What the Maker Revolution Will *Really* Look Like
The technological soothsayers have spoken: “We are on the cusp of the 3rd Industrial Revolution,” they say, “Anyone with passion, talent, and a great idea will be able to design and manufacture their own products in the not too distant future.”
Yes, real products, from haute couture handbags to bicycle parts. All of this is made possible, according to Chris Anderson in his book Makers, to innovations in 3D printing and open-source design, technologies that will enable inventors to become entrepreneurs.
This new breed of inventor-entrepreneurs will be able to use Computer Aided Design (CAD) to sketch out their ideas. They can then publish their designs with an open source license and share them with the world to be critiqued and refined. Advances in 3D printing will enable them to create a prototype of their design at home so that they can get a feel for how the product looks and functions in the “real world.” If everything meets their satisfaction, they can can order a small batch to be made in some manufacturing plant in Shenzhen for just a few month’s worth of savings. Once the batch is complete, they can take pictures of their product, list it on eBay or Etsy, and they’re in business.
While this vision of the future has already come to fruition to some extent, we feel that this vision is incomplete. Innovations like 3D printing, open-source design and online marketplaces will indeed lead to a democratization of manufacturing capability. And yes, there will be individuals who will design a product, order X number of units to be produced, list their product online, and ship them out of their garage, but this will be the exception rather than the rule.
Just like the information revolution has given rise to an overabundance of low quality content, the upcoming Maker revolution will do much the same for manufactured goods. Because of lower barriers to entry, the marketplace will be flooded by poorly designed, poorly conceived, and poorly made gadgets and gewgaws by pretty much anyone who fancies themselves a “Maker.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that the best products will remain unnoticed in the flood of mediocrity. Much in the way that content creators on the Internet achieve recognition and a following by consistently producing great content and by having that content promoted through social media channels, so too will the best Makers earn a reputation by consistently making great products and having these product listings promoted in much the same way (Pinterest, anyone?).
So who will be these great Makers of the Third Industrial revolution? While there probably will be a few lone Maker-entrepreneurs who will stand out from the rest, our experience working with small manufacturing companies around the world suggests that these Makers will be in the minority.
The best products will not, for the most part, come from the lone Maker-entrepreneur. Rather, they will be the creations of small, workshop-factories specializing in a particular type of product. Just like the old workshop guilds of the Renaissance, the designers of the best products will be the manufacturers themselves.
There is a certain type of tacit knowledge that the Maker receives from working with their hands, knowledge that isn’t easy to convey in writing or even a 3D computer design. This tacit knowledge is the reason why we don’t have a 3D model of a Stradivarius violin, or even a real-life exact replica of any kind, for that matter.
The greatest artisans of the Renaissance learned their craft not through studying diagrams and models, but through years of trial and error as apprentices. By observing how their masters worked and then by mimicking their master’s techniques over and over again, they learned craftsmanship in a way that could never be conveyed through verbal transmission of techniques.
This “hands-on,” tacit knowledge is the workshop Maker’s advantage. The workshop Maker’s intimate knowledge of the manufacturing process will inform product design, which, over time and over many iterations of design/production cycles, gives the workshop Makers a distinct advantage over the lone Maker-entrepreneur in terms of quality. The new tools like CAD, 3D printing, and open source design will help accelerate these cycles to the point where the progression in skill from apprentice to master level will take much less time than it had during the Renaissance.
Paul Markillie, who wrote about the Third Industrial Revolution for the Economist, agreed with this idea of manufacturing informing design in a recent email exchange with us: “A number of companies I have spoken to, big and small, now extol the virtue of having manufacturing in some proximity to product design because the two can learn from each other. Indeed, product innovation and manufacturing innovation often go hand-in-hand” writes Paul.
What role does the consumer play in this design/production loop? We’re thinking that the trend towards democratization of the manufacturing process will bring consumers closer to the workshop Makers themselves. They will send their product specifications to the workshop website (or perhaps a website that aggregates these specifications) to be “up-voted”, Reddit style, by like-minded consumers. For designs that receive enough up-votes, the workshop will create a preliminary computer designed sketch that consumers can “print” at home to see if it’s something that they’d like. Then, with enough approval, a group of consumers can band together and do a crowd batch order of the product on a site like Zanoby.
With this new model, consumers will become active participants in the manufacturing process, so much so, that applying the passive label of “consumer” wouldn’t be appropriate anymore. The age of the consumer is dead. Long live the age of the commissioner.