This year, as the presidential candidates claim they’re going to bring back American manufacturing with the force of politics and policy, a real manufacturing revolution is already underway in the grassroots, the workshops and garages of regular people across the country.
They’re creating world-beating innovations and starting businesses just like Web entrepreneurs, but in the world of physical goods, not just digital ones. They’re part of the Maker Movement, and what’s powering this new DIY economy is the tools they are using, which are now digital, Web-connected and increasingly cheap and accessible.
Small and easy-to-use 3D printers and other digital-production machines are introducing an era of “desktop manufacturing,” making everything from high-design furniture to high-tech robotics. Fueled by crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and built on the Web’s open innovation model, a new generation of entrepreneurs are rallying to the cry that “hardware is the new software.”
Modern Making in America
In the early 1980s, the words “personal” and “desktop” revolutionized computing, mostly by massively expanding the number of people who had access to it. The first PCs weren’t more powerful than the industrial mainframes of the day, but they were personal. The real revolution was not the machines themselves, but who could use them and what we did with them. Allowing everyone access to computing unleashed a huge amount of creativity and innovation in software and content, as regular people found ways to apply computing to their own lives.
Then it happened again a decade later, in the early 1990s, with communications: The engineers in government labs created the Internet, but we, the people, created the Web, filling it with our own ideas...because we could. Also in the '90s, Apple launched the iPod, using the tagline “Rip. Mix. Burn.” to describe the power of putting the tools of music production and distribution into the hands of their customers.
All of this fed into the Maker Movement, which got its name in 2006, when Dale Dougherty, who runs a division of the technology book publisher O’Reilly, realized that something new was happening as the Web generation started making physical things, bringing their digital-first design approach and share-first culture to DIY projects. This led to O’Reilly’s MAKE
magazine, the bible of the movement, and what is now more than 50 Maker Faire festivals around the world, the largest of which, in San Mateo, draws more than 100,000 people each year.
The Maker Revolution is a manufacturing one—the third wave of the digital revolution. Now the digital DIY movement is embracing the same philosophy. With little more than an iPhone and a Makerbot printer, you can grab a digital copy of the widget on your desk, fiddle with it and print a better one.
The Scalable Maker
What about making more than one of something? After all, creating a few prototypes is not mass production, and although digital fabrication machines offer matchless flexibility and the ability to make extraordinarily complex things without special machine skills, they provide no economies of scale. Unlike mass production techniques like injection molding and stamping, digital fabrication means the one-hundredth widget costs as much to make as the first.
A decade ago, it was almost impossible for regular people to get access to mass production. I remember visiting factories in China in the late 1990s and watching entrepreneurs try to navigate the process of commissioning work. Usually a Hong Kong–based facilitator would have to be hired, who would then arrange for an introduction. Much awkwardness would follow, usually involving drinking, having to eat fish eyeballs and singing Karaoke. Then bank details, such as letters of credit and deposits. Only then could the work of tooling, samples, inspections and finally production begin, typically taking months and more trips.
Fortunately, the Maker Movement has an answer for that, too. The real power of small desktop manufacturing machines is that they speak the same language as the biggest industrial ones. For example, GCode can drive both desktop and industrial machine tools: You can 3D print the widget you’ve designed in plastic, then when you’re happy with it, use that same file to create a reverse image that you can send to a CNC machine to be turned into a mold. Then send that to an injection-molding service and you’re in the mass production business, making plastic parts for pennies. Thanks to free software from companies such as Autodesk or Web tools like Tinkercad, this is becoming increasingly easy.
Other options for in-house manufacturing include:
- Laser cutters. For precision cutting or engraving of 2D materials like plywood or acrylic sheets
- CNC (computer numerical control) milling machines. For carving 3D objects out of blocks of metal or wood; you can also use CNC for embroidery and quilting
- Vinyl-cutters. For signs and silkscreen stencils
- 3D scanners. For “capturing reality” and bringing objects into a computer in a form where they can be modified.
- iPhone or iPad. Autodesk’s free 123D Catch app will let you use your device’s camera to take pictures of an object, uploading them into the cloud to be turned into a 3D object that you can print out
Most of these tools can now be found for less than $2,000, and following the curve of technology, they will no doubt become cheaper as it goes.
If you don't have the resources for your own shop, there are any number of online services that will do it for you—just upload your file and enter your credit card. Shapeways and Ponoko are two services that do 3D printing in a wider range of materials—from glass to titanium—for as little as $40 for a hand-sized object.
You can also see if a “Makerspace” is available nearby, which offers access to all the tools and technology you might need, along with training on how to use them, for a monthly membership fee. Chains such as TechShop
are becoming the new incubators of the Maker Movement, buzzing with teams with Kickstarter projects and companies in the making. Appropriately, TechShop is run by Mark Hatch, a former Kinkos executive. After all, what were Kinkos’ fast photocopiers and shipping services (it’s now a division of FedEx) but access to industrial-style publishing for everyone? What Kinkos did for paper, TechShop aims to do for everything.
And you can still use Chinese manufacturing without going to China by visiting Alibaba.com
and searching for what you want. The Web generation has also taken over factory management in China, and the language of Skype, instant messaging and PayPal is universal. With a bit of luck you can find a company that will make what you want, to your exact specifications, in any volume, from hundreds to hundreds of thousands—no trip to Guangdong required. Samples arrive by FedEx and once you’re happy, production can start in days. It doesn’t matter who you are, and you don’t need to even have a company. If you have a digital design and a credit card, you can get robotic manufacturing lines in China to work for you. Or do the same with American machine shops and production facilities at MFG.com
Collaboration in Creation
What defines the Maker Movement is that it is DIY merged with the Web’s innovation model. Makers default to sharing their ideas and progress, usually in online communities. They typically embrace open source (both hardware and software). They tend to collaborate, often with people they’ve never met and may live on the other side of the world. Rather than tinkering in isolation, they innovate together. By building on each other’s work, they’re able to create much more advanced products than most could achieve on their own. And because they can start with common “innovation platforms,” ranging from the Arduino open-source computer board to the free CAD designs at Thingiverse, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
We’ve seen what happens when the means of production start to open up to everyone. On the Web, this created a vast stream of bottoms-up alternatives to the products of the big media and entertainment companies that dominated the 20th Century. That gave us everything from YouTube and blogs to social media, which in turn created The Long Tail of content (thus the title of my first book). If you like having lots more choice and a culture that’s richer than primetime TV and Top-40 radio, you’ll know the power of democratizing the means of production. It didn’t mean the end of the blockbuster (we still watch as much TV as ever), but it did mean the end of the monopoly
of the blockbuster. We got nichebuster, viral hits and a place for everything, no matter how obscure, online. And some of it turned out to be really good.
Will all the the products of the Maker Revolution be great? Nope. Anybody may be able to make things, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve got skill, good ideas or even taste. But that’s the beauty of such bottoms-up revolutions. They generate a huge amount of innovation, bringing in new ideas, perspectives and talents. The best of it rises to the top, competing with the products of conventional industry. Either way, we can see the future from here. If you’ve got an inner inventor or entrepreneur, the time to start making is now.
Chris Anderson is the editor–in-chief of Wired, which he has lead to multiple National Magazine Award nominations, as well as winning the prestigious top prize for General Excellence in 2005, 2007 and 2009. Anderson is also the author of the New York Times bestseller The Long Tail, and Free: The Future of a Radical Price.Photo courtesy of Chris Anderson