Any volume whose front cover trumpets a review by GQ hailing it as “the business book to read right now” is probably one to avoid. But Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, by Chris Anderson, isn’t quite as irritating as you might think.
It’s about the upsurge in small-scale engineering, electronics, robotics and three dimensional printing currently underway in parts of the United States and Europe. “The past ten years have been about discovering new ways to create, invent, and work together on the Web. The next ten years will be about applying those lessons in the real world,” writes the former Wired editor, who quit his job last December to become a full-time Maker and entrepreneur (a combination which will doubtless be shortened to an ugly composite like Makerpreneur).
The advent of affordable 3D printing, which I wrote about a year ago, has made it possible to make a range of consumer items on a small, relatively cheap ($1500) 3D printer using free open-source designs from websites like makerbot and thingiverse.
I’m particularly interested because the technology has the potential to revolutionise trade in low-income island states and other peripheral places, reducing imports and vastly lowering the cost and scale of basic manufacture, not to mention the input costs of production for many processed goods. Car parts, toys, dental products, tools and even food can now all be printed in a small workshop or at home.
As 3D printers and the associated paraphernalia improve and fall in cost, there will be increasingly less reason to import stuff thousands of miles on expensive ships from China. Using a printer like the MakerBot 2 you’ll be able to make things wherever you are — just like you press print on Microsoft Word, only in more than one dimension.
Anderson even argues that the advent of the 3D printer, 3D scanner and CNC cutter have abolished the need for economies of scale. “Digital manufacturing levels the playing field. Any country can make things.” Until now scale been one of the key obstacles to development in small developing states. But they can now produce and even export at a fraction of previous costs. Trade will increasingly take the form of design and knowledge, or bits, rather than physical objects (atoms), further helping remove one of the main economic challenges for small island developing states: distance.
This might be wishful thinking: governments in small developing islands or other similarly marginalised states generally aren’t enlightened enough to act quickly to promote new Maker industries. They’re still stuck in the “hire consultant -> promote old-school manufacturing -> ignore the services sector” line of thinking. A lot of small, poor countries I’ve worked in (with a few exceptions, like Cape Verde) are still waiting for something like the 1970s electronics manufacturing revolution to land like a bolt from the sky.
The book is, of course, rammed with cant and hyperbole. Anderson reckons the Maker movement will be bigger than the Internet. I reckon his ego is probably bigger than God’s. The idea that technology will topple the behemoths is so 1990s, and the dominance of the web by three big companies — Facebook, Apple and Microsoft — suggests that powerful big companies have a habit of buying up new upstarts and trampling on their territory.
Hundreds of small workspaces have already launched in Shanghai to take advantage of the increasing trend to print your own 3D stuff, and they can probably do it much more cheaply and better than you can, even if they ship it from the other side of the world.
But beyond all the breathlessness there’s a kernel of truth, which is that the Internet is moving beyond bits and towards things, and that this trend will probably alter manufacturing for ever. This might just be a good thing for small, marginalised countries, and even more importantly, for the poor people who live in them.