would not otherwise be able to afford with IM set-up costs.

Secret Recipes

The cost and barriers in this area are in fact situated in knowledge acquisition and logistics. 3D printing market ready goods is difficult, more so when one is presented with safety legislation and complex or undocumented post-production processes. There are many unknowns (TSB ‘Dirty Secrets’) with additive manufacture, much of this knowledge is held in closed engineering departments of universities or in R&D departments in the car and aerospace industries. For those who have acquired knowledge, lets say in relation to colour treatments or finishing there is a tendency to hold this information and not share. Accessing this as a firm, supplier or start-up is difficult, universities are increasingly driven to share this information in a useable fashion for industry but therein lies both a time warp and language barrier.  Logistics too become complicated when one needs to manage individually customised products through manufacturing and dispatch processes.


On the issue of trade secrets in a Wonka context it is suggested that Dahl was influenced to write by ongoing theft and leaking of trade secrets between Cadbury and Rowntree’s where workers were encouraged to spy. Protecting IP and manufacturing strategies was important in the times of mass production as maintaining competitive advantage meant doing things better, harder, faster. In the digital economy the possibility of a fileshared future for product design seems possible, retaining ownership may be more difficult – but perhaps this is a good thing?

Customisation & co-creation

We also note that each of the children in the Chocolate Factory fell foul to their own indulgences because Wonka was able to present almost uncannily tailored confectionary, tempting to each individual. I like to consider this  (in a loose context) in relation to customisation, experience design and value co-creation. Increasingly differentation of products is aimed at the individual. In the end Charlie was selected to help run the factory, in part due to a shared vision with Wonka which resonates with the idea of value co-creation in supplier customer manufacturing.


Might it be possible to consider the Oompa Loompas and the squirrels in relation to a present day shift away from human labour, a trend we attribute to automation where robots and machines increasingly take the place of the worker. Perhaps also it speaks of specialisation of task and division of labour, in either case the making processes in the factory are spectacular and introduce a value not easily articulated.

Process innovation: Awe and wonder 

Which brings me to my next thought, awe and wonder feature heavily in both of these narratives, the awe expressed at the making processes, the wonder surrounding the products and the magic inherent in the factory itself. This is one of the under-explored aspects (in my opinion) in mass customisation, bespoke, retail and on-demand manufacture.

Commodification of the making process 

Let me explore that more fully, 3D printing and related manufacturing processes are spectacular to encounter if you’ve not seen them before, watch someone stare into the build platform of a makerbot during their first print and you’ll understand. Coupled with the possibilities inherent in increasingly friendly and visually stunning design tools and their wonderful usability design we are presented with a possibility that the design and making process becomes an experience to encounter in and of itself.


So where recent pasts relied on visual merchandising and advertising to push consumer demand for goods an on-demand process operates on a pull mechanism where demand drives production. Co-design and value co-creation trends inherent in many new design processes suggest that retailers and designers may find relevance in offering participation as an experience to consume. Articulating this is of course a work in progress – perhaps I’ll nail it by my PhD submission date.

A sub story to this presentation at Dutch Design Week 2012 and an earlier talk on manufacturing in fiction.


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