A resurgence of manufacturing in the United States will be sparked by advanced computer software that makes producing a plastic toy or a dental filling as easily as printing a document.
Rebirth of industry in the US will be fuelled by the internet
Makers: The New Industrial Revolution
As editor-in-chief of the award- winning tech magazine Wired and author of the New York Times bestseller The Long Tail (about how the internet is changing business), Chris Anderson is keenly aware of the most cutting-edge trends in e-commerce, computers, social media, web-surfing and related topics. That is both the strength and weakness of his latest book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.
The book describes a future where do-it-yourself (DIY) technology, cooked up by amateurs and solo entrepreneurs on their home computers, will radically alter research, design, manufacturing, finance, marketing, employment, global trade and even the human body - a future "where western countries like the United States regain their lost manufacturing might".
Indeed, in Anderson's view, the world is well on its way to that arrangement. Small fabrication machines can already create what he calls "Real Stuff" - from plastic toy blocks to dental fillings - directly from relatively simple software instructions, almost as easily as a printer can whip out a document.
Aficionados send their computer codes, ideas and designs across the web via open-source communities, freely available to all. As Anderson defines the "Makers" of his title: "By simply bringing the web's culture and collaboration to the process of making, they're combining to build something on a scale we've never seen from DIY before."
Anderson's knowledge of technology - both the broad sweep of potential applications and the intricate mechanical details - is impressive. Yet his glowing vision seems to be based in part on the questionable assumption that the rest of humanity lives in a rarefied culture similar to his own neighbourhood just north of Silicon Valley in California. In this tech-enabled world, everyone apparently uses Adobe Illustrator's drawing programme and a Ning platform, sharing their designs with each other in the Cadsoft Eagle format and then uploading the files to a company like Ponoko or Pololu to manufacture, if they don't have their own CNC router such as ShopBot.
"That is just the first wave of what is quickly becoming a mainstream phenomenon," the author claims. "We are all designers now."
Mainstream? All? Well, no doubt that's true of Anderson, who started two tech companies in his spare time. But he might want to step outside the confines of California to take in a more balanced view of the world.
To be fair, the second half of Makers ignores those assumptions and delves into a much more wide-ranging analysis of the implications of the technology.
Anderson goes back into history to find the roots of the electronic DIY movement in the mass production of the Industrial Revolution, as well as the workbench tinkering of his own grandfather, who patented an automatic garden sprinkler system in 1943. In the bad old days, he writes, "My grandfather could invent the automatic sprinkler system in his workshop, but he couldn't build a factory there. To get to market, he had to interest a manufacturer in licensing his invention. And that is not only hard, but requires the inventor to lose control of his or her invention." It is also a rigid system, because the only way the manufacturer can make a decent profit is to churn out huge quantities of identical products.
Modern electronic technology is changing this mentality by giving companies more flexibility, according to Anderson. Merely by rejiggering software codes, manufacturers can profitably make - and constantly readjust - small batches of customised niche products. More important, the shrunken scale opens the door to individual inventor- entrepreneurs.
A key turning point was the introduction of Apple's powerful desktop laser printer, the LaserWriter, in 1985. Now anyone could write, design, and roll out multiple copies of a "newspaper", without the need for massive paper mills or printing presses.
That simple concept of printing from your home keyboard has branched out into multiple ramifications. On the hardware side, more elaborate versions of the printer now allow "printing" in 3D - in other words, fabricating a three-dimensional object. Where a traditional laser printer follows computer instructions to squirt ink onto paper, a 3D printer "just does the same thing with more motors and squirts more than just ink," as Makers puts it. For instance, the 3D version may squirt melted plastic in layers to gradually build up a shape.
Meanwhile, in the area of communication, the desktop printer led to Twitter, blogs, eBay and Facebook. "Once people were given the power of the press, they wanted to do more than print out newsletters," the book says. "So when the web arrived, 'publishing' became 'posting' and they could reach the world."
Inevitably, as Anderson sees it, some people moved beyond posting gossip and chitchat online, and started sharing business concepts. As inventors post their drafts and concepts through various open-source communities, and suggestions bounce back and forth among whoever happens to log onto that conversation, the inventors "get feedback as well as help in promotion, marketing, and fixing bugs".
One example of such crowdsourced creativity is the "Pivot Power" flexible power strip, an upgrade of the standard block of multiple outlets. Each outlet in this new version can pivot, thus allowing a couple of small plugs to squeeze in between one bulky adapter. A programmer from Wisconsin tossed the idea into the virtual suggestion box of a website called Quirky, and after enough people expressed interest, the Quirky staff refined it and found a factory to make the gadget.
But all that is so 20th century. "You think the last two decades were amazing?" Anderson asks rhetorically. "Just wait."
For instance, he sees a need for better group-financing tools. Right now there are websites like Quirky and Kickstarter, where creators post their ideas and seek contributions. A new US law, the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, allows small companies to raise a maximum US$1 million (Dh3.6m) from crowdsourcing websites without going through the elaborate financial disclosure usually required for stock market listings. However, these existing methods have size limitations.
And the concept of planned obsolescence will disappear, now that it's so easy to rewrite software to make improvements, with the open-source community constantly feeding ideas, the book predicts. "As products like cars become more about their software than their hardware, … they can get better after you buy them, not worse."
Many commentators have noted that manufacturing is inching back to the US, for a variety of reasons, including rising wages in China; increased automation, which makes labour costs less important anyway; and a growing realisation of the advantages of locating factories near the end-user. To that, Anderson adds another explanation - the nimbleness and creativity of the US crowdsourcing movement and bootstrap inventors like his grandfather.
Makers is a surprisingly easy read despite its technical basis, because Anderson is very good at explaining the concepts in lay terms. To illustrate his points, he brings in not only his grandfather, but also his daughters and his attempt to build them an auto-piloted airplane out of Lego blocks.
However, the author's blithe optimism seriously weakens his case. His assumption that "we are all designers" who noodle around with 3D printers and CNC routers, making customised Lego M1 infantry rifles for our kids (yes, that's in the book), is only part of the problem.
It's rather surprising that someone who earns his living through traditional media - his magazine and books - seems so unaware of the downside of online self-publishing, including the uncontrollable spread of misinformation, embarrassing photos and content theft. Actually, Anderson sometimes seems unaware of the need to earn a living at all. "Such entrepreneurs often state that their first obligation is to serve their community, and to make money second," he writes, without any apparent scepticism.
He also evinces no queasiness as he describes the potential for genetic engineering, casually predicting that as the technological tools get more powerful and inexpensive "people will start hacking life".
Another serious problem, mainly in the first part of the book, is repetition. Indeed, this already short volume could probably be cut by about one-third, making it a perfect candidate for a technological innovation that Makers doesn't discuss: short e-books such as Amazon Singles.
In the latter sections, Anderson finally seems to acknowledge that his DIY marketplace is a small one and that "99.9 per cent of users would rather pay someone to do it for them". But that doesn't negate his predictions. His vision of a world of small-batch, personalised, home-based manufacturing could come true even if only a small percentage of laypeople did the initial tinkering, another small percentage chimed in with suggestions, another small percentage provided seed money, another small percentage spread the word, and a slightly larger customer base simply bought the stuff.
Such an outcome would be good for the world in many ways.
It would revitalise manufacturing, inspire creativity, save resources, and democratise business. For all this book's flaws, Anderson makes a persuasive case.
Fran Hawthorne is an award- winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.