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Thinking a Bit Too Local

A few weeks ago we looked at a local “boutique” Bay Area manufacturing operation that was struggling to stay local and “sustainable.” Inherent in the effort is the assumption that local is better, resulting in a smaller human footprint (carbon or otherwise).

But is that always the case?

This week a European group issued a press release on work they’ve done to assemble an embedded systems tool flow. Called the INTERESTED project (I won’t get into how they came up with that acronym – it’s a stretch), it sounds like a good thing on its face, since embedded system design doesn’t have quite the same intricate well-defined flows that semiconductor design has (perhaps, it could be argued, because they don’t need them, but that’s a separate discussion).

But here’s the deal: the goal wasn’t just to build a best-of-breed flow; it was to build a European tool flow, using only tools built by European companies. Not to take anything away from European tools – there are obviously some notable names – but it raises the question: is this local or parochial?

To be clear, the goal of this effort was never couched in the language of sustainability; I’m making this leap between topics. So my first impression was, OK, the goal is European only, so I might disregard this because having that be the top filtering criterion does nothing to reassure me that I’m getting the best tools for the job. It’s simply a governmental thing to stoke the European economy.

But if local might be a goal for one guy, then why shouldn’t it also be a consideration for tools?

I come up with two reasons.

  1. The local movement tends to involve commodities. I don’t care how good some guy’s tomatoes are in New York or Iowa or wherever. If I buy them, then, if they were picked ripe, they’ll be awful when they get to California. If they’re not rotten when they arrive, then that means they picked them too early and they won’t be as good. A local tomato, even if missing some amazing component in the soil, will still be better because it doesn’t have to travel. And anyone can grow tomatoes anywhere. Or any of the other kinds of produce you find (with some exceptions, of course). They’re a commodity.

    Same thing with speakers. In theory, you can build or buy speakers anywhere. There’s nothing about a particular region (other than wages) that makes one speaker inherently better than another. And with something like a little iPod speaker, we’re not talking high fidelity, so sound quality isn’t the determining factor; it’s a commodity. So in theory, you can make them anywhere.

  2. One of the main driving motivations of “local” is the energy involved in moving something from the point of production to the point of consumption. Tomatoes get shipped. Speakers get shipped. Less shipping requires less energy.

Tools fit neither of those scenarios. They’re not commodities and they can be downloaded from the internet.

Which is a long way of saying something that most people outside the European government (or those companies named in the report, which, oddly enough, has some sections marked “confidential”) would instinctively sense: it make little sense to build a tool flow that originates only out of one particular region.

More info in their press release

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