Chris Anderson on the “new industrial revolution” of bespoke manufacturing

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2010

Wired ed-in-chief Chris Anderson emerges from the back rooms once again with a lengthy piece lauding what he calls “the next industrial revolution” – which is, in essence, the imminent explosion of small companies using modern fabrication equipment and outsourcing techniques whose agility and low overheads will enable them to sweep away the old guard of corporate giants. [image by oskay]

That’s the theory, anyway, and it should be fairly familiar to regular Futurismic readers: we’re talking consumer-price-point 3D design software; 3D printing and fabrication; outsourced manufacturing; garage-industry electronics assembly techniques; open-source designs; hardware and software hacking; crowdsourcing for ideas, designs and feedback. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a slice that captures the spirit:

Here’s the history of two decades in one sentence: If the past 10 years have been about discovering post-institutional social models on the Web, then the next 10 years will be about applying them to the real world.

This story is about the next 10 years.

Transformative change happens when industries democratize, when they’re ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks. The Internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was a massive increase in the range of both participation and participants in everything digital — the long tail of bits.

Now the same is happening to manufacturing — the long tail of things.

The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3-D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop. A few days later, a prototype will be at their door, and once it all checks out, they can push a few more buttons and be in full production, making hundreds, thousands, or more. They can become a virtual micro-factory, able to design and sell goods without any infrastructure or even inventory; products can be assembled and drop-shipped by contractors who serve hundreds of such customers simultaneously.

Today, micro-factories make everything from cars to bike components to bespoke furniture in any design you can imagine. The collective potential of a million garage tinkerers is about to be unleashed on the global markets, as ideas go straight into production, no financing or tooling required. “Three guys with laptops” used to describe a Web startup. Now it describes a hardware company, too.

From a globalist perspective, it’s pretty optimistic – as you might expect from the guy who came up with the concept of the Long Tail. That said, it’s not what the big corporations want to hear… and that’s probably the main stumbling block between the here and now and Anderson’s entreprenurial utopia. It’s become embarassingly obvious how much of a hold corporate America has over the engines of policy, and it probably won’t take much effort to spin Anderson’s vision into a dark and unpatriotic future where American manufacturing jobs are sent overseas (to those sneaky Chinese, no less!), garage makers are enemies of freedom (and probably a glass fiber’s breadth from becoming terrorists), and the people’s right to not be shafted by those who already hold all the aces is swept under the carpet so as to maintain a precarious economic status quo.

OK, so I’m overstating for effect, there… but you can see where I’m going with this, I hope. Given the staggering levels of obfuscation and deceit involved with the US healthcare reforms, I can’t see Anderson’s revolution happening without some serious back-room dealing and political psy-ops from those who stand to lose the most from it. And I doubt it will be a uniquely American problem, either; the government to which I pay my taxes is just as compromised, albeit in slightly different ways, and the richer countries of the Old World are all in the same boat.

What remains to be seen is whether Anderson’s maker revolution is an economic inevitability or an avoidable alternative. It’ll come as no surprise to most of you who read here regularly that I’d like nothing more than to see the bloated corporate behemoths of the world get their shoes wet while doing a King Canute impersonation, but only time will tell. This is one story where we can’t just skip to the last page to find out the ending; let’s just hope we don’t get squashed by the plot mechanics, eh? 🙂

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3 Responses to “Chris Anderson on the “new industrial revolution” of bespoke manufacturing”

  1. Anthony says:

    As with many other new technologies, I suspect desktop manufacturing will complement and compete with industrial manufacturing. There are things that will be cheaper to make an injection mold for and turn out by the tens of thousands, and there will be a place for the local craftsperson to turn out one-offs. The rise of the factory hasn’t gotten rid of the local machine shop, and I expect that there will still be a place for the local metal fabrication / welding shop even with desktop manufacturing – in fact, they will purchase some of the new CNC machines, to make turning out custom designs easier and cheaper for the small shop, first.

  2. H3g3m0n says:

    I think linking the home fabricator market to health care reform is a bit of a stretch.

    Desktop fabricators aren’t a matter of policy, they are a matter of technology, ideas and so on. It would be closer to filesharing vs the movie/music/tv industry. Now there is policy surrounding filesharing, but in the end of the day policy doesn’t really effect anything since no amount of legislation would be able to shutdown something like Freenet (an anonymous encrypted onion routed distributed hash table), or some kind of Open Source network layered on Tor for mp3 downloading.

    With that said I don’t see any kind of industrial revolution.

    I think desktop fabrication will make some awesome changes to they way industries work, and will allow for many unique products to start appearing that wouldn’t be possible using older technologies. But I don’t see a future where every house has a fabricator and people just print of what they want.

    Fabricators are not going to be able to print an iPod, all a fabricator could possibly do is print the case and then the end user slaps some off the shelf hardware (effectively a generic all purpose computer with the outputs desired and a touchscreen or whatever) into it, and add some opensource software. But if you are going to do that, it’s not much more to just buy a device manufactured in bulk. Also doing all that is much more than a huge majority of people will be willing to bother with. Maybe we could start to fab some basic PCBs ourselfs but it would still be missing all the fiddly bits.

    Fabs are great for hobbyists and designers, but just about anything you can fab would produce probably be better of turned into a mold which makes much more sense for bulk since its cheaper and faster (unless you are trying to design something where each individual one is %100 unique. you can design a spoon with an elaborate pattern on it, or you can write a computer program to design the spoon for you).

    Of course molecular assembler/nano fabs could make basically whatever you want, but they are a whole different story and the traditional economy would basically collapse at that time anyway since people can print gold, oil and diamonds. Not to mention guns, nukes and grey goo.

  3. Chris Harris says:

    The story of Desktop Micromanufacturing is one more step on toward Mesomanufacturing , and then a decade soon after Molecular Nanomanufacturing.

    The question is what happens to the Macro-Value-Chain (MVC)? From an economic research and impact-wise on the MVC there is so very little out there.

    What happens to factory jobs when $999 3D desktop factories make most house hold items? What happens when in your Kitchen or Den you simply synthesize a new Tap Washer and eventually the likes of TV Remote Controllers?

    Then c.2025 you get your robot to take out the trash; and then down load dinner from the web into your Nanoreplicator? What happens to work-a-day jobs. Manual labor’s – right! A billion micro-cottage-industries. Design, Technology and Service Innovation become not just the lynch-pin of wealth creation and domestic income; but ‘THIS IS IT!’