Understanding Mondragon — 4 Comments

  1. Another overview of Mondragon, from 1980:

    A few books (and criticisms) of Mondragon exist. In America, perhaps the closest company we have to Mondragon would be Springfield Remanufacturing. Paul Hawken, John Abrams (“Companies We Keep”), and to some extent Stewart Brand (“How Buildings Learn”) lived through similar but much smaller worker cooperative successes.

    It’s so odd that Mondragon’s growth stemmed from exporting consumer appliances and machine tools. Amazing to see how much cash this pulled in, and how much industrial and urban infrastructure they built from scratch. We need a new group of Mondragon-style engineers focused on durable open source hardware rather than closed source consumer goods — then their work won’t just be limited to just tens of thousands of people, but a billion. It’s painful to watch our friends in Maysville Missouri bumble around, compared to the foundries, machine shops, engineering school, dozens of high volume production runs, and more that Mondragon built in their first ten years.

  2. Thanks for the links and additional case studies. I’m not sure why you think it’s odd that Mondragon’s growth stemmed from these things; it was a time when there was high demand for these types of products, and they had the expertise and the infrastructure to make them.

    Mondragon used the tried and tested methods of mass production, whereas OSE is trying to build one-offs in custom machine shops. I think to operate open source manufacturing at scale there is going to have to be some type of mass production involved, or maybe some type of in-between intermediate level of production that we haven’t discovered yet? Interesting line of inquiry.

    Also, I’m not fully convinced by Luis Sierra’s argument that agriculture is too complex and that is why we don’t see too many agricultural worker cooperatives. Fact is, we don’t see many worker cooperatives in anything! It could be that the added layer of cooperative ownership is counter to our own cultural inclinations? Or, and maybe this is more likely, there just aren’t that many people thinking of this idea and trying to implement it. Everybody is trying to stake their claim and go it alone.

  3. By “odd” I meant “ironic”, in that they were not focused on primary production (mining, agriculture, forestry, fishing), except for metals refining, and what looks like a more equitable way of arranging industry depended on a parasitic export market of consumer goods that implied planned obsolescence of black boxes. It is in line with the 1950s America where “everyone is paid enough to have enough material wealth”, which is nice to a certain degree — but a fundamental problem is not addressed: externalized costs being foisted on marginalized populations and the environment.

    The “irony” being that the low hanging fruit now for the open source appropriate tech folks would be to just go back and rebuild everything that Mondragon started with (appliance and machine tools) using a 1950s-level mechanical engineering education, but this time put everything in the public domain and with the goals of durability and user repairability and at the scale of cottage industry (since individuals can afford “capital” equipment now and there’s no need to centralize production) with an added layer of microcontrol where needed, rather than closed source planned obsolescence black boxes emanating from a 1000+ person production facility. The work has already been done — engines, pumps, forges, milling machines, shop and factory tools or every kind — all were built from raw metal inputs pre-internet by a handful of engineers surrounded in under 10 years in an isolated, bombed-out Basque village.

    I’m working on this angle right now through MIT OCW and at Techshop as a “machinist’s apprentice”, but like Marcin I lack the 2-4 year mechanical engineering education that would make all of this so much easier for the amateur OSAT wannabe.

    I would guess that you are right to think that most people just don’t have practice organizing Mondragon-style cooperative worker-owner relations. If we had practice and clear templates, we’d structure our businesses that way more often — most business people I’ve known and worked for aren’t greedy cut throat capitalists, they just don’t have a lot of experience and organize their small businesses as best they can. I wouldn’t be surprised if 1-5% of American GDP could be attributed to companies like Patagonia or Ben & Jerries or Spring Remanufacturing that are close to Mondragon in their financial structure, but it is not something I can look out the window and see all around me in Pittsburgh or any other American city.

    • Yeah, it feels like one of those things that people just don’t know that much about. When I mentioned permaculture to Luis Sierra, he didn’t know what it was. There hasn’t been very good cross fertilization of ideas, but I’m trying to make that happen in what little way that I can.

      I suppose the Mondragon story is a bit ironic, but they really grew out of a different time and open source, regenerative technologies weren’t a big part of the gestalt back then. Most importantly, we have their example to emulate and modify for our purposes.

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