If you haven’t had a chance to pick up Chris Anderson’s recently released new book, MAKERS: The New Industrial Revolution (Crown Business, New York, 2012), I think you’ll enjoy the read. Anderson has just ended a stint as editor of Wired Magazine and has been a close observer of the leading edges of technology as they influence our culture and economy.
That experience provides for some real-life stories about modern tinkerers, inventors, and makers — including Anderson’s own history, culminating in the creation of a tinkering-inspired company that manufactures drones for hobbyists. Anderson himself gets it from his grandfather, an inventor of automatic sprinkler heads; which is another story, and one that creates a backdrop against which to describe how inventing, starting businesses, and manufacturing have changed in the last 100 years.
I personally enjoyed the inventor-grandfather story because my own grandfather, Warren G. Grimes, was an entrepreneur, inventor and role model who became known as the “Father of Aircraft Lighting.” As a kid, I spent several summers at his elbow at the workbench observing and learning machinist skills. His innovations allowed him to grow a business that provided years of vitality for a small Ohio town.
In MAKERS, Anderson reviews aspects of industrial history to provide a perspective on making, producing, and manufacturing; particularly on the role played by small shops and cottage industries as the shift to mass manufacturing was occurring. For present day action, the book includes some intriguing descriptions of businesses that challenge old ways of thinking about how we produce things: the story of Local Motors’ (www.localmotors.com) challenge to auto making; and, Sparkfun (www.sparkfun.com), an electronics kit and module manufacturer. In short, Makers is loaded with good reads on invention and entrepreneurship … but that’s not the reason you’ll want the book.
The real reason you’ll enjoy this book is that it is a book about you — you, a 100kGarages.com Fabber or Designer (or want-to-be). In MAKERS, Anderson explains how digital fabrication is going to change everything. And, how, in the hands of individual entrepreneurs and in small shops and factories, digital fabrication is the basis for what is being called by many, the “New (or Next) Industrial Revolution.” It’s about the new-style, connected entrepreneurs empowered by digital tools who are going to start businesses and revolutionize how we make things.
The personal computer and internet have already radically changed businesses that are related to communications (i.e. publishing, music, and video). Anderson argues that the same empowering forces of digital technology are coming into play for manufacturing. Such affordable technologies are doing what is often described as ‘democratizing’ the tools of production because the decreasing prices and ease of use makes them more available to everyone. Added to the access to new tools, Anderson emphasizes the significance of the ‘reach’ of the web in allowing small businesses to successfully operate in niche markets, world-wide. Indeed, reach was the marketing message of his earlier book, The Long Tail.
For manufacturing, these features of affordability, communication, connection, collaboration, and reach are just part of the digital leverage in the hands of the new producers. Digital Fabbers additionally get the empowerment provided by digital fabrication itself — the continuum by which digital models link to digital prototyping and development, and then link to digital production tools. The continuum makes it easy to communicate and collaborate about parts or products and to produce them. Further, it is the precise nature of digital fabrication tools that gives individuals and small shops the capabilities for quality of production and capacity for volume and efficiency that allow them to be competitive like never before. Anderson believes that, in time, the amazing growth of the internet economy is going to look like small stuff compared to the impact of “digital” on the far larger economy of manufacturing real stuff — or the effect of “bits on atoms,” the phrase popularized by Neil Gershenfeld (see, Fab: the Coming Revolution on Your Desktop and http://fab.cba.mit.edu/).
In the world of the technorati, the 3D printer has become an obsessive focus — there’s widespread prediction that Star Trek ‘Replicators’ will soon be making everything for everyone, right in their homes. Anderson has more sense. He appreciates that realistic digital fabrication tools include subtractive digital fab and robotic assembly methods, as well as the additive tools of 3D printing. More importantly, he focuses on the role of entrepreneurs, who will be the ones putting the technology to use in small and medium size businesses. Sure, someday we will just download a digital model and push a button for most items. But in the near term, making it all work will take the engine of entrepreneurial energy, distributed in small shops and factories across the country. Fundamentally, this is a book about how small business and American manufacturing can make a comeback.
The book is highly tuned to the principles of 100kGarages.com. MAKERS is a description of some of the potential of the 100kGarages community and network and how it may all work in a new economy. Anderson has been living in the digital fab world himself so he’s got a good understanding of the forces in play — there’s plenty of enthusiasm, with even a little realism.
And there are, of course, many questions left un-answered. These questions relate to how the new digital fab enterprises will evolve. Can they stay small and be useful, or do we need a growth model? Most of the examples Anderson describes are businesses which have developed a high degree of specialization and expertise, using long-tail approaches to reach global markets. However, digital fab tools also empower more general fabrication capabilities which may serve local markets and distributed manufacturing approaches — making stuff where it is needed. As transportation costs increase, fabbing locally with locally available materials becomes increasingly competitive. Fabbers become a sort of new ‘digital blacksmith’ serving their own community.
The third question is the big one. How much work will there actually be, and what will be the nature of these jobs? We have lost a large number of manufacturing jobs, partly to offshoring, but also to production efficiencies partially created by the same digital fab technologies we’re all touting. No one realistically expects all these jobs to come back. Even though there may be increasing demand for new products, production efficiencies will continue to reduce the number of people actually required to make stuff — think of farming. But an important argument can be made for the importance of actually making stuff to the prosperity and vitality of our communities. Producing things is important to the process of creativity and inventiveness on which we depend, and, in fact, our basic human cognition is derived from our ability to manipulate and interact with physical objects — we’ll lose our edge without it. We don’t want to lose manufacturing. While there is a concern that some robots will create demeaning work options for individual workers, this does not appear to be the case for entrepreneurial digital fab operations which tend to use technology and humans flexibly, to full potential to derive competitiveness. Indeed, it may turn out that small digital fab shops become the new schools for equipping individuals with the tools of productivity and supporting continuous adjustment to new production technologies.
Finally, on a personal note (as CEO of ShopBot Tools), I’m appreciative that Anderson recommends the ShopBot Desktop as a CNC router tool for “semi-pros” looking to learn and start fabricating digitally. Unfortunately 100kGarages doesn’t get a mention in MAKERS, which just means it’s on all of us as users of the 100kGarages network to work a little harder to get the word out! Let’s push to make local and global markets for Fabbers and Designers, and the strength of our support and collaborative community, better known. Read the book. I’m curious to hear what you think of it.